Not in this Text

COP27 ended, two days late and at dead of night, not with a bang, but a whimper.  The gavel was thumped, and there was a smattering of uncertain and disconsolate applause.  The remaining delegates looked utterly exhausted.  Alok Sharma had been emotional in Glasgow at the end of COP26; now he was beside himself with rage and frustration.  “Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary.  Not in this text!  Clear follow-through on the phase down of coal.  Not in this text!  A clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels.  Not in this text!  And the energy text, weakened, in the final minutes.  Friends, I said in Glasgow that the pulse of 1.5 degrees was weak.  Unfortunately, it remains on life support.”  Well, Greta said it would be a greenwash. 

I wonder about the way our politicians negotiate.  Well-known clichés are iterated, and reiterated, at international summits.  “This is going down to the wire.”  “Nothing is decided, until everything is decided.”  “We can walk away!”  “No deal is better than a bad deal.”  It’s brinkmanship, waiting for the other guy to blink first.  Such tactics are based on the received wisdom of entrepreneurs who have struck it rich through “the art of the deal”.  In business, you make sure your own interests are protected, and if the other guy goes to the wall, well, too bad.

But the Conference of Parties is, or ought to be, different.  I’m always suspicious of another frequently reiterated cliché, “We are all in this together” – that’s what George Osborne said before Austerity Marque 1 – but this time it’s true.  We might have said in Glasgow, “Hi’ wan, ye hi’ us aw!”  The trouble is that we are trying to tackle a global emergency using the sorts of negotiating tactics that would have been favoured by Bismarck and Disraeli. 

I can understand the frustration of the climate activists, though I can’t see that daubing a Monet with mashed potato, or pouring tomato soup over a Van Gogh, or gluing yourself to a train, or stopping a woman in labour from going to the maternity unit, contributes much to the debate.  Indeed, it is counterproductive, because it only makes the average man in the street conclude that the activists are weird, and to be avoided at all costs.  Still, I don’t think the government should be rushing through legislation further to curtail the activities of demonstrators.  If somebody is inflicting criminal damage, or committing a breach of the peace, they are already breaking the law. 

My impression is that the Westminster Government does not really believe we are in a pickle.  Doubtless, collectively, the members of the cabinet believe in Climate Change, but it does not appear that they believe in Climate Catastrophe.  That Mr Sharma was demoted from the cabinet just before COP27, and that Mr Sunak was originally minded not to go to Sharm El-Sheikh – the autumn statement at home was more important – would suggest as much.  Yet Mr Guterres has told us not only that we are going to hell in a handcart, but that our progress thereto is accelerating.  That would suggest that the human species, collectively, is committing suicide.  Lemminglike?  Another cliché, which does the lemmings an injustice.

But why should we knowingly and willingly hurl ourselves over a precipice?   The answer must be that our gut instinct is that we are not in danger, because – putting isolated incidents around the globe to one side – the danger is not immediately apparent.  A similar phenomenon is observed in human pathophysiology, when the organism adapts to a recurring insult, in order to preserve le milieu intérieur.  Let’s say the patient is bleeding.  A whole host of physiological mechanisms will kick in to maintain the pulse and blood pressure.  You adapt, adapt, adapt… and then quite suddenly you can no longer adapt.  You “decompensate”.  The blood pressure drops, catastrophically.  You only believe it is happening, when it happens.  And by then it is too late.

You can well understand how difficult it is for the affluent to perceive how far along this curve they may have travelled.  There is, after all, something self-justifyingly reassuring about a condition of prosperity.  It feels right, to be comfortable.  This is why it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  The rich man thinks he has already arrived.  All that is left for him is to flaunt his wealth, in a demonstration of conspicuous consumption.  As Ben Jonson puts it in Volpone

…and, could we get the phoenix

Though nature lost her kind, she were our dish.

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