Dinner diplomacy: How John Kerry convened VIPs and lawmakers to ease the climate talks

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In March, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry co-hosted an exclusive dinner in D.C. for a top figure in the upcoming United Nations climate talks.

Administration officials, the heads of leading environmental organizations, business representatives and select journalists were among those invited to dine at Cafe Milano with Sultan al-Jaber, a powerful energy executive from the United Arab Emirates.

Al-Jaber, who will serve as leader of the talks in the UAE’s gleaming coastal city of Dubai, is also CEO of the country’s state-run oil company — a dual role that has earned him attacks from climate activists and at least one of the dinner’s attendees.

The gathering, first reported by POLITICO’s E&E News, underscores the Biden administration’s recognition of the political challenges it will confront at the summit, where al-Jaber is already facing criticism for reaping fossil fuel profits while leading talks on the urgency of cutting greenhouse gas pollution. Kerry, who has defended al-Jaber as a “terrific choice” to preside over the summit, used the dinner to introduce the oil chief to people with an influential role in the U.S. climate debate.

People invited to attend the March dinner included two members of Congress, Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), as well as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Financial Times U.S. national editor Edward Luce, according to a guest list obtained by E&E News. All four confirmed, either directly or through representatives, that they attended.

Curtis and Whitehouse are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their ideas about what it will take to solve the climate crisis, representing the divide that Kerry and others might hope to bridge in the upcoming talks.

Curtis leads the 80-member House Conservative Climate Caucus and accepts the reality of human-made climate change — as well as the need to cut greenhouse gases — but is protective of fossil fuels. Whitehouse chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is a longtime climate hawk and would like to see fossil fuels abolished.

They’ve also expressed sharply different opinions about the dinner’s guest of honor. Whitehouse is one of 133 lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe who have called for ousting al-Jaber as the climate summit’s president-designate, saying his role as a top oil and gas executive “risks undermining the negotiations” about a proposed phase-out of fossil fuels.

Curtis, in contrast, praised al-Jaber’s appointment as “a wonderful opportunity to highlight the role of fossil fuels in reducing emissions.”

“Every energy expert in the world will tell you we are using fossil fuels in 2050, and it’s not realistic to have a conversation about zero fossil fuels,” he added.

Curtis called the meeting “a great dinner, thoughtful conversation.” Whitehouse was more circumspect, saying he expressed his concerns about al-Jaber’s role in the summit and whether the “corporate establishment” was up to the task of fighting climate change.

The two-week summit starting in late November, known as COP28, will include debate about creating a roadmap for cutting greenhouse gas pollution as climate change has grown more dire. The talks could be further complicated by the war between Hamas and Israel.

Curtis has attended the last two U.N. climate summits. His track record of participation — as well as his enthusiasm for having oil and gas at the head of the table for this year’s upcoming meeting — has helped endear him to the Biden administration and to Kerry, in particular.

The climate envoy now regards Curtis as “someone who is taking the climate crisis seriously,” according to a State Department spokesperson. The spokesperson was granted anonymity to share details about the relationship between the two men.

Curtis had kind words for Kerry, in turn: “I would place John Kerry as someone who has been one of those individuals who have been willing to listen to me and listen to our questions — and not only me: He’s met with a number of us on the Conservative Climate Caucus.”

Kerry and several other global climate leaders have said that progress on tackling climate change could benefit from having the oil and gas industry at the table, and he’s urged them to take action to cut their greenhouse gas pollution.

‘BS and mischief and greenwashing and fakery’

Whitehouse characterized the dinner as “one of those kinds of large D.C. dinners and kind of each person gets their chance to just say a few minutes’ worth of stuff, so I expressed my concerns, which are not just [al-Jaber], but the whole sort of corporate establishment, which is doing essentially zero to help us politically.”

He, too, plans to go to the summit but with lower expectations than Curtis.

“There’s the prospect of a kind of ‘Nixon Goes to China’ moment, in which, by virtue of representing industry, it can make bigger demands of the industry,” said Whitehouse.

He was referring to the 1972 visit by Richard Nixon in which the staunchly anti-communist president stunned the world by thawing a decadeslong diplomatic freeze between the two nations.

“But,” Whitehouse continued, “my experience has been that the industry is full of BS and mischief and greenwashing and fakery, so I think the odds of that are pretty slim.”

Over the past decade, the UAE has spent millions of dollars on advisory firms and think tanks to help burnish its environmental credentials, an investigation by POLITICO’s E&E News recently found.

Whitehouse did express some hope that a policy the United Nations adopted over the summer — to require all COP28 delegates to disclose their affiliations with fossil fuel companies — could make the proceedings more productive.

“I was the instigator of a letter that produced the disclosure requirement,” said Whitehouse, “and we’re working to try to put some format and teeth into that.”

‘Wide range of opinions’

Hessa Alshuwaihi, head of communications and public diplomacy for the UAE Embassy in Washington, confirmed that UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba was a co-host of the dinner for al-Jaber alongside Kerry.

She described it as “an off-the-record discussion [that] allowed Dr. Sultan to hear a wide range of opinions and answer questions on advancing climate action in the lead-up to COP28.”

The State Department also confirmed the event but declined to provide a readout.

Matt Letourneau, director of communications from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s global energy institute, said the gathering was meant to introduce al-Jaber to policy leaders in Washington as he took on the role of COP president-designate.

Two months after U.S. Chamber President and CEO Suzanne Clark attended the dinner, her organization led atrade mission to the UAE to connect dozens of U.S. businesses with potential investment opportunities. The Chamber will lead a sizable delegation to COP28, as well.

Others in attendance back in March included Fred Kempe, CEO of the Atlantic Council; Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, a global environmental organization; and Ani Dasgupta, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute.

Spokespeople for these groups all said they are actively engaging with leaders at all levels to drive action and push for strong outcomes at this year’s climate talks.

“As such, Ani joined [the dinner] to demonstrate solidarity with vulnerable countries and advocate for bold climate solutions, including by directly sharing our views with the COP 28 presidency, just as we have with others in the past,” said Alison Cinnamond, media director for the World Resources Institute.

Charm offensive

Such gatherings in advance of high-profile climate summits are not unusual, said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at the climate think tank E3G.

“That’s part of what Secretary Kerry does. … He goes around to a lot of these different events around the world to meet with ministers and leaders and others,” Meyer said. “And certainly, the embassy of the country hosting the COP often has gatherings in Washington and other key capitals in advance of the COP to bring people together as part of its outreach and consultation process.”

The UAE has been pushing countries to agree to targets for tripling renewable energy capacity and doubling energy efficiency, but it has not pursued an equally strong commitment to phasing out fossil fuel production and use.

The State Department spokesperson said Kerry was determined to see al-Jaber make substantive recommendations for climate action and follow through on his commitments.

He would keep al-Jaber to his word, the spokesperson said: “The proof is in the pudding.”

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