Alexandria, Egypt (Photo by Khaled Desouki / AFP)
Artillery Row

Against climate doomerism

COP27 is a time for opportunity

The Climate Change roadshow, the words of a US President several years ago, lands in Egypt with a drumbeat of apocalyptic warnings from the United Nations and others, suggesting we are all heading to a place known widely as Hell on Earth. 

It turns out the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions. 

“Current emissions pledges will lead to catastrophic climate breakdown,” forecast the UN’s framework convention on climate change in late October, joining the pre-Halloween horror season. A day later the UN’s environment report joined in: “there is no credible pathway” to the goal set by successive summits of reducing the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Then came the UN’s Emissions gap study with its preview of upcoming doom. Since the last climate summit in Glasgow, this report warned, most governments have been “woefully inadequate” in their carbon cutting plans. The agency’s leader added: “we had our chance to change incrementally, but that time is over.”

We have to understand we have made some progress

Lowering expectations for Sharm El-Sheikh is the strategy, but surely our world needs to see and hear something else: opportunity. Yes, opportunity born of necessity to change our ways, rather than be condemned to yet another round of fear and despair on the Climate Change roadshow to Hell on Earth.

I’m no longer an adviser to the UN Secretary-General, but I remember working with Ban ki-Moon in his time in the job. I recall him insisting that we stress that we set the table positively — highlighting what was achievable, ahead of the climate crisis summits in Copenhagen in 2009 and Paris in 2015. This year I would add the word imperative, and try to make the debate about all of us, bringing it home to the way we live, eat, keep warm, drive, think.

What’s imperative? For a start, we have to understand we have made some progress. I seem to remember the Paris summit set the benchmark for reducing temperature increases, and back then we faced projections of reaching up to 4 degrees celsius higher by 2300 if we maintained high carbon emissions. Today Christiana Figueres, who shepherded the Paris Agreement, points out we stand at a projected 2.8 C. Is that enough? Hell, no! But have we made some progress? Yes. 

Ms Figueres cites change in the business sector, with hundreds of companies signing on to a Climate Pledge, which seeks for example to bury competition and form an alliance to make batteries for zero emissions vehicles cheaper and faster to produce. Interesting to note Uber and Cabify signatories to the support roster.

What’s behind such “radical collaboration”, as Figueres calls it? The plot twist surely stems from this period of history, with the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the fore: war, plague and recession. We have been forced to live differently in these past three years. Travel less. Spend less. Care more. Share more.

Time to seize the narrative in Paris, Berlin, London

Then let’s consider the impact of just this dreadful year on our world, with a terrifying war in Europe that has spilled over into fears for the global economy and everything from energy to gas and oil to food.

It sits poorly in the stomach, but why are we not seeing, just maybe, opportunity out of the Ukraine crisis? Major players across our world — Germany for starters, France close behind — face strategic crises, knowing they cannot rely again on Russia’s oil and gas. Renewable energy went from a worthy windmill chase to a strategic must-have. There’s a window to be seized in the Ukraine tragedy, and nurtured, surely, if the prime ministers and presidents in Egypt think beyond their speeches. 

Take, for example, the sadness you hear in Europe, about folks having to choose between heating and food. That is not what Europe expects of itself — that fate is expected to belong in the Global South, not the European North. Certainly, it is a grim future. Yet, seen through another lens, it’s a call for action.

So, reality check: the days of turning up the central heating, because it’s turned a little chilly, or driving to the supermarket for an item you may not need, let alone leaving the light on in an empty room or office? Well, those days may be over. They should be. Not just to thwart Vladimir Putin’s cruel madness in Ukraine, but to save our planet and our humanity from itself.

I heard one former colleague at the UN wonder the other day why Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, representing the world’s two biggest climate culprits, are not sharing the podium in Egypt, and making their year of climate misery the cue for a new global alliance. Remember, China has been battered of late by record heat waves, droughts and deadly rainfall. The United States, likewise, has been brutalised by fires in California and floods in Florida, then a record hurricane.

That’s not going to happen. China’s supreme leader is not even attending COP 27, and the political mistrust between the two superpowers makes any conversation much hotter than 4 degrees Celsius. So, old Europe, time to step up, living on the front line of a war creating opportunity and demands, living as well with temperatures rising at twice the global average.

Time to seize the narrative in Paris, Berlin, London. Come clean with folks at home about the imperative to change, and boldly shame others abroad, in Washington, Beijing, New Delhi. Hell hath no fury, we might suggest, like a Europe Scorned.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover