In an unexpected pivot from the previous two years, Joe Biden has opted to forgo the UN climate summit, COP28, set to take place in Dubai. This decision has sparked a conversation about the administration’s commitment to its radical climate agenda.
Since taking office, Biden has placed climate change on his administration’s list of priorities, aiming to showcase the United States as a leader in environmental initiatives. His absence at this year’s Conference of the Parties, where nearly 200 country leaders, including King Charles III and Pope Francis, are expected to convene, sends a nuanced message. It suggests a potential deprioritization of the “climate crisis,” which UN Secretary-General António Guterres has declared the defining issue of our time.
The White House’s announcement comes amid a tumultuous global backdrop, with the Israel-Hamas conflict and other pressing international issues demanding the president’s attention. While these are undoubtedly significant, the decision to skip COP28 is still striking when considering the administration’s bold climate rhetoric and the president’s attendance at the last two summits.
Some critics might argue that the administration’s actions speak louder than its promises. The term “climate alarmist” has been used to describe the radical urgency propagated by some officials. Yet, the administration is taking a backseat when it comes to taking a seat at the global table in Dubai.
Senior White House aides have pointed to many crises as justification for the president’s planned absence. Still, it raises the question of consistency regarding the administration’s climate policies. Despite the White House’s claims of leading the “most ambitious climate agenda in history,” such actions can be perceived as walking back on the international stage, especially when contrasted with the administration’s domestic initiatives touted as monumental steps toward reducing climate pollution.
The optics of Biden’s likely absence are further complicated by the United Arab Emirates’ approach to the summit. While the UAE’s COP28 president-designate calls for a global “phaseout” of fossil fuels, his simultaneous role as the head of the state oil company presents a striking conflict of interest. This situation is emblematic of the complexities and contradictions that often plague international climate negotiations.
It’s a pivotal moment for Biden, reportedly grappling with the Middle East war and a potential reelection campaign. The administration has highlighted its historic climate investments and diplomatic efforts to boost global climate ambition. Yet, as the world looks to Dubai for the next steps in the climate battle, the U.S. president’s chair may remain conspicuously empty.