Boris even manages to turn up late to the last-chance saloon | John Crace

When one of the themes of your speech is that the clock is at one minute to midnight and you have 60 seconds left to save the world, it’s not the best look to come on stage 30 minutes later than planned. Better late than never isn’t quite the message of Cop26. The time for dawdling has been and gone. Countries need to act now. But then maybe Boris Johnson and the other world leaders were experiencing the same problems getting into the Glasgow venue as all the other punters.

Johnson is something of a late convert to the reality of the climate crisis. We know that and he knows that. He’s even admitted it was only when he got to Downing Street and academics walked him through the science that the penny really dropped. So you might have thought the prime minister would have chosen to play it fairly straight in welcoming everyone to Glasgow. Just thank them all for coming and make them aware of the responsibility they carry for saving the planet.

Only Boris just cannot do serious. He needs the attention. He needs the laughs. So he started what should have been a plea to world leaders to put aside their self-interest and work constructively together with a reference to James Bond. If he’d stopped at that, he might have got away with it. But Bertie Booster is compulsively needy. So the rest of his short speech was peppered with bad gags. Cows farting. Boris possibly still being prime minister in 2060 when he’s 94. Further references to not everyone being able to look like James Bond.

All of which was met with silence by the world leaders assembled in the marquee. And the quieter it got, the more desperate Johnson became. You could see the flashes of panic in his eyes. Which isn’t to say there wasn’t some good material in between the attempted laughs. There was an acknowledgment that the world was now in the last chance saloon and that children wouldn’t forgive the attenders in Glasgow if they blew it. That more ‘blah, blah, blah’ – Greta Thunberg TM – wouldn’t cut it. That action was needed now to save humanity.

“We can do it,” said Bertie Booster. And we can. Only you could tell from the response – or lack of it – that everyone was wondering if Johnson was the man to lead us to the carbon-neutral promised land. Boris had yet again misjudged his audience. They had come for gravitas and he was just too lightweight, too flippant, too obviously amoral for not just the most serious but also the only game in town.

If you’re after a good time vibe with nothing much at stake, then Boris is your man. When the stakes are this high, then not so much. Prince Charles even appeared to be checking his phone during Boris’s speech. Because at heart Bertie Booster is just another self-interested chancer. He can’t even talk the talk, let alone walk the walk. His budget last week – and it was his more than Brand Rishi’s – didn’t once mention the climate crisis. Indeed he even cut air passenger duty. Not to mention reopening coalmines.

After several exhortations from climate activists from the Pacific and the Andes, there were brief but worthy speeches from the UN secretary general, António Guterres, and Prince Charles spelling out the realities of the situation. The Prince of Wales even went so far as to say the world should be on a warlike footing. Then it was left to the 95-year-old David Attenborough to inject some much-needed emotion and passion into the proceedings.

Against a powerful backdrop of film, stats and music, Attenborough laid his heart on the line. When he says the world is in a doomsday scenario, then you believe him. He is a man who has devoted his life to saving the natural world. Not an apparatchik who has been to countless previous climate change conferences where he has learned to hedge his bets and make the vaguest of promises he is fairly certain he has no chance of keeping. There was an electricity in the hall when Attenborough said we could turn tragedy into triumph. Or maybe it was just a sense of collective guilt.

Certainly Attenborough seemed to galvanise the politicians that followed. Mia Amor Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, didn’t mince her words. The climate crisis wasn’t an academic subject for her: it was a reality. If nothing was done then her island would disappear. “We want to exist in 100 years’ time,” she said. And she dared to suggest that Cop26 might already be a failure due to the no shows of presidents Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but spelled out the financial realities. The developed countries had stumped up £9tn in quantitative easing to cope with Covid. So coming up with £500bn a year for developing countries shouldn’t be an impossibility. Though right now the wealthiest countries hadn’t even kept their promise of £100bn a year.

The opening session ended with Italy’s Mario Draghi expressing his disappointment that the recent G20 in Rome had ended with such a feeble agreement on climate change. But by now, most world leaders had had enough of being reminded of their failures and were starting to get fidgety. It was time for their lunch and some side meetings. It would be nice if Cop26 was a success, but no one was counting on it. And some didn’t even seem that bothered. Given a choice of their national interest or saving the planet, then the world could burn.

A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Read More: Boris even manages to turn up late to the last-chance saloon | John Crace

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