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This week I published a cover story profiling Sultan Al Jaber, the controversial president of the coming U.N. climate conference in Dubai. Al Jaber has received unrelenting criticism for running the conference, known as COP28, while also serving as the CEO of the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil company.
But Al Jaber doesn’t like to position himself as an oil CEO and instead prefers to talk about his experience co-founding Masdar, a renewable energy company, and, more generally, his experience in other business functions. “I bring finance experience, economics experience, project management, business development,” he told me.
This is certainly, in part, an effort to shift the narrative around his tenure, but there’s also some logic to it. We need to deploy clean energy projects quickly, and in his telling, this “business mindset” will help COP28 serve as a launching pad to get projects off the ground around the world. In my story, I explore the challenge of mapping such an approach onto delicate diplomatic negotiations between nearly 200 countries.
I won't rehash the story here. Instead, I want to take a minute to reflect on the uneasy but necessary collaboration between business and finance and the climate community which Al Jaber has brought to the fore as COP president. In short, given the structure of our globalized market economy, we need businesses to build things to decarbonize.
It’s not an easy challenge, nor is it a natural fit. One of the things I like about my job is the ability to jump between different perspectives. I might spend one week talking to climate activists, another with investors, and another with scientists and academics. Few of them will be speaking the same language, even if they claim to share the same objective.
A growing group of executives at least say they see both the business and societal imperative to address climate change. But, for many, that need will never top the imperative to deliver quarterly earnings. Moreover, for most people in the private sector, the language of climate change is unfamiliar and seemingly irrelevant. Terms like ESG create confusion; phrases like carbon budget or even blended finance draw blank stares.
The climate community isn’t a monolith, and many climate groups have worked to push and pull companies into the necessary transition. And still many advocates critique companies for doing the wrong thing by not embracing the urgent reality of climate science. While they are of course right that there’s a moral necessity to address climate change, business decisions are rarely, if ever, made in moral terms alone.
Al Jaber has sought to position himself as a bridge between the different groups given his energy knowledge, his general business experience, and his engagement in climate discussions as a government minister and climate envoy.
The skepticism is understandable. It’s almost comical to put an oil CEO in charge of a climate conference given the industry’s history denying the science of climate change and obstructing measures aimed at addressing it. For that reason, and many others I touch on in my story, he might fail in his lofty ambitions.
And yet it doesn’t escape me that at some point, whether by tough regulation that forces businesses to get up to speed, investor pressure, or something else entirely, we will need to bridge the divide so that business people understand climate and climate people understand business.
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Write to Justin Worland at email@example.com