Editorial
The weasel text of false consensus

At the end of the mealworm drafting, the key clause is described as a pathway. There is no mention of the “phase out” of fossil fuels. Despite majority support, and undeniable need, it was deemed too strong a phrase. Instead, this: “Transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

We are now at the farce end of history. The Conference of the Parties is being held in a petrostate, presided over by a man who says the science on climate change is not settled. He asks reporters to take him at his word when he says he isn’t using the world’s most important climate summit to negotiate oil deals.

For the first time, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries had its own booth. Leaked text from the group warns of “politically motivated campaigns” that could threaten the prosperity of oil companies. “It seems that the undue and disproportionate pressure against fossil fuels may reach a tipping point with irreversible consequences, as the draft decision still contains options on fossil fuels phase out.”

The final text ventures a “phase down” of coal power. It is smudged with references to “abatement”. In a year, the number of fossil fuel lobbyists at the conference has increased fourfold. On one count, there are 2400 of them – 12 for every single representative of the Pacific, where the effects of climate change will be felt first and most severely.

Perhaps these numbers reflect desperation. Perhaps this is the tipping point warned of in OPEC’s leaked message – the one not for the planet but for the companies bent on destroying it. Most likely, it represents the final capture of the process by spivs.

The more urgent action has become, the more extreme are the efforts to prevent it. As the ice caps melt and forests burn, the world haggles over language. The loudest voices are the ones that should have stopped talking long ago. What is left is the weasel text of false consensus.

In March this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its latest synthesis report. It was described as a “survival guide for humanity”. After decades of analysis, it made one thing desperately clear: this is the last chance we have. Whatever happens in the next few years will decide whether or not the world can arrest catastrophic global heating.

“There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all,” the report said. “The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”

These words should have defined the decision text produced at COP28. Instead, we are offered what looks like a brochure for oil and gas investors. There is none of the urgency this crisis deserves, none of the decisiveness. There is simply the squib talk of industry and of governments too afraid to do what needs to be done. With everything we know, how can it be like this?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "The weasel text of false consensus".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription