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“Tragically Historic”: The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani on the Failure of Yet Another U.N. Climate Summit

StoryDecember 18, 2023
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Image Credit: UNFCCC/Flickr

After some 200 countries at COP28 agreed to phase down fossil fuels, nations are facing pressure to block new oil and gas projects. A growing number of Democrats are calling on President Biden to stop massive new fossil fuel developments, and climate groups in the U.K. filed a lawsuit to block a massive new oilfield in the North Sea, saying it violates obligations to target net-zero carbon emissions. “Without means of implementation, these are just words,” says The Guardian’s senior climate reporter Nina Lakhani, who covered COP28. She says the COP28 deal continues a tragic history of powerful, polluting countries denying their responsibility for climate change and refusing to support those most impacted. “Equity is not anywhere to be seen in that final document that we got.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

After a decadelong campaign, climate activists say more than 1,600 institutions have now cut ties with the fossil fuel industry and divested some $41 trillion in assets. This comes as nearly 200 countries agreed to a deal at the COP28 U.N. climate summit to phase down fossil fuels, replacing language calling for a phaseout. Now a growing number of Democrats are calling on President Biden to stop massive new fossil fuel developments.

Meanwhile, in Britain, just days after COP28 wrapped up, climate groups filed a lawsuit to block the development of the massive new Rosebank oilfield in the North Sea, saying approval of the project violates Britain’s legal obligations to target net-zero carbon emissions.

For more, we go to London to speak with The Guardian's senior climate justice reporter, Nina Lakhani, who we last saw when we were in Dubai as we both covered COP28. Her latest piece is headlined “Indigenous people and climate justice groups say Cop28 was ’business as usual.'”

Nina, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you talk about the fallout of the U.N. climate summit, you know, the head of it, the head of ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Al Jaber, who is also the president of the COP, and the taking out of any language of fossil fuel phaseout, making it phase down, what all of this means?

NINA LAKHANI: Nice to be with you, Amy.

I mean, I think, on that last piece you just mentioned, I think that’s sort of a summary, I guess, of where we got to. I think on that last day, there were some very happy countries and some very happy industries. So, the biggest polluting countries and industries in the world, including the U.S., the U.K., the EU, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway and the fossil fuel industry itself were extremely happy with the result. The language we ended up with isn’t even as good as you’re saying. All it says is that there will be a transition away from fossil fuels. There is no timeline. There is nothing more concrete than that.

And vitally, and why climate justice sort of advocates and experts and Indigenous communities and frontline communities are very much of the view that this is business as usual, is that there is nothing in there about — there is no differentiated responsibility. There is no language that basically — that acknowledges the historic responsibility of rich, developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. and others in the current climate catastrophe. And it places no — you know, like, no sort of extra responsibility on them to get rid of fossil fuels fast, or any timeline at all.

And in addition to that, you know, again, through pressure from the U.S. and the EU and others, there’s actually a huge get-out clause. There’s a paragraph that says that transition fuels will be — are OK. And by that, they’re talking about gas. All right? As we know and you’ve reported on in Democracy Now!, that the Biden administration has been expanding — the U.S. is the biggest oil and gas producer in the world this year, by a long way. It also has the plans to expand oil and gas at a much greater and faster scale than any other country in the world. Now, including this transition fuel, which, by the way, is language that comes from the fossil fuel industry, in the text, it basically is a get-out clause to all those countries who are wanting to exploit and extract their gas resources.

And just to add one more thing, again, from pressure from the same countries and the same industries, there is an explicit sort of use — they don’t use the word “unabated,” but they do say that — they give a big sort of a big shoutout, really, to sort of niche, unproven technologies, like carbon capture and storage, like hydrogen, like geoengineering, which are expensive. They don’t work very well, if at all. And it basically is going to greenlight further expansion of oil, gas and coal, with the proviso that rich countries will have money for these expensive technologies to minimize or, you know, to lessen the greenhouse gas impact.

All of that together is why a lot of, you know, the small island nations, the African group, among many other countries, felt bullied into signing the so-called consensus agreement at the end, but really have been left without any means, without any recognition that developed countries, those that got us into this mess, are going to be the ones that shoulder the burden of funding for the means of implementation to get us out of this mess, to fund a just transition. Really, equity is not anywhere to be seen in that final agreement that we got.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about your latest piece, which involves Indigenous voices and —


AMY GOODMAN: — what is happening for the Global South, and who needs to be heard, and if you feel that the fact that they even reference fossil fuels for the first time in a final COP document is in any way an achievement, a success, Nina?

NINA LAKHANI: I mean, you know, I mean, there’s lots of ways to define historic — right? — I guess, or lots of ways to see that word. I mean, it is historic in the sense it’s the first time fossil fuels are mentioned, after 28 COPs, more than — you know, after three decades of scientists, climate scientists, telling us that and warning us that fossil fuels were the primary major driver of the climate crisis, right? So, yes, it’s historic. It’s tragically historic that it’s taken this long to get into sort of the COP text.

But what does that mean? Right? Words are just words if there is no means of implementation. In the Paris Agreement — right? — which is a legally binding treaty, it is very clear that developed countries, those that got rich from extracting fossil fuels, like the U.S., like the U.K. and others, have a differentiated responsibility to provide developing countries with the means of implementation, for mitigation, so that sort of transition in a way from fossil fuels to renewable energies, climate adaptation and other climate finance. And so that means finance. It means technology transfer. It means the capacity building. Without the means of implementation, these are just words, right?

You know, developing countries are already facing trillions of dollars in a funding gap in order to sort of finance climate adaptation — on top of that, $400 billion a year in irreversible loss and damage. There is nothing in this — you know, there is nothing concrete, direct in this final text, because developed countries pushed and pushed to get it out, they refused to budge on this, you know, to make it clear that they are the ones that are responsible and must help developing countries transition away from fossil fuels.

Let me give you an example. So, to take Malaysia, right? Malaysia has a national oil company. Twenty percent of Malaysia’s national budget, the money that its government uses for education, for health and other public services, comes from its national oil company, right? Take Mozambique, you know, one of the poorest countries in the world, has huge amount of gas. How are we going to tell these countries, or why should these countries stop extracting their oil and gas? Right? How can they possibly do that when they’re still unable and are still trying to meet the basic needs of their population? They have to be helped. They have to be given the help to transition away, to leave these fossil fuels in the ground and to be able to continue to develop their own countries for the best of their people. You know, otherwise, they’re just not going to be able to do that.

And what developing countries have been saying for years, and are still saying, is that developed countries, who have benefited from extracting all these fossil fuels, now want us to do more and more and more, but when they’re not willing to do even the bare minimum. Why has the Biden administration greenlighted the Willow project? Why is it greenlighting massive gas expansion projects, which, by the way, will be, you know, like a death sentence to communities down in the Louisiana coast? Right? Why is the U.S., which had already benefited so much from extracting fossil fuels, not willing to stop its own expansion, but is demanding that developing countries stop exploiting the resources that they have? There is nothing fair and is nothing equitable in that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I what to turn to an unusual voice at the U.N. climate summit in Dubai. While we were there, we spoke to the head of the largest Indigenous delegation in the history of the COP. Sônia Guajajara is Brazil’s first Indigenous cabinet minister. She is the minister of Indigenous peoples. And I asked her what she wanted to see coming out of this U.N. climate summit. This is what she said.

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] For the Indigenous peoples, we need to prepare for the road that we need to head down in order to reach COP30, which is going to be held in Belém in the Brazilian Amazon. We also need to prepare so that we can have a direct impact on the debates that unfold here at the COP. And oftentimes we are not even close to it. It’s very important that we Indigenous peoples participate in these forums and there’s a group that is directly on top of this. So we are here so that Indigenous peoples can have more space in decision-making. And the general message is that we have little time left. The big leaders, government leaders, need not only to take on commitments here, but also to understand that we are in a state of emergency. In order to emerge from that state of emergency, investment is needed, financing is needed, and protection, so that we can all protect the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: President Lula still has plans to do massive offshore oil drilling. As the first Indigenous peoples minister, do you condemn this move? Are you weighing in on this? Do you support this?

SÔNIA GUAJAJARA: [translated] Look, in Brazil, we’re at a moment of transition to clean energies, as well. We’re building that together. President Lula is committed to making that transition. And now we’re using what is available to us, such as the wind and the water, so that we can emerge from the energy we’re using today, based on destruction, and so that we can have renewable energy that protects the peoples and that does not destroy the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Sônia Guajajara, Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples, a lifelong leader in Brazil’s Indigenous rights movement. The historic federal ministry was established in January by Lula, the Brazilian president, to advance and protect the rights of Indigenous people in Brazil. And Brazil, specifically Belém, is going to be the site of not next year’s U.N. climate summit, but the following year, so they had one of the biggest delegations. In fact —


AMY GOODMAN: — I think their delegation outnumbered — only two delegations, UAE and Brazil, outnumbered the number of fossil fuel lobbyists there were —

NINA LAKHANI: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — at this U.N. climate summit, right? Twenty-four hundred. So, I’m wondering if you can talk about the significance of Brazil being host to a U.N. climate summit, also next year the petrostate Azerbaijan? We’ll be going to Baku. And also, the whole issue of what Indigenous peoples face? And you, in particular, are an expert on this. You wrote the book about Berta Cáceres, the Honduran Indigenous rights activist who was murdered in her home, now Honduran authorities issuing an arrest warrant for one of the heads, the suspected mastermind, of her murder, Daniel Atala Midence, the former financial manager of the hydroelectric company DESA. If you can talk about all of this?

NINA LAKHANI: OK. So, I mean, let me just start, I guess, with something, you know, just, I guess, a simple fact that sort of gives us context for all of what you’re talking about, Amy. You know, what is climate justice? Right? You know, we are not all in this together. When it comes to the climate crisis, we are absolutely not all in this together. We didn’t all contribute in the same way or in the same amount to the climate crisis. We’re not all impacted by it in the same way. And we are not all going to benefit from the solutions in the same way, right? That is the sort of inequity of where we’re at in the climate crisis.

So, when it comes to Indigenous people — and I’m so glad you brought up the fossil fuel lobbyists. You’re right: Fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered the official Indigenous people sort of delegations by seven to one. Right? Seven to one. One in 30 of the people that you and I saw walking through these corridors of power at COP28 in Dubai were fossil fuel lobbyists. On top of that, you had Big Ag, Big Dairy lobbyists. You had others that were there sort of touting and promoting false tech solutions, others with vested interests. And many of them — and there were also lots of these groups like the API, the American Petroleum Institute, and ad agencies and PR companies that have a long, inglorious track record in climate denialism and blocking climate action, right? They had more access to the sort of meeting rooms where decisions were being made, where negotiations were happening, than Indigenous peoples, Indigenous peoples who are at the frontline of the climate impacts that the world is facing. They are also the guardians of most of the biodiversity in the world. And they also are the reasons that the planet even still exists. I mean, Indigenous peoples around the world, from all different — in every corner of the planet, have lived sustainably with their resources, didn’t exploit them for profit — right? — didn’t exploit them to get rich, for millennia, since time immemorial. And so, they also — and what people will say to you, from wherever they form, is that they have the solutions. They have knowledge, and they have the solutions. Yet they are so rarely given a seat at the table. They are so rarely part of a decision-making, you know, process.

Now, Brazil, you know, is one of the few exceptions. But I think, in terms of President Lula and Brazil continuing to expand its fossil fuel extraction, I mean, it comes back to what I was saying before. Brazil —

AMY GOODMAN: Nina, we have less than a minute.

NINA LAKHANI: OK. I mean, you know, we cannot — we cannot, as sitting here in the U.S. or the U.K., demand that countries like Brazil phase out fossil fuels, wean themselves off fossil fuels, while we continue ourselves to expand and get rich from them. We have to — you know, we have no moral authority to do that. The U.K., the U.S., the developed countries have to go first, and they have to provide the means of implementation for Indigenous communities and for developing countries to transition away and to really take the climate action that the whole world needs.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we have 20 seconds, if you want to comment on one of the heads of DESA having an arrest warrant out for him for the murder of Berta Cáceres.

NINA LAKHANI: That is huge news. Daniel Atala Midence is from one of the most powerful oligarchs in Honduras, politically and economically powerful. His father and his uncles were the majority shareholders in DESA. And so, this has been a long time coming.

AMY GOODMAN: Nina, that is a tease for our post-show interview we’re going to post online at, along with our interview with Sônia Guajajara. Nina Lakhani of The Guardian. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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COP28: Sônia Guajajara, Brazil’s First Indigenous Peoples Minister, on Climate & a Just Transition

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