Anglophiles, We, This Observation Is Useful

On a good day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s energy can change the political weather. But he will say, and forget, anything to get where he wants to be. Photography by Christopher Furlong / Getty

The last line of this article quotes the book of Proverbs, and it stings: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ We have a  borrowed phrase–not my circus, not my monkeys–for situations that are frustrating but technically none of our business. I did not like any element of the Brexit campaign, and I especially did not like Boris Johnson’s “solutions” to its challenges. None of my business, in a sense, because I am not a citizen of that country. But I care about the UK, so I care about Brexit. I care about the UK so I care about its leadership (or lack thereof). For that reason, I share this:

Boris Johnson’s Fickle Climate Leadership

In the face of scientific reality, the host of the U.N. climate-change talks comes up short.

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…

Read the whole essay here.

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