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Climate summits are about both reality and unreality


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Climate summits are about both reality and unreality

13th October 2023

By: Saliem Fakir


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Climate gatherings are traditional stomping grounds where calls for radical change can be met with lukewarm or whimsical responses, but you can leave with the illusion of progress having been made – after all the declarations and press statements.

Climate summits and other events, such as Climate Weeks in Africa, London and New York, are to all intents and purposes like fixed and rotating climate fairs for many climate ‘actioneers’ – ranging from radical activists and pragmatists to those seeking to green-wash their claims that they are doing their bit for the inhabitants of the planet, including me, the author.


There is a clamour for the limelight and to be on the stage. Summits can also involve the process of self-justification – just because thousands attend or amplify their logos on social media does not mean they are having an impact.

One can also mention the entourage of PowerPoint emissaries who offer pearls of wisdom for a handsome fee. All they offer are well-laid-out, picturesque PowerPoint slides. One of them came under attack at a summit from climate activists concerned that the presenter was infusing the agenda of the summit with interests from afar. This illustrates the multiple interests that pervade summits – some noble and others; well, you may ask why they are there at all. Is it for the money, the glitz or meaningfulness?


Summits have an intriguing relation to reality. They are reality and unreality – reality in the sense that those who live in the bubble of the negotiators’ world see that world as nothing but reality. This is why political optics and declarations that are finessed until late at night or the early hours of morning receive the level of obsession that often defies gravity.

Summits are unreality in that what is promised at these very expensive gatherings may never see the light of day. Nothing often moves – you just have to look at the issue of climate victims: efforts to address loss and damage are moving at a snail’s pace and those responsible for climate change do not want to pay for the loss or damage. Often, there is a push in the opening narrative of a summit that Africans should stop asking for climate reparations and move on. Really! Such an idea nearly got traction but ended up being stopped. Perhaps a skirmish won, but not the war.

In the bubble of negotiations, you will find high-brow stuff and lots of people marching around with a great deal of self-importance. We must remember that this is often just hot air and empty words.

While I write this, I am loath, in a somewhat contradictory fashion, to just dismiss the ‘unimportance’ of words.

Narrative building can have implications in so far as those whose voices and interests are represented in declarations can later use every word and sentence as a reference for future statements and outcomes. This, you may argue, is the politics of words, and past references influence future references and commitments. They matter or may not matter.

What is scripted in declarations often reflects tensions between parties (State and non-State actors) as they also represent the possible infiltration of proxy interests. There was, and remains, the real danger that the African Climate Summit, held in Kenya from September 4 to 6, was a launching pad to turn Africa into a cheap source of carbon credits and, in so doing, marginalise far more fundamental concerns for the continent: its lack of economic transformation and ability to escape the extractives curse, with the monetising of carbon reduction being yet another form of decarbonised extractivism.

Even if we erased the importance of carbon credits, that would not stop carbon-preneurs from doing their thing: real economy stuff still happens far from the kerfuffle of political optics and moral victories of merely words on paper.

That said, there is a new convergence that is in clear sight from this Kenya summit: the climate and development agenda is firmly sealed but climate finance is yet to flow into programmes that are aimed at bringing about structural transformation.

Summits are littered with other forms of personal and institutional extractivism – big, uncontrollable egos floating about in larger-than-life balloons, with the bigger ones seeking to elbow out the little ones.

Humility in the face of what the philosopher Timothy Morten called hyper objects is desperately lacking. In some quarters, there are hyper forms of saviour mentality – from the silicon-like technological entrepreneur, the theatrics of policy wonks to activists preaching to us, with great conviction, the meaning of life.

While the bubbles of summits are as much reality as they are unreality, they have implications for political decisions, the actions of governments and the flow of money. Talking about money, the promise of $100-billion from those who have eaten more than their fair share of the global carbon budget seems like a can that continuously gets kicked down the road.

It is clear that the $100-billion is simply not enough to deal with Africa’s backlog of clean energy spend. To place this into perspective, developing countries need $1-trillion a year for climate mitigation and close to $380-billion for adaptation. There is a case to use Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), which can be rechannelled to multilateral development banks that can issue SDR bonds, with the bulk enabling local savings to be mobilised in local currency since no other clear substitutes are within sight or reach.

Sadly, it’s not as if we have had a cacophony of a firestorm of climate vulnerabilities this year; a stark reminder of our collective inaction. Summits should be judged on their success in dealing with climate risks, as real things, and not merely as talking points in the glare of the media and the throngs of adorables clamouring for signatures from the latest climate celebrity amidst all the din that their social media noise creates.



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