Boris Johnson’s climate speech annotated: what he said and what he meant

Johnson begins his speech conventionally, if dully, by stretching back to the dawn of humanity, as many have done before to stress the momentous nature of the climate crisis, which as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted in August is bringing about changes “unprecedented” in hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of years.

But he quickly swerves into far different territory, revealing far more perhaps of the preoccupations and psyche of the prime minister himself than of the aims of Cop26 and the task the world faces.

Name-checking a moral philosopher is a shortcut to signalling high seriousness, and Ord is noted for his work on existential risk at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford. But perhaps a psychologist rather than a philosopher might have been more appropriate – Johnson has frequently been accused of narcissism, and what better way to deflect the charge than extend it to the whole of humanity?

With its extensive references to mistakes made in the name of gratification and pleasure, and a new willingness to reform, this is definitely the speech of a man on his third marriage.

Good that Johnson is now listening to the warnings of scientists – as recently as December 2015, just after the landmark Paris climate agreement was signed, 他是 writing in the Daily Telegraph that he didn’t believe the science. He wrote then: “Global leaders [at Paris] were driven by a primitive fear that the present ambient warm weather is somehow caused by humanity; and that fear – as far as I understand the science – is equally without foundation.”

Yet by that stage, decades of repeated warnings by the world’s leading scientists were so clear that only hardcore conspiracy theorists, deceitful fossil fuel interests and highly paid newspaper columnists could pretend to disagree. Speaking to the Guardian and others on the way to New York for the UN general assembly, 约翰逊 obliquely acknowledged his past writings, in which he trashed climate science and renewable energy repeatedly, though characteristically tried to say it was much longer ago than it really was. 他说: “If you were to excavate some of my articles from 20 years ago you might find comments I made, obiter dicta, about climate change that weren’t entirely supportive of the current struggle, but the facts change and people change their minds and change their views and that’s very important too.”

The facts, 尽管, have not changed: the IPCC was set up in 1988, to investigate the clear likelihood that human actions were causing changes to the climate. The scientific evidence was forceful enough even then to bring Johnson’s predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, to the UN the following year to call for urgent action. Quoting Charles Darwin and Paradise Lost as well as the latest science, her speech – read it here, for a contrast with Johnson’s effort – helped lead to the signing of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, parent treaty to the Paris accord, 在 1992. Successive IPCC reports made the science clearer still, and by 2007, the last major IPCC report before Paris, the fourth IPCC report recorded more than 90% certainty of our fossil-fuelled damage to the climate.

The obfuscation and delay fomented by fossil fuel interests, and amplified by their media helpers, after the UNFCCC was signed are the major reasons we are facing calamity today.

And that is why the Glasgow Cop26 summit is the turning point for humanity.

We must limit the rise in temperatures – whose appalling effects were visible even this summer – to 1.5C.

Johnson’s invocation of some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries is key here. The UNFCCC process is unlike the cabals of the powerful, like the G7 or the recent Aukus pact, where Johnson likes to perform. At the UNFCCC Cops – conference of the parties – every country, even the smallest, has an equal say, and consensus is required for agreement. That means the UK will have to form the broadest coalition possible of developing countries to have any hope of success. As Mary Robinson, the former UN climate envoy and chair of the Elders group, said earlier this year: “The poorest countries are the moral authority at the Cop, they drive the urgency, they drive the credibility. You need them fully behind the UK presidency to get the good ambition needed.”

No mention of the fact that Johnson’s government is also hoping to exploit more of what lies under the North Sea, with a new round of licensing for oil and gas fields, 和 legal battles in attempts to open the vast Cambo oilfield near Shetland. The International Energy Agency has said all new prospecting and development of oil, gas and coal must cease from this year to stay within 1.5C, but the UK is arguing developments can go ahead subject to hazy promises of a “climate checkpoint”. And the potential for a new coal mine in Cumbria is still live, even while the prime minister is urging China to close its mines.

Political leaders love talking about whizzy new technology, and Johnson’s favourites are hydrogen and nuclear. But we should not forget that most of the technology we need to get to net zero by 2050 is already available, and according to the International Energy Agency we can get to a 45% cut in global emissions by 2030 – the key number for staying within 1.5C – with technologies such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and electric vehicles, that are already available and in widespread use today.

Politicians may find shiny new things more exciting to talk about, but it’s the hard graft of rolling out unsexy equipment such as home insulation and heat pumps that is needed to cut the UK’s emissions in line with Johnson’s targets. 很遗憾, that has stalled with the Treasury’s scrapping of the green homes grant, and there is currently no real plan for the UK to cut the 14% of its emissions that come from home heating.

Johnson says the UK’s climate finance pledge has been fulfilled “to the letter” – what he doesn’t mention is that this has come while dismantling the UK’s broader pledges of overseas aid to developing countries. The UK’s spending on overseas development aid, set at 0.7% of GDP under Johnson’s predecessor David Cameron, was slashed to 0.5% 占GDP, wiping billions a year off and causing projects around the world to be scrapped.

That Johnson, preparing for the UK’s hosting of Cop26, would preside over such a cut, at a time when poor countries are also suffering the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the accompanying recessions in many countries, has astounded observers around the world. Alok Sharma, the UK cabinet minister who will preside over Cop26, said in August that the cut “comes up from time to time, but generally it is not raised by governments. It is raised by civil society groups.” But developing countries have raised it frequently in conversations with the Guardian and are clear that it has cast a pall over the talks, the prospects for a satisfactory outcome on climate finance, and the trust that developing countries place in the UK as president of the talks.

Johnson ends in typical fashion, invoking Kermit the Frog and Sophocles in almost the same breath. Political leaders around the world, and their advisers, are less used to such Johnsonian flights of fancy than the British public, so it is safe to say they will be looking harder at what the UK does than what the prime minister says.

The rhetoric may soar between Greek tragedy and the Muppets, but the decisions the government has taken – cutting overseas aid; continuing the expansion of oil and gas, and perhaps a new coalmine, in the UK; dropping references to the Paris temperature goals from the Australian trade deal; forming the Aukus defence pact with climate rogue Australia, and so offending ally France and the pivotal player at the Cop26 talks, 中国, in doing so – will do far more than any words of the prime minister at UNGA to set the diplomatic tone for Cop26.

PM’s speech to UN general assembly is revealing in several ways. Fiona Harvey reads between the lines