It sounds like the plot of one of those dystopian "the world's about to end and he's the only guy that can save us" horror movies. Climate change is by far the biggest threat to mankind, more pressing even than the huge arsenals of nuclear weapons squirrelled away around the globe. And the man who is leading us out of this crisis, with the clock ticking loudly towards a global warming meltdown, is best known for his buffoonery, bad jokes and worse, his haircut.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson opened the COP26 on Monday, saying the world is strapped to a “doomsday device.” According to AP, he told leaders that “we are in roughly the same position” — only now the “ticking doomsday device” is real and not fiction.
But Boris hadn't volunteered to host the COP26 UN Climate Change conference that is getting underway in the Scottish city of Glasgow. It simply goes with the job. When he scrambled his way to the top of the political greasy pole in the summer of 2019, the Glasgow conference was already inked in the diary. Johnson's immediate pre-occupation on coming to power was getting Brexit done; no sooner was that achieved than the COVID-19 pandemic struck; he hasn't had a lot of thinking time to prepare the ground for this supremely important climate gathering.
He Has Two Political Assets
Johnson's critics might say he doesn't do a lot of thinking anyway. He's certainly not an ideologue – there will be no Borisism to match Thatcherism, the determined market-based political approach championed by Margaret Thatcher during her spell as Prime Minister through the 1980s. He is a populist and a pragmatist. But he also has two political assets which may help to get a good outcome at Glasgow: he has a personal charm and good humour that casts a spell on even those who oppose his policies and the privilege he represents; and when he needs to, he can wield the political dagger with stunning ruthlessness.
Whatever your doubts about the United Nations and the unwieldy network of UN offshoots – the Glasgow gathering is held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – these conferences really do matter. There's a COP, or Conference of Parties, every year (though last year's was cancelled because of COVID). And this COP is one of the five-yearly yearly get-togethers that is intended to ratchet up the targets for moving away from fossil fuels and greenhouse gases towards being carbon neutral. This is a moment when the world comes together and summons up the collective will to sacrifice short-term benefits to help achieve our long-term survival.
In sharp contrast to so many right-wing populists, Boris Johnson has passable green credentials. When he was Mayor of London, he famously used to cycle around the city and was best known for instituting 'Boris Bikes', the user-friendly public bike hire system which has been such a success.
He is part of a current of environmentalism within the Conservative Party and has warned Coca Cola and other corporates to cut down on single-use plastic bottles and containers. Carrie Symonds, his wife (number three, if you are wondering), is much more of a green activist and worked as a senior advisor to an ocean conservation charity. She has political clout and may well step in to stop her husband from backsliding.
Inconsistency In Climate Change Approach
But as so often with this government, there's an inconsistency in its approach to climate change. Britain has a good record of developing renewable energy and limiting reliance on coal, in particular, the most polluting energy source. The country's own coal mining industry has all but disappeared. So, the Glasgow climate change conference is a curious time to float the idea of a new coal mine to produce a special type of coke used in steel-making.
Even more baffling is the British government's announcement in the past week of a cut in air passenger duty for internal flights in an attempt to encourage short-haul air travel.
Britain is a small country with an extensive rail network, and the attempt to boost aviation – and so the production of greenhouse gases – around the conference has been denounced by the Friends of the Earth pressure group as 'astonishing' and 'retrograde'.
Johnson had said that it was "touch and go" whether the Glasgow conference will deliver the deals necessary to curb climate change. But he will want the conference to be a success, not least because – like so many top politicians – he is vain. He wants to be seen around the globe not as the man who made Britain an inward-looking nation but as the statesman who guided the world towards a more sustainable future. He wants to be remembered as Superman, not as Clark Kent.
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)