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US Climate Activists at COP28 Slam Their Home Country for Hypocrisy

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Claims by some U.S. lawmakers at COP28 that President Biden’s policies provide global leadership on climate rang hollow with leading American climate activists at the annual conference who faulted the administration for supporting unbridled oil and gas development and for pushing carbon capture as an illusory solution for reducing emissions. 

Panganga Pungowiyi, an Indigenous mother from Sivungaq, on Dena ina lands near Anchorage, Alaska, said the American delegation’s negotiating positions will make things worse on climate, not better.

“The United States is built on a legacy of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy and extractive capitalism,” Pungowiyi said on Sunday during a presentation by a coalition of conservation and environmental justice groups. “Each year at the UNFCCC summits, we observe the United States fighting to continue that legacy.” 

Here in Dubai, she said, the U.S. government and American companies are pushing false solutions to the climate crisis, including carbon capture and storage, which is often used to pump even more oil and gas without contributing much to the goal of limiting global warming.

A Dec. 4 report from the nonprofit think tank Climate Analytics showed that reliance on carbon capture and storage could unleash an 86 billion ton “carbon bomb” between 2020 and 2050 if the technology continues to underperform, consistent with the industry’s record so far. The industry’s race to develop carbon capture and storage projects may also be outpacing the federal government’s ability to evaluate the effectiveness of the technology.

“They want to ship captured carbon from their land to my homelands and sequester it there,” she said. “What we’re observing is the violation of Indigenous people’s rights and the violation of the sacredness of Mother Earth by continued commodification, whether by the extraction of fossil fuels or by the designation of her body and surface as a storage facility for carbon.” 

Biden’s landmark climate legislation, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, has earmarked $2.5 billion for carbon capture and storage, but many climate policy watchdogs say those investments are a dangerous diversion that could enable fossil fuel companies to keep producing oil and gas at a time when much of the world is talking about phasing fossil fuels out of energy and transportation systems, as well as other key carbon-intensive sectors.

Rachel Rose Jackson, who tracks fossil fuel policies with Corporate Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group in Boston, said U.S. claims of climate leadership at COP28 are hard to believe when the country is the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels with plans to ramp up exports of fossil gas to nearly every other continent. 

“The United States is the major governmental perpetrator of the world’s addiction to fossil fuels,” she said. ”The current administration has approved more than 6,430 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in the first two years of its presidency.That’s more than the Trump administration, which was supposedly the worst of the worst.”

Brandon Wu, director of policy & campaigns with ActionAid USA, another nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, singled out the nation’s fossil fuel industry for its plans to expand production. “It’s easy to point the finger at some of the Gulf states here, but we should not ignore the fact that the United States has the single largest oil and gas expansion plans of any country in the world by far,” he said. 

More than a third of the planned global expansion of oil and gas through 2050 are by the United States, measured by emissions, according to a recent report from Oil Change International, Wu  added.

Jackson said the United States has “consistently blocked meaningful action” since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was created in 1992. That obstruction included weakening the Kyoto Protocol so that it wouldn’t bind developed countries to specific emissions reductions. President George W. Bush’s administration later pulled out of that first major international climate treaty, with no hope of getting a congressional majority for ratification

Subsequently, the U.S. continued to oppose any language that would require mandatory emissions cuts, and signed on to the 2015 Paris Agreement only after other countries agreed to make voluntary carbon trading markets a mainstay of the pact, Jackson said. The weaknesses of the carbon trading approach are now apparent and have mainly enabled developed countries to escape climate accountability, she added. 

The environmental activists also cited reports showing the United States has been the largest oil and gas producer in the world the past five years, with production recently surpassing 13 million barrels per day, about 44 percent more than the 9 million barrels per day produced by Saudi Arabia and Russia, the second and third largest producers.

Impacts at Home and Abroad

The impacts of U.S. energy development are often felt most strongly at home, said John Beard,  founder and executive director of the Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas who was also in Dubai. 

“We are in the belly of the beast,” he said of his hometown. “I mean that whatever is happening in this space, you can bet it’s happening in Port Arthur. Carbon capture, Port Arthur. Crude oil exports, Port Arthur. Fossil gas exports, Port Arthur, not to mention petrochemical expansion.”

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What the U.S. government practices at COP28 is not climate diplomacy, but climate hypocrisy, he said.

“To us in the Gulf South, what they say is not matched by their actions,” he said. “They continue to do more of what created the problem by allowing more liquid fossil gas facilities to be sited and by expediting more crude oil exports.”

Worst of all, he added, is that they are not giving full value and credit to environmental justice considerations or indigenous rights.

“It all begins in the Permian Basin, where they extract from the tribal and ancestral lands of our indigenous brothers and sisters,” he said of the nation’s leading oil and gas region in west Texas. “Then they bring it down to the Gulf Coast and they export this poison to other nations all for the sake of money. Therein lies the hypocrisy.  It’s not about our indigenous rights. It’s not about our environmental justice rights. It’s all about making money.”

At COP28, the U.S. is continuing a long tradition of climate bullying, Jackson added. 

“Year after year the U.S. uses its PR machine and geopolitical power to point the finger of blame in another direction,” she said. “They paint Global South governments as the perpetrators of the climate crisis simply for demanding equity and urgency. Then it paints itself as the poor guy in the corner just trying to get the job done.”

The way that the U.S. has been able to “over-emit greenhouse gases is by the use of Indigenous lands, bodies, waters, trees and air as sacrifice zones,” Pungowiyi added. “It is a broken relationship between peoples and the forgotten understanding that we are nature. We are not separate. And the more we harm our mother, the more we harm ourselves and each other.”

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