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Harris to attend COP28 after pushback over Biden skipping summit

Vice President Kamala Harris will attend a global climate summit in Dubai following pushback over President Joe Biden skipping the opening of the gathering this week.

Harris’ attendance at COP28 is in line with her recent steps to ramp up public messaging on climate. In recent months, the vice president has attended climate-related events, including talking to students and young voters on an issue central to them.

Kirsten Allen, Harris’ press secretary, said in a statement that the vice president will attend the conference on Friday and Saturday.

“Throughout her engagements, the Vice President will underscore the Biden-Harris Administration’s success in delivering on the most ambitious climate agenda in history, both at home and abroad,” Allen wrote.

The vice president’s travel comes after climate activists and experts expressed frustration with Biden missing the gathering this year. Since taking office, Biden has attended the annual UN climate summit in person in 2021 and 2022.

The administration’s handling of climate change reflects a larger pattern ahead of next year’s general election. Recent polls show Biden receiving low approval ratings from voters and trailing former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, in battleground states. At the same time, the administration has struggled to promote its signature achievements in a way that resonates with voters.

Climate change is often one of the issues cited by young progressive voters as a top priority. While Biden has made it a top priority since coming into office – he signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, which includes key provisions to reduce carbon emissions, and has recommitted the US to the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – there is still an undercurrent among young voters that the administration has still not done enough.

A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll from July found that 57% of Americans disapprove of the way Biden has handled climate policy, including 59% of voters 18-29 years old. Seventy-four percent of Democrats said they approved of how Biden had addressed the issue, but just 40% of independents and 8% of Republicans agreed. Most Americans – 71% – said they had read or heard very little about the Inflation Reduction Act, the major climate policy legislation Biden signed into law last year.

When asked about the president skipping the summit, the White House has cited the attendance of top US officials, including US climate envoy John Kerry and White House national climate adviser Ali Zaidi. The conference will be attended by nearly 200 countries.

Although US presidents historically haven’t attended every international climate summit, Biden skipping the conference is notable, Tom Evans, a policy adviser for international climate think tank E3G, told CNN earlier this week.

“It’s definitely a shame that he won’t be there. When he’s not part of the conversation, that shows the US that’s not fully at the table at the highest level,” Evans said, adding that the president not attending in person is a “missed opportunity” ahead of the 2024 election.

“This will be the final COP before the US election – the US election might happen during the next COP,” he told CNN.

Still, some activists and small island nations have called into question the effectiveness of the annual international climate summit process. High-profile Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg opted to skip the summit, saying it was a space for “greenwashing” last year.

This year’s conference is under even more scrutiny. The COP28 president-designate Sultan Al Jaber on Wednesday strongly denied accusations that his team sought to use the international climate talks in Dubai to strike fossil fuel deals for the UAE’s state-owned oil and gas company.

Several media outlets, including CNN, this week published stories based on a cache of leaked documents obtained by the UK-registered Centre for Climate Reporting, which appeared to be briefing notes for Al Jaber for meetings with foreign officials in the run-up to the summit. Al Jaber also runs the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. He denies ever seeing the documents or ever using such talking points in his discussions.

“These allegations are false, not true, incorrect, and not accurate,” he said at a news conference in Dubai on Wednesday. “And it’s an attempt to undermine the work of the COP28 presidency.”

It’s not clear how many of the meetings actually took place, but the leaked notes appear to offer an insight into how the team hoped to use them as a vehicle for new deals. CNN has reached out to the 15 countries mentioned, four of which have confirmed meetings, but said either no business discussions took place or would not confirm if they did. Another two replied to say no meeting occurred.

Al Jaber emphasized that all of his meetings with officials were squarely focused on his COP28 agenda.

This story has been updated with additional developments on Wednesday.

CNN’s Camila DeChalus, Angela Dewan and Ella Nilsen contributed to this report.

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