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What I Misunderstood About COP28

I thought the conference would be a pseudo-event. I didn’t think it would be like this.

King Charles.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The third day of events are ending here at COP28 in Dubai. If you read any international coverage of the conference, you probably saw that King Charles III of the United Kingdom and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil spoke at the main session today, along with many other world leaders. “The planet is tired of climate agreements and goals that were not fulfilled,” Lula said. “How many world leaders are, in fact, committed to save the planet?”

Vice President Kamala Harris is in town and expected to address the summit tomorrow.

I will be honest: I did not see the king or the president, and (Biden administration officials: stop reading now) I’m not sure whether I’ll see the VP tomorrow. I trusted that my colleagues in the media could ably cover their speeches, so instead I wandered the conference site and spoke to other attendees. Dubai is holding COP at what it calls the “Expo 2020” site, a massive campus that hosted a world’s fair-type event two years ago. At its center is the Al Wasl Plaza Dome, a 22-story hemisphere that acts as a surface for enormous, climate-themed projections. The scale of the grounds is huge, evoking Las Vegas or Disney World. Like a Disney park, the landscaping is immaculate and vaguely “global,” vaguely inspiring background music is piped into the environment at all times. It is easy to forget you are surrounded on all sides by parking lots.

I share this context not to extol the scale of Emirati infrastructure — they get enough of that already — but to give you a sense of the scale of COP. If you count delegates, staff, other attendees, and day visitors, more than 100,000 people will go to the climate conference this year, the UN climate director Simon Stiell announced yesterday. The campus absorbed many, perhaps most, of those people today. And most of them had absolutely nothing to do with whatever King Charles said at the plenary. Instead, they spent the day much as I did, attending other programming, meeting new people, catching up with old colleagues, and gawking.

Before I came to COP, I knew that it was — to borrow the late historian Daniel Boorstin’s phrase — a pseudo-event, a spectacle that exists partially to be covered in the press. The Paris Agreement’s central mechanism is the “naming and shaming” of climate underperformers, an idea that implies a press to name and a public sphere where the shaming can happen.

What I did not realize is that many of the main COP proceedings are a kind of pseudo-event within a pseudo-event — a media-driven story that acts as an organizing narrative for the larger conference. Yesterday, the big news out of COP was that countries launched the long-awaited loss and damage fund. But many people here had little to do with that accomplishment, and they learned the news of its adoption in more or less the same way that you did.

None of this is to disparage COP. Even though it might be a pseudo-event, it can still change the world — it has changed the world. I’ll write about how and why in the next few days.

This is Robinson Meyer’s third dispatch from Dubai, where he is attending COP28. Read the first here and second here, or sign up to receive the next one in your inbox with Heatmap Daily:

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    Robinson Meyer

    Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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