Inevitable tension surrounds the UN-sponsored climate talks in November this year: They will take place in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, and the biggest role at the talks is played by the man who heads the national oil company.

The executive, Sultan al-Jaber, and other Emirati representatives said they have a game-changing plan to fight climate change, calling on oil and gas companies from around the world to participate more fully in the talks. In other words, invite the producers of the fuels that cause the most global warming as key players in developing a plan to slow warming.

In an interview, Majid al-Suwaidi, an Emirati diplomat who will also play an important role in the climate talks, known by the acronym COP28, said: “We need to bring in the people who have the technical know-how, the , the technology and, by the way, the people who provide work in a conversation about how they transform.

To activists who have attended these conferences for years, this idea seems far-fetched. It’s just how tobacco lobbyists need to be kept out of cancer prevention conversations, said Catherine Abreu, who heads Destination Zero, a network of nonprofits working on climate issues.

The conference will take place against a backdrop of recovery in fossil fuel investment after a brief decline in the pandemic era. The use of energy derived from fossil fuels accounts for more than two-thirds of global emissions.

Over the past year, major global producers such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Norway and the Emirates have approved dozens of large new drilling projects. This month, the Emirates received long-sought permission from OPEC, the coalition of oil-producing nations that coordinates on production and prices, to pump in more oil starting next year. ADNOC, al-Jaber’s parent oil company, is investing billions to achieve these new goals.

In a recent speech, Al-Jaber reaffirmed his ambition to see the world accept a collective pledge to triple renewable energy by 2030, as part of a transition to an energy system free of fossil fuels.

As is the case with much of the work essential to ironing out global deals on technical issues, much of what is seen as progress for climate activists boils down to seemingly minute details such as the use of the word cull in al-Jabers speech .

It’s a word echoed by other powerful players in the climate arena like former Senator John Kerry, the US climate envoy. And its use implies, for some, that these leaders see climate goals and the continued production of fossil fuels as compatible, provided the technology to capture their emissions is widely used. That kind of massive tech rollout is many years away in the brightest scenarios.

Fossil fuel interests are actively working to co-opt our imaginations, Ms. Abreu said. Governments can now imagine a geo-engineered planet more easily than a growth of already existing renewable energies.

Prior to this year, the COP process was already experiencing a credibility crisis. Despite warnings from the world’s top climate scientists, many of the conference’s biggest findings on paper—for example, pledges by rich nations to provide enough funds for poorer ones to tackle a climate crisis—played little in creation they were much inferior in reality.

Negotiators from small island nations, Latin America and Africa have joined those from the European Union in demanding that the conference reach an agreement on phasing out fossil fuels. But they have received stiff resistance from representatives of producing countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Asked about a phase-out, al-Suwaidi said he hoped this COP was about what we’re building, what we’re ramping up, what we’re accelerating, not what we’re taking away from people.

This year’s COP will take place in the Emirates because the United Nations climate body alternates guests between five regions of the world. The representatives of the nations in that body unanimously approved the choice of the Asia-Pacific regions of the Emirates. The expected confrontation between fossil fuel companies and negotiators and activists calling for their elimination will be sharper than ever and the suspicion between the two sides runs deep.

In recent weeks, seemingly automated Twitter accounts promoting Emirati climate credentials have produced a flood of content on the platform, leading activists to denounce greenwashing. A COP28 spokesperson said he was aware of fake Twitter bot accounts and that they were generated by external actors and clearly designed to discredit COP28.

Mistrust threatens to further undermine the COP process, said Tom Evans, a climate policy adviser at E3G, a think tank. It is likely to distract from the failures of industrialized nations that contribute the vast majority of emissions causing global warming and continue to slow down what he said was urgent action needed to reduce emissions.

What’s really important more broadly is the lack of leadership, of powerful countries that are champions and create the conditions for success, he said. Instead we have a vacuum.

Viviana Nereim contributed reporting from Dubai, UAE.

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