WITH Cop26 Climate Talks In Glasgow, Boris Johnson called a press conference to hail the summit as a success and played down the importance of a last-minute relaxation of the coal-phase-out commitment.
“As an English speaker, I don’t think the language is ‘phased’ or ‘phased,’ Johnson said. “The direction of travel is almost the same.”
Johnson argued that the opening of new coal-fired power plants would become socially and politically unacceptable in the next few years. According to him, the exact wording of the word “English” in the text of the pact in Glasgow does not really matter.
But, as George Orwell argued in his famous 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, inaccuracy in political communication can be dangerous. “Political language,” he wrote, “is designed to make lies sound true, and murder respectable, and sound solid to the pure wind.”
Obviously, Johnson wanted to be able to declare that the largest gathering of world governments ever to take place in Britain was a triumph, or at least surpassed the low expectations he was proposing in advance.
But the claim that the promise to stop using coal is “almost the same”, that the promise to use less coal, is credible. And the resulting difference can indeed be a matter of life and death for those communities and countries most affected by climate change.
Johnson’s promotion was somewhat canceled by his colleague, Cop26 President Alok Sharma. Sharma was widely praised for his diligence and decency as the summit’s lead coordinator, and he even received rave reviews from senior Labor Party members Ed Miliband and Angela Rainer.
Sharma was on the verge of tears on Saturday night as the Chinese and Indian delegations thinned out the wording on coal during a tense final hour of negotiations with the world the world was watching. He later explained that he felt “the weight of the world on my shoulders” because he was afraid that the whole agreement might fall apart.
When Sharma, standing next to Johnson, was asked for his opinion during Sunday’s press conference, he said it bluntly. “Of course, I would have preferred a tougher language,” he said.
Despite this change, Sharma rightly stated that the summit at least “moved the goalposts” to coal. The inclusion, for the first time, of a promise to reduce fuel dependence is an important moment for the UN-led climate negotiations. His argument is more convincing because it is nuanced and not exaggerated.
And of course Johnson’s exaggeration might be just that. If the UK government remains firmly committed to promoting its own green agenda behind the scenes, it is possible that British diplomats and trade negotiators will prevent India or China from getting off the hook for reneging on more ambitious coal pledges.
However, the prime minister’s responses to other questions suggest that there is still reason to doubt whether he will wear green for long after the Glasgow summit ended.
Labor wants the government to rewrite its trade rules to have climate clauses at their center. For starters, the UK must sever relations and renegotiate its trade agreement with Australia, which is suffering from climate change, Miliband said on Sunday. Australia has highest emissions per capita in the world from burning coal to generate electricity.
But when asked if he would use the UK’s trade leverage for India to maintain pressure and demand tougher coal measures, Johnson objected. There is no particular need to bring climate differences to the UK’s bilateral trade relationship with the government of Narendra Modi, he said.
The tragedy of small island states – those climate-vulnerable countries whose leaders Johnson likes to call Cop26 stars – is that, ultimately, politicians will not be able to get out of global warming.