August 11, 2021

The Earth is burning, and from reading Aris Roussinos’s searing account on UnHerd yesterday, it’s all too easy to believe that the world’s leaders are fiddling.

Our politicians talk a good game on climate policy, but are they actually doing anything about it? Well, it’s not all mood music — amid the fine words, there is action. Believe it or not, we are changing our ways. Indeed, change is happening at an unprecedented pace. A shift from one energy paradigm to another is usually something that takes several generations. But what we’re seeing now is happening much faster than that.

And Britain is leading the way. No country in the G7 — or the G20 for that matter — has done more to decarbonise its economy than we have. 

As recently as 2014, a third of our electricity came from the filthiest of the fossil fuels, but just a decade later that proportion will drop to zero. The last British coal-fired power station is due to be switched off by October 2024, setting an example to the whole world (and, as an added bonus, shaming the Germans). 

This is a great British success story, which we should be shouting from the rooftops. Actually, forget the rooftops, we’ve got a better platform: the COP26 climate summit which takes place in Glasgow starting November. 

There’s a COP conference every year — but this one’s a biggie. Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, signatories are expected to make enhanced commitments every five years. COP26 is the first of these crunch points since Paris, so what happens in Glasgow really matters.

Combined with the opportunity to show off Brexit Britain on the world stage, you’d think that the British Government would be taking this one very seriously indeed. Instead, just as the IPCC releases its latest “unequivocal” report on the global climate, Downing Street embarks on one of its periodic clown shows.

It started off with the Prime Minister making an unnecessarily divisive remark about Margaret Thatcher and the miners — a fantastic way to consolidate Tory support along the Red Wall. Meanwhile, Alok Sharma — Cabinet minister and President of COP26 — has run into difficulty over his jet-set, quarantine-dodging climate diplomacy.

This was an entirely predictable row that could have been anticipated and defused months ago, but unfortunately the media operation that should have doused the flames of controversy has only added fuel the fire. Once again, a government spin doctor — in this case Allegra Stratton — has managed to make herself the story. Following a gotcha interview, her third-hand Volkswagen Golf made headlines in place of less pressing matters like saving the world from climate catastrophe. 

Ms Stratton’s choice of car would have been of no interest if no one knew who she was. But, unfortunately, she has a starring role in Britain’s worst soap opera: the office politics of Downing Street. After quitting a glittering journalistic career to become Rishi Sunak’s director of strategic communications, Stratton was soon promoted to the specially-created role of Downing Street Press Secretary. There, she became embroiled in the power struggle between Dominic Cummings and the Prime Minister’s soon-to-be wife. As a key member of the victorious Team Carrie, Stratton’s continued rise should have been assured, but then things went sideways — and she ended up as the climate summit spokesperson instead.

The trouble is she’s much more than a mouthpiece, she’s a protagonist in her own right — and is treated as such by the press. This sort of thing will keep happening until we put the government spin doctors back in their place (an industrial unit in Basingstoke would be my preference). 

Of course, one can’t lament a media circus without questioning the media itself — and especially its sense of priorities. For instance, the DEFRA secretary George Eustice should be under intense pressure over his department’s climate policy. Globally, nearly a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and land use. As the minister responsible for this sector in a country that’s finally free to set its own agriculture policy, Eustice should be asked what Britain is doing to lead the way.

However, this week, his political fortunes rest upon the fate of Geronimo the alpaca. With all due respect for those who know and love Geronimo, surely we should be more concerned about what a billion burping cows are doing to the world’s climate than the life of one consumptive camelid?

Like other beasts, it could be argued that journalists aren’t responsible for their choices. They just instinctively respond to the public appetite for sentiment and sensation. But if so, then the denizens of Downing Street should be all the more careful about making themselves the story. If a Hollywood director kept wandering into shot, he or she would be sacked. And yet the equivalent doesn’t seem to be a problem for our political auteurs.

Part of the reason why the press is so fascinated by the spin doctors, wonks, spouses and pets of  Downing Street is that they’ve been starved of drama at ministerial level. The PM is famously averse to reshuffles, and thus the press has to satisfy itself with the below stairs gossip. However, that might be about to change, with rumours that Boris Johnson is losing patience with his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and would like to take him down a peg or two (as I argued he should a few weeks back). 

I very much doubt that the PM is an avid reader of my columns, but on the off-chance that somebody he knows is, let me offer some unsolicited advice: don’t assume that the difficult economic decisions that lie ahead will do more to damage Rishi’s popularity than your own. You may never be in a more powerful position to act than you are now. If the Chancellor really is standing in the way of what you believe the country needs, then he must be moved — or else you might as well resign and let him do your job instead. 

Either option would be preferable to the sort of deadlock that paralysed the Blair-Brown government for years. At the very least, it would be another distraction just when Boris needs to concentrate on saving the world.

In the next few months we’re going to see the most retrograde parts of the Right do everything they can to divert the Government from its climate agenda. And like the worst parts of the Left, they’re going to try and turn the environment into a culture war. But it isn’t. In this country, the fight for a greener, cleaner future is a unifying issue. It appeals to voters in the South of England — who the Conservatives risk losing to the Lib Dems and the Green Party; and it also appeals to voters in the North and Midlands who want to see investment in clean technology to revive local economies. 

The awkward squad on the Conservative backbenches are threatening to make trouble over the cost of net zero, but the PM needs to remember he’s got more allies than enemies. The Conservative Environment Network has a caucus of more than one hundred MPs  — and will mobilise against any attempt to blow Britain’s big chance to lead the world on this issue. 

It’s a strange twist of fate that has placed such heavy responsibilities on the shoulders of so lighthearted a prime minister. First there was Brexit, then Covid and now climate change. Still, as a classicist, Boris Johnson should be familiar with the story of Atlas: the cocky Titan who was condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky for all eternity. 

The good news for the Prime Minister is that he only need do the same for a few more years. Indeed, a few more months would do the job.