For over an hour on Monday morning, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood on a gray carpet in front of a bright blue and green backdrop – a swirling and hopeful suggestion from Earth – at the Scottish Event Campus, in Glasgow, welcoming international leaders to COP26, the climate change talks. A few meters away, AntÃ³nio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, with a more placid presence, occupied his own piece of carpet. Between arrivals, the pair stood like bored ushers at an expensive late medieval party – a third or fourth marriage. So Johnson would become good-natured. “Prime Minister! How are you? Welcome! Welcome!” he greeted Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Prime Minister of Nepal, without waiting for a response. “Thank you very much for coming. How are you? Do you know Antonio?”
Social etiquette in a pandemic does not suit Johnson. He loves to touch and pat and snuggle up. He has an animal, English sociability, born from a thousand dinners and weekends. He clenched his fists to communicate that he was going to give his all. He returned the gesture of the Icelandic Prime Minister’s hands of prayer. “I’ll do my best!” Johnson promised Edi Rama, the Albanian prime minister sculptor, former basketball player and artist, who towered over Johnson and Guterres as they had their picture taken. “I love your scarf,” Johnson told Emmerson Mnangagwa, the president of Zimbabwe. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, is another tactile leader. Johnson seemed to achieve happiness when Modi managed to bring him and Guterres together in an intense threesome hug. When the minutes passed with no one to greet, Johnson paced and flexed on the mat. He clicked his heels. He was restless.
Hosting the twenty-sixth conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 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 UK (the European Union negotiates en bloc in talks) can function as a powerful broker on the world stage. In an uncompetitive area, the UK has both a reasonable track record and plans to tackle the climate crisis. Last December, it pledged to reduce its emissions by 68% from 1990 levels by 2030 (they are currently down by about 44%), and it aims to reach net zero by the middle of the century. The sale of conventional combustion engine cars will end in just over eight years. Britain is home to some of the world’s foremost eccentric researchers, activists and thinkers on climate change. Prince Charles, who addressed the opening ceremony of the talks, has warned of environmental destruction since 1970. He recently told the BBC that his old Aston Martin had been modified to work with “A surplus of English white wine and whey”. Ninety-five-year-old David Attenborough could be the greatest storyteller of the natural world and its terrifying current state.
Johnson, on the other hand, is a late convert to the cause. In December 2015, eight days after the conclusion of the last major climate talks in Paris, he used his column in the The telegraph of the day to wonder if the mild winter weather that year was due to climate change. âRemember that we humans are always placed at the center of cosmic events,â Johnson wrote. âIt’s fantastic news that the world has agreed to cut pollution and help people save money, but I’m sure these world leaders had a primitive fear that the current hot weather would be. somehow caused by humanity; and this fear, as far as I understand the science, is also baseless. In January 2020, Johnson’s first choice to be chairman of the Glasgow talks, a former climate change minister named Claire O’Neill, was sacked. “We are miles from the track,” she wrote in a scathing farewell letter. O’Neill later said Johnson “told me he didn’t really understand” climate change.
Johnson says it was a presentation by government scientists soon after he became Prime Minister in the summer of 2019 that opened his eyes to the severity of the crisis. “I took them through everything,” he told reporters on a flight to Rome last week for a G-20 meeting. âIf you look at the almost vertical bend up in the temperature graph, anthropogenic climate change, it’s very hard to dispute. It was a very important moment for me. “
Recently he gave the subject Johnson’s full treatment. âWhen Kermit the Frog sang ‘It’s not easy being green’ I want you to know he was wrong and was also needlessly rude to Miss Piggy,â he said. at the United Nations General Assembly in September. Opening the Glasgow talks, Johnson spoke a bit about James Bond and a time bomb. He is, more than anything, an easy student in a perpetual essay crisis: staying up late, jotting down heavy and fancy analogies to complete another assignment. Something Something Sophocles. It’s mostly puns and bullshit.
But Johnson is also capable of moments of unusual concentration. Its slogan chosen for COP26 is “coal, cars, money and trees”. It sounds reductive, because it is, but on a good day Johnson’s energy, clenched fists, and unlikely good humor can change the political climate. I watched Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May, closely as they each searched for a way to overcome the dense and grim constraints of the Brexit negotiations. The two prime ministers had the same weak negotiating position and questionable control of the British Parliament. May, who was dedicated, patient and stubborn, failed. Johnson, who was duplicity and energetic, found a way out. In the process, Johnson also won an eighty-seat majority in the House of Commons based on another blunt slogan, “Get Brexit Done,” which made him the most powerful British Prime Minister since Tony Blair. He will say anything – and forget anything – to get to where he wants to be.
This in itself is a problem. Last year, Rory Stewart, a former cabinet colleague of Johnson, called him “the most accomplished liar in public life, perhaps the best liar to ever serve as prime minister.” Johnson is, to an alarming degree, comfortable with several simultaneous truths and agendas. Last week, two days before discussing with reporters the “vertical fold” in the temperature chart, Johnson’s government cut taxes on UK domestic flights, froze gasoline taxes for the twelfth consecutive year and maintained sales of four billion dollars. pound cut from Britain’s overseas aid budget, which will undermine the country’s climate finance commitments. When questioned about these policies – and the possibility of a new coal mine in northern England – in a BBC interview on the morning of the opening of climate talks, Johnson said was briefly taken aback, as if the interrogation was somehow bad manners. .
The schtick is as thin as paper. During his opening speech in Glasgow, Johnson appeared nervous about the details of the talks. He avoided the torturous and heavily laden language of the UNFCCC – the âcommon but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacitiesâ of nations to deal with the climate crisis – because there were no jokes in it. Critics of his triumph in the Brexit talks point out that Johnson’s deal with the EU was based on unsustainable compromises which are now falling apart. Nine months after the agreement entered into force, there are still considerable problems in Northern Ireland and a dispute with France over fishing rights.
But these loopholes, like many other political differences, can be corrected some other day, or another year, or by other politicians. Our planetary catastrophe is not recoverable, nor bluffable, in the same way. At the end of day two in Glasgow, with international leaders mostly gone, Johnson sat down for an interview with Christiane Amanpour, on CNN. He looked slumped and tired. âAre we starting to move forward? ” He asked. âYes, I think we probably are. Johnson noted India’s plan to decarbonise much of its electricity supply by 2030; a ten billion dollar contribution from Japan to help developing countries adapt to climate change and move away from fossil fuels; and a new global agreement on deforestation. Which are all valid. All of this is not enough. Next, Johnson started talking about the Dogger Bank, a submerged North Sea plain that is a great base for offshore wind farms. Amanpour looked puzzled. âWe’re running out of time,â she said. “I don’t know what Dogger Bank is.” Johnson continued. He walked the clock with an essay on Doggerland and the people who lived there during Mesolithic times, and a series of underwater landslides that likely wiped them out. He cannot resist the distraction because it covers up what is not there. “I know you like quotes,” wrote O’Neill, the former climate change minister who lost her job, in her farewell note to Johnson. “So let me end this long letter with a quote from Proverbs:” Where there is no vision, the people perish. ” “