How fossil fuels infiltrated the U.N. climate summit

The caviar was orange, served on crunchy crackers.

Xaver Kandler couldn’t eat them—not with his braces—but he held a cracker in his hand, trying to fit in. He was surrounded by multinational oil company CEOs, diplomats, environmental non-profit leaders and government representatives, brought together to mingle on the eve of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York. It was an invite-only event, organized by the industry-led Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. Kandler had not been invited.

But the young climate justice activist was there, wearing the suit from his high school graduation, and listening. His friends were there, too, disguised as guests and hotel staff, their phones recording audio in their pockets.

If all had gone to plan, the activists would have stormed the stage, and presented the CEOs of ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and others with laminated plaques reading “We Knew — in recognition of our years of climate change denial, false solutions, inaction, and the horrifying harms we’ve inflicted on people and the planet.”

But the group was discovered by event security guards and delivered to New York City Police Department officers before they got the chance.

The next morning, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg took the U.N. Climate Summit by storm, and delivered a searing rebuke of world leaders who talk big about action but consistently fail to deliver.

“I shouldn’t be up here,” she said. “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

It was a powerful speech in a place where powerful speeches weren’t supposed to happen. “The ticket to enter today’s #ClimateAction Summit is not a beautiful speech, but a concrete plan,” United Nations secretary General António Guterres tweeted on Monday.

If there was going to be one beautiful speech, though, Gutteres wanted it to be Greta’s. He invited her to the summit—even scheduled himself to speak directly before her. Months earlier, the U.N. chief endorsed Greta’s climate strike movement—a movement that advocates explicitly for an end to fossil fuel burning. “My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change,” he wrote. “This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry.”

But the night before the climate summit, at the private Oil and Gas Climate Initiative dinner, Gutteres also endorsed the industry’s efforts to shape and influence climate policy.

The young people were not too happy about that.

Activists protest outside the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative’s private dinner at the Gramercy Park Hotel on Sunday night. Image courtesy Corporate Accountability.

The night before Greta took the podium at the climate summit, Guterres’ Special Advisor Robert Orr took the stage at the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative dinner.

“Tonight, I think it’s best that I not speak for Bob Orr—but in fact for my boss, for Antonio Guterres,” Orr said, according to a recording of the remarks provided to HEATED.

“He was hoping to meet all of you CEOs while you were in town, but he’s got this little thing going on across town—and his whole board of directors is in town, all 193 of them,” Orr said. “So if you think you’ve got it difficult with your boards of directors, give him a little of your sympathy.”

Orr said he’d been sent to the dinner with a message from Gutteres to the CEOs—a message “intended as a strong encouragement of your efforts.”

Screenshot of the OGCI website. Source:

The message read as follows:

Dear friends and colleagues, we are facing a climate emergency. Science and current events show that climate change is driving and exacerbating crises affecting all economies and all citizens across the world. This is not something humanity can and should accept. This is not something government leaders or economic leaders like you should accept. This is not something that I will not accept.

Global challenges require global solutions, and I welcome the collective power OGCI has been building since its launch 5 years ago. The platform has catalyzed concrete actions, including a delivery of a methane intensity target last year, as well as your support to the U.N.-led global methane alliance.

But our best efforts today are not enough. We are taking action, but not at the scale and speed that meets the urgency of the situation. Everyone, in every sector, must do more.

Your industry has the assets and the expertise to demonstrate the ambition we need and to lead the way. The world needs, and is demanding, an ambitious road map to reduce the carbon intensity of your industry, and to demonstrate your commitment to align with the goals of the Paris agreement.

This is the ask I have made of everyone. And I hope and expect that you can deliver ambitious and meaningful targets, including as soon as COP25 in Chile, to meet net zero emissions in the coming 30 years.

On Monday, I asked Kandler why he was so mad about the situation. What’s so wrong with the U.N. Secretary General asking the biggest fossil fuel company CEOs in the world for more aggressive action to stop climate change?

The problem, he said, lies inherently in the fact that it’s an ask. Given the dire nature of the climate crisis; the fact that fossil fuels are the main contributors to it; and the fact that fossil fuel corporations have spent more than $2 billion over the last two decades delaying climate action while knowing the consequences of inaction; Kandler said aggressive emissions reductions should read more like a demand.

But on Sunday, fossil fuel company representatives were “discussing the U.N. as an institution that served them,” he said. “They kept bringing up their close relationship with [Guterres], and how they have this working relationship to make sure they’re part of the solution.”

The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative indeed has a close relationship with the United Nations—but it’s not the only fossil fuel interest that regularly attempts to sway the outcomes to these sessions.

Indeed, according to a recent AFP analysis, “Lobby groups representing some of the world's biggest polluters have sent thousands of delegates to negotiations aimed at limiting global warming since U.N. climate talks began.” Thus, fossil fuel interests have been quietly undermining international climate talks for decades. (There’s a reason the term “fossil fuels” doesn’t appear once in the Paris climate accord).

Companies been allowed to sway these talks because the U.N.’s rules entitle them to. As AFP reports, “There is currently no protection against potential conflicts of interest between nations which need emissions slashed rapidly in order to survive, and the biggest emitters whose business plans are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.”

And though oil companies insist they are not trying to obstruct climate action, activists have a hard time believing them. After all, the same companies leading the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative have approved $50 billion of projects in the last year that won’t be economically viable if governments implement the Paris accord, according to Reuters.

The time for a friendly, working relationship with the fossil fuel industry to solve climate change is over, said Taylor Billings, whose group Corporate Accountability helped organize protests against the OGCI. “Until governments and the U.N. realize that trying to put the fire out with the arsonists in the room will not work,” she told the Guardian, “we risk letting another year go by without adequate action on climate change or supplanting real solutions with fossil-fuel-industry-driven schemes.”

And like clockwork, Monday’s session ended without any promises from the world’s major polluting countries to take any further action on climate change.

Just a bunch of empty words.

*A previous version of this article misstated how much the fossil fuel industry spent on climate denial. It is $2 billion, not $2 trillion.

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