Feelings of a climate fiction author after COP28

What does a sustainability professor and climate fiction author make of COP28? Before I even arrived, there were accusations of COP28 as being a giant greenwashing exercise, with the President of COP28 being at the same time CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. His comments casting doubt on the necessity to phase out fossil fuels didn’t help to reassure the critics.

My own experience indicated there was little in the way of ‘walking the talk’. The climate conference event at the University of Dubai provided small plastic bottles of water for every delegate rather than jugs. The climate-leader after-party served beef. At COP28 itself, there were places to fill water bottles, but they weren’t advertised, and many weren’t aware of them and bought water in plastic bottles, contributing to plastic waste for the planet. The apartment where I stayed had no facilities to recycle waste – not even a separate place for food waste or glass. Dubai itself is a place of excess and rampant consumerism. A few years ago I might have been excited by the lights and bling everywhere you go. But now I’ve joined the dots between the lifestyle it sells and the planetary consequences of that, it just makes me want to cry.

The Blue Zone is for the government officials negotiating policies and targets and investments. I spent most of my time in the adjacent Green Zone. You need a pass to enter, but it is more accessible to a wider group of people. It was an odd mix of engineers with innovative projects waiting for funds, start-ups with inventive solutions looking for money to scale up, industrialists searching for business, who seem to have no green credentials at all, finance folk specialising in ESG investments, traders in carbon credits, NGOs, campaigners, and educators.

I gravitated to the finance zone to check out opinions from those in the know and to make my mind up once and for all on the topic of carbon offsetting. The idea of matching carbon offset money with carbon drawdown projects such as tree planting seems so appealing, yet the discussions I had with those involved left me feeling pessimistic about this as a solution. Bureaucracy, over-claiming, short-termism and unintended consequences were all too common.   

COPs have been criticised for the carbon emissions created by thousands of long-haul flights to get there and some claim that Zoom meetings would be preferable. I worried about this myself. Last year I gave several virtual talks at COP27, but my first in-person attendance has convinced me of the value of meeting physically. Everyone I found myself next to, whether in the metro going back, or at lunch, was in the climate game and had useful insights to share, enabling me to cross check points made by others to see which ideas stand scrutiny.

I’ve learned the necessity of this from experience. I’ve been running a sustainable hairdressing project for over a decade and initially thought sustainable palm oil was a green alternative. It isn’t, and thinking it is matters when around half of the products sold in supermarkets contain palm oil. The green solution is using less. Shampooing hair once rather than rinse and repeat, shampooing less often and supplementing with dry shampoo and using options like leave-in conditioner reduces the carbon footprint of haircare by several thousand percent, because most of the carbon footprint of hair care is in the energy used to heat hot water. Less resource-intensive haircare routines are also better for the hair and skin, less time-consuming and save money. It’s a great example of how using less increases rather than decreases our quality of life.

But this is not a message you will get from business who profit from unnecessary consumption. I’ve no sooner voiced the question of how to address the issue of marketing than my neighbour in the extreme hang-out zone of COP28 turned out to have a solution. His proposal is to charge a dollar for every dollar spent on advertising. The money goes into a central fund to be distributed to carbon dioxide removal projects. All adverts should also carry a warning banner in the lower half of the advertising space, occupied by one of hundreds of climate messages, some stern, some encouraging. The advertising vehicles, papers, Facebook, Google, TV, radio etc. will be responsible for gathering the climate-related revenue, in effect becoming tax collectors of growth and consumption. I loved it!

I met Amber who runs the extreme hangout zone where exhausted delegates flop down to chill. We bonded immediately over our joint desire to find ways to engage wider audiences in climate action. She liked my Green Stories project, and I loved her approach, which was to engage sports celebrities in spreading the climate message. I’m based at the University of Southampton, UK, and we have celebrity football players. We discussed hosting an extreme hangout where a local football player would bring in the crowds with a talk on what young people can do about the climate crisis.

There are those enjoying the sunshine and presentations and giving talks on projects that make us a little less unsustainable. Then those who are business as usual. ‘We can’t possibly phase out fossil fuels,’ one businessman told me, who was there to make contacts. ‘We won’t be able to meet the demand for energy.’

‘Tell that to the icebergs,’ mutters a scientist next to me, watching the ice melt in the industrialist’s cocktail. There was a sadness in his eyes that scared me.

A chemical engineer told me: ‘We had the best team, a project that would take out thousands of tons of carbon and we’ve been running on fumes for years – half pay, then no pay and we’ve had to call it a day.’ His grief was for the planet not for himself. He told me he’d just come back from the poignantly named, ‘Islands of Hope’ stand where he’d struggled not to weep at the desperation in the eyes of the islanders who knew it was a matter of when, rather than if, their home was lost to the sea.

A young woman from one such island spoke of how they were compensated $500 million for the hurricane that had devastated their island. But the actual cost has been nearly $3billion. The money had gone to the World Bank who had promptly taken a third for themselves. ‘Why didn’t they give it to the islanders?’ she asked. She was there with a delegation to campaign for a declaration of island states, as islands owned by other jurisdictions effectively have no representation. A forceful contingent of African ladies bore down on her. ‘We should talk,’ they said. This is what COP28 offers – a chance to form alliances, learn from each other, and share ideas for action.

I spoke to some young women from the media team. Under their smart suits, and glossy hair, there was also a sadness behind the eyes. ‘I’m too afraid to have children,’ one told me. Her friend loved Dubai for the shopping.

This is my overall impression – the division between those who understand that no amount of pledges and talk will change the fact that an iceberg will melt at plus zero degrees, and those who don’t. The former are battling climate anxiety and are desperate for action. The latter see business opportunities and think the former are naïve, for not understanding the political realities. Some agree with the COP28 President. ‘How will we function if we don’t have enough energy?’ one businessman asked me. He clearly thought anyone who said we should phase out fossil fuels rather than phase down was an idiot. To me it’s obvious that chemical realities are less negotiable than political realities, so we’d better find a lifestyle that means we can live within the energy provided by renewables rather than expecting to carry on as we are.

I gave a couple of talks together with an engineer, Steve Willis who’d turned to climate fiction to share details of projects that would make a difference. In real life he’d just lost one. He tried to hide his disappointment behind a mask of jollity, but it came out in sudden flashes of impatience and gallows humour. Steve talked about his novel ‘Fairhaven’. It presents a clear vision of a workable future, through the story of a young Malaysian engineer who works on a huge climate adaptation and mitigation project. As well as a form of writing therapy for himself, he sees it as a blueprint for action for low-lying lands such as Penang.

Climate fiction is not just a desperate urge to preserve one’s mental health. My first novel, an eco-themed rom-com ‘Habitat Man’ changed behaviour. A study of 50 readers a month after reading found that 98% had adopted at least one green alternative. For example, the burial scene inspired many to say they had changed their will to ensure a natural burial. The anthology I produced with Steve last year for COP27 was called ‘No More Fairy Tales: Stories to Save Our Planet’. We teamed experienced writers with climate experts to present 24 short stories with climate solutions at their heart. Preliminary research shows it raises awareness of transformative solutions without raising eco-anxiety.

Stories can help us to envisage what a sustainable society might look like if we do it right, and how we can get there. Characters in film, tv and books don’t just reflect values, they can shape them. Whether we view high-consumption lifestyles as aspirational or irresponsible, depends largely upon our cultural influences. A project I did with Bafta, #ClimateCharacters highlights this in a fun way. We show, for example, how Jack Reacher, who https://www.greenstories.org.uk/climatecharacters/travels by bus and shops in thrift shops can kill bad guys with far fewer carbon emissions than James Bond with his single-use sports cars and walk-in wardrobe of luxury suits!

I attended COP28 not only to promote the Green Stories project and climate fiction publications, but also to learn. I teach sustainable business and need to stay up to date. We all do because there is no magic bullet. Whether you are a policy maker, a finance company seeking to invest, a business pursuing climate solutions, an educator, campaigner, or climate fiction writer, you should ensure you are up to date with what’s been tried, what’s working and what isn’t. Many ideas that sound great in practice solve one problem by creating another. Some won’t work or will only work with trial and error and huge investment. But there is no option – we have to struggle on and find a way to sort the wheat from the chaff. See where the bottle necks are and how we can best to address these. Learning by doing. We don’t have time to waste by waiting for the perfect solution, but we can’t afford to waste time on dead ends. But if we only go for the safe bets, we won’t make it either. To quote a recent film, we need everything everywhere all at once.