Revelations on November 27 that COP28’s host nation had used its official position to leverage new oil and gas deals around the world were a timely reminder that there are entire nations that essentially operate as oil companies, with precisely the same attention to morality as Exxon or Shell.

The documents, obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting in Britain and first published by the BBC, showed talking points for meetings between officials like Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, the head of this COP and also of the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company, and at least 28 countries prior to the start of the official talks:

“They included proposed ‘talking points’, such as one for China which says Adnoc, the UAE’s state oil company, is ‘willing to jointly evaluate international LNG [liquefied natural gas] opportunities’ in Mozambique, Canada and Australia.

“The documents suggest telling a Colombian minister that Adnoc ‘stands ready’ to support Colombia to develop its fossil fuel resources. There are talking points for 13 other countries, including Germany and Egypt, which suggest telling them Adnoc wants to work with their governments to develop fossil fuel projects.”

Later in the day, another set of Center for Climate Research documents emerged that were even more shocking. They showed the UAE’s close ally, Saudi Arabia, hard at work on an Oil Development Sustainability Programme, which involved hooking African and Asian nations on fossil fuels. It is almost cartoonishly villainous:

The investigation obtained detailed information on plans to drive up the use of fossil fuel-powered cars, buses and planes in Africa and elsewhere, as rich countries increasingly switch to clean energy. The Guardian reported: “The ODSP plans to accelerate the development of supersonic air travel, which it notes uses three times more jet fuel than conventional planes, and partner with a carmaker to mass produce a cheap combustion engine vehicle. Further plans promote power ships, which use polluting heavy fuel oil or gas to provide electricity to coastal communities.”

The new documents, which really must be read to be believed, perform the same essential task as the revelations almost a decade ago about Exxon’s climate lies. They end any pretense that these countries are engaged in good-faith efforts to wind down the industry — instead they’re hooking up with car manufacturers to make cheap vehicles that would keep demand for their crude pumping on.

As Mohammed Adow, veteran campaigner and head of PowerShift Africa told the Guardian, “The Saudi government is like a drug dealer trying to get Africa hooked on its harmful product … The rest of the world is weaning itself off dirty and polluting fossil fuels and Saudi Arabia is getting desperate for more customers and is turning its sights on Africa. It’s repulsive.”

We’re used to the repulsive behavior of Big Oil in the US — above all its decades-long campaign of lies to delay climate action even as its own scientists warned of the consequences. And in fact American oil interests have engaged in just the same behaviour.

As the New York Times reported in 2020, “An industry group representing the world’s largest chemical makers and fossil fuel companies is lobbying to influence United States trade negotiations with Kenya, one of Africa’s biggest economies, to reverse its strict limits on plastics — including a tough plastic-bag ban. It is also pressing for Kenya to continue importing foreign plastic garbage, a practice it has pledged to limit.

Plastics makers are looking well beyond Kenya’s borders. “We anticipate that Kenya could serve in the future as a hub for supplying US-made chemicals and plastics to other markets in Africa through this trade agreement,” Ed Brzytwa, the director of international trade for the American Chemistry Council, wrote in an April 28 letter to the Office of the US Trade Representative.

The move, the NYT noted, “reflects an oil industry contemplating its inevitable decline as the world fights climate change. Profits are plunging amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the industry is fearful that climate change will force the world to retreat from burning fossil fuels. Producers are scrambling to find new uses for an oversupply of oil and gas. Wind and solar power are becoming increasingly affordable, and governments are weighing new policies to fight climate change by reducing the burning of fossil fuels.”

It’s difficult, I think, to imagine anything much more systemically evil than this spate of bids by the oil companies and oil countries to keep wrecking the planet; it’s akin to the way that tobacco companies, facing legal losses in the US, pivoted to expand their markets in Asia instead. But this time the second-hand smoke is going to kill us all.

Instead of accepting responsibility for the damage their products have caused and trying to figure out how to make amends, the oil world is instead preparing for what the fine journalists at HeatMap last week called a “lucrative decline”.

Big Oil, they wrote, is planning to extract the last bit of profits from a declining sector, while hoping that energy users everywhere remain dependent upon a volatile, expensive, and polluting — but very profitable — energy source. If newer sovereign producers try to get into the game late (such as Barbados, Senegal and Mozambique) they might well get caught out by the shrinking oil market. That would leave the cheaper and better-capitalised producers — Gulf countries, or the US majors — to continue selling at a comfortable profit, albeit slightly lower than they’d receive in the pre-peak era.

The head of OPEC, himself a Kuwaiti oil executive, said on November 27 that any efforts to hold the industry accountable “unjustly vilifies” it “as being behind the climate crisis”. The new reporting, he said, is “undiplomatic to say the least”. Undiplomatic, in this case, means that someone is trying to rip the veneer off their efforts to use the negotiating process to cover up and extend their crimes.

One feels for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who made a big trip to Antarctica in the run-up to the COP, trying to bring world attention to the suicide trip we’re taking as a planet:

“I have just returned from Antarctica — the sleeping giant. A giant being awoken by climate chaos. Together, Antarctica and Greenland are melting well over three times faster than they were in the early 1990s. It is profoundly shocking to stand on the ice of Antarctica and hear directly from scientists how fast the ice is disappearing.”

The only hope, he said, was “a clear and credible commitment to phase out fossil fuels on a timeframe that aligns with the 1.5-degree limit”. Which, of course, is the thing that the new documents showing the UAE and Saudi Arabia doing all in their power to prevent.

The very first question Guterres got at his press conference came from Al Jazeera and addressed the new documents: “Can you react to allegations that the UAE has been negotiating carbon fuel deals on the sidelines of COP, and that’s their intention? Are you worried about this undermining it?”

Guterres swallowed hard and said, “I can’t believe it’s true.”

But of course he can, and so can anyone else who’s been paying attention for the last 35 years. This is the logical endgame of an immoral group of men quite willing to sacrifice the planet for their power.

The only hope for this COP — and really for this planet — is that our revulsion at revelations like these somehow spurs the movements necessary to break the power of Big Oil.