Boris Johnson’s Fickle Climate Leadership
For more than an hour on Monday morning, Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, stood on a gray carpet in front of a bright-blue-and-green backdrop—a swirling, hopeful suggestion of the Earth—at the Scottish Event Campus, in Glasgow, welcoming international leaders to COP26, the climate-change talks. A few feet away, António Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General, a more placid presence, occupied his own stretch of carpet. Between arrivals, the two men stood like bored ushers at an expensive, late-middle-age festivity—a third or a fourth wedding. Then Johnson would spring into bonhomie. “Prime Minister! How are you? Welcome! Welcome!” he greeted Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Prime Minister of Nepal, not waiting for a response. “Thank you very much for coming. How are you doing? Do you know António?”
Pandemic social etiquette does not suit Johnson. He likes to touch and tap and huddle. He has an animal, English sociability—born of a thousand dinner parties and weekend stays. He clenched his fists to communicate that he was going to give it his all. He returned the prayer-hands gesture of the Prime Minister of Iceland. “I’ll do my best!” Johnson promised Edi Rama, the statuesque Prime Minister of Albania, a former basketball player and an artist, who towered over Johnson and Guterres as they had their picture taken. “I like your scarf,” Johnson said to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the President of Zimbabwe. Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, is another tactile leader. Johnson appeared to attain bliss when Modi managed to gather him and Guterres into an intense three-way man-cuddle. When minutes passed with no one to greet, Johnson paced and flexed on the carpet. He clicked his heels together. He was restless.
Hosting the twenty-sixth conference of the parties of the United Nations Climate Change Conference is a major diplomatic moment for post-Brexit Britain. Johnson and his government have long suggested that this is the kind of occasion where an unfettered United Kingdom (the European Union negotiates as a bloc in the talks) can function as an agile power broker on the world stage. In an uncompetitive field, the U.K. boasts both a reasonable record and plans for tackling the climate crisis. Last December, it pledged to cut emissions by sixty-eight per cent from 1990 levels by 2030 (they are currently down by around forty-four per cent), and it’s aiming to hit net zero by mid-century. The sale of conventional combustion-engine cars will end in a little more than eight years. Britain has some of the world’s leading climate-change researchers, activists, and oddball thinkers. Prince Charles, who addressed the talks’ opening ceremony, has been warning about the destruction of the environment since 1970. He recently told the BBC that his antique Aston Martin has been modified to run on “surplus English white wine and whey.” David Attenborough, who is ninety-five years old, might be the foremost storyteller of the natural world and its terrifying present state.
Johnson, by contrast, is a late convert to the cause. In December, 2015, eight days after the conclusion of the last significant climate talks, in Paris, he used his column in the Daily Telegraph to question whether the mild winter weather that year was attributable to climate change. “Remember, we humans have always put ourselves at the centre of cosmic events,” Johnson wrote. “It is fantastic news that the world has agreed to cut pollution and help people save money, but I am sure that those global leaders 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.” In January, 2020, Johnson’s first choice to be president of the Glasgow talks, a junior minister in Theresa May’s government named Claire O’Neill, was fired. “We are miles off track,” she wrote in a scathing parting letter. O’Neill later said that Johnson “admitted to me he doesn’t really understand” climate change.
Johnson says that it was a presentation by government scientists, soon after he became Prime Minister, in the summer of 2019, that opened his eyes to the gravity of the crisis. “I got them to run through it all,” he told reporters on a flight to Rome, last week, for a meeting of the G-20. “If you look at the almost vertical kink upward in the temperature graph, the anthropogenic climate change, it’s very hard to dispute. That was a very important moment for me.”
Recently, he has been giving the subject the full Johnsonian treatment. “When Kermit the Frog sang ‘It’s not easy bein’ green,’ I want you to know he was wrong—and he was also unnecessarily rude to Miss Piggy,” he told the U.N. General Assembly in September. Opening the Glasgow talks, Johnson did a bit about James Bond and a ticking time bomb. He is, more than anything, a facile student in a perpetual essay crisis: staying up late, scribbling unwieldy, fancy-sounding analogies to get through another assignment. Something something Sophocles. It’s mostly wordplay and bullshit.
But Johnson is also capable of moments of unusual focus. His chosen slogan for COP26 is “Coal, Cars, Cash and Trees.” It sounds reductive, because it is, but on a good day Johnson’s energy, clenched fists, and improbable good cheer can change the political weather. I watched Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, at close quarters while they each sought a way through the dense, grim constraints of the Brexit negotiations. Both Prime Ministers had the same weak bargaining position and doubtful control of the British Parliament. May, who was dutiful, patient, and dogged, failed. Johnson, who was duplicitous and forceful, found a way through. In the process, Johnson also won an eighty-seat majority in the House of Commons on the basis of another blunt slogan, “Get Brexit Done,” which has made him the most powerful British Prime Minister since Tony Blair. He will say anything—and forget anything—to get where he wants to be.
That is in itself a problem. Last year, Rory Stewart, a former ministerial colleague of Johnson’s, called him “the most accomplished liar in public life—perhaps the best liar ever to serve as Prime Minister.” Johnson is, to an alarming degree, comfortable with multiple simultaneous truths and agendas. Last week, two days before he chatted to reporters about the “vertical kink” in the temperature graph, Johnson’s government cut taxes on domestic flights within the U.K., froze gasoline taxes for the twelfth year in a row, and maintained a four-billion-pound cut to Britain’s overseas-aid budget, which will undermine the country’s climate-finance commitments. When he was challenged about these policies—and the possibility of a new coal mine opening in the North of England—during a BBC interview on the opening morning of the climate talks, Johnson was briefly taken aback, as if the questioning was somehow bad manners.
The schtick is paper-thin. During his opening speech in Glasgow, Johnson sounded nervy on the details of the talks. He eschewed the tortuous, heavily laden language of the U.N.F.C.C.C.—of nations’ “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” to address the climate crisis—because there were no jokes in it. Critics of his triumph in the Brexit negotiations point out that Johnson’s deal with the E.U. was built on unsustainable compromises that are now unravelling. Nine months after the agreement came into force, there are still considerable problems in Northern Ireland and a dispute with France over fishing rights.
But those deficiencies—like many other political differences—can be fixed another day, or another year, or by other politicians. Our planetary catastrophe is not salvageable, or bluffable, in the same way. At the end of the second day in Glasgow, when the international leaders had mostly departed, Johnson sat for an interview with Christiane Amanpour, on CNN. He looked slumped and tired. “Are we starting to inch forward?” he asked. “Yes, I think that arguably we are.” Johnson noted India’s plan to decarbonize much of its electricity supply by 2030; a ten-billion-dollar contribution, from Japan, to help developing countries adapt to climate change and transition away from fossil fuels; and a new global agreement on deforestation. All of which are valid. All of which are not enough. Then Johnson started to talk about the Dogger Bank, a submerged plain in the North Sea, which makes an excellent base for offshore wind farms. Amanpour looked nonplussed. “We’re running out of time,” she said. “I don’t know what Dogger Bank is.” Johnson plowed on. He ran down the clock with a disquisition about Doggerland, and the people who lived there in Mesolithic times, and a series of undersea landslides that probably wiped them out. He cannot resist…
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