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What to expect from COP28, the UN climate summit, in the hottest year on record


The United Nations climate summit, known as COP28, gets underway in Dubai this week. As if to underscore the challenge of nations coming together to address climate change, the conference takes place during the hottest year on record. And the host country, the United Arab Emirates, is one of the world's top oil producers. To talk more about that, we're joined now by Kelly Sims Gallagher. She's an environmental policy professor and the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Good morning. Thanks for being with us.

KELLY SIMS GALLAGHER: It's a pleasure to be here.

MCCAMMON: For many years now, we've been hearing increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists about the global situation. So what is at stake in this meeting? What are the expectations for what might be achieved?

GALLAGHER: Well, this summer, according to NASA, was the warmest year on record. In fact, it was 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer or, in Fahrenheit, 2.1 degrees warmer than the average summer between 1951 and 1980. And this means we are perilously close to the limit set by the Paris Agreement in 2015, which was 2 degrees Celsius or, ideally, 1.5 degrees. In other words, countries around the world have not done enough to reduce emissions. And as a result, the warming is not only increasing but accelerating more quickly than scientists anticipated.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned the Paris climate agreement, of course, the treaty that former President Trump pulled out of and President Biden returned the U.S. to being part of. How much has the back-and-forth from the United States complicated these efforts?

GALLAGHER: I do think it has taken a toll. There's much less trust of the United States that it will honor its commitments, either to reduce emissions or to honor its pledges to deliver climate finance to help developing countries reduce their emissions. And, in fact, that is really the essence of the problem now because while many industrialized countries have begun to reduce their emissions, a lot of developing country emissions are still growing. And in order for many of these poor and vulnerable countries to be able to develop their economies more cleanly, they need assistance from industrialized countries.

MCCAMMON: And what do you make of the host of this climate summit, the UAE, one of the world's top oil producers, as we've said?

GALLAGHER: It's a very challenging situation because, of course, a major oil and gas producer is unlikely to agree to language that would phase down or phase out fossil fuels. And, in fact, this was one of the big controversies of the G20 summit because some countries are proposing a complete phase-out of fossil fuels, and the UAE will almost certainly not agree to language such as that.

MCCAMMON: Now, this summit is taking place against quite a backdrop in the Middle East and globally. How much are these, you know, serious crises and concerns around the world an impediment to making progress on climate diplomacy at this time?

GALLAGHER: World leaders are understandably distracted by the urgency of today's crises. And this is kind of the essence of the problem with tackling climate change. It always seems like you can put off the action for one more year to reduce emissions, but the longer we keep putting off taking the climate problem seriously, the harder it gets for us to achieve our goals. And we do, in fact, need to reduce emissions to zero by midcentury. So to imagine we will go from a current rate of growth that is still quite dramatic and unabated to peaking global emissions and bringing them all the way to zero in the space of just 25 years is, indeed, increasingly hard to imagine.

MCCAMMON: You worked on climate policy for a time during the Obama administration and at the State Department. Is there any hope here? Are you seeing any positive signs that governments and industry are making progress?

GALLAGHER: I do see quite a bit of hope in the fact that many industrialized countries have already peaked their emissions and begun to reduce them. In fact, the U.K. not only peaked its emissions but has cut them by half. And Germany has cut its emissions by more than 30%. The United States is down not nearly as much as those two countries, but the United States is on a pathway down and, of course, finally passed legislation last year in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, which is, indeed, really spurring a very dramatic increase in the development of clean energy and clean energy manufacturing, which will transform the U.S. economy.

MCCAMMON: Kelly Sims Gallagher, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, thanks so much for talking with us.

GALLAGHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.