What is Britain’s place in the world? Climate resilience and soft power
This is not a story about Brexit. Outside the febrile corridors of Westminster, the 99.1% of the global population that isn’t British is only occasionally perplexed by the quixotic story of Brexit. Instead, the British story in the world continues to be told by its network of embassies and governmental organisations, like Ordnance Survey, the BBC, the Met Office and the NHS. What may surprise many is to learn that a central part of the UK’s story about its place in the world is its role in addressing climate change.
I know this because I had the opportunity to speak at a conference for young leaders in South Africa, last month, on climate resilience, hosted by Wilton Park and the Foreign Office in partnership with the Africa Climate Reality Project. It was set up following the prime minister’s commitment, last September, to lead international efforts on climate resilience for the UN Climate Summit in 2019. Theresa May’s decision for the UK to lead in spite of the chaos of British political life speaks to a national mission which has remained unchanged through a dozen governments and the greatest political crisis in a generation.
This constancy is essential to the UK’s much vaunted soft power, as is the campaigning mission it embodies. I saw why in person: my fellow conference participants were all under 40 and came from 11 countries across Africa. For them, climate change is happening right now. In Zimbabwe, 80 per cent of rural people depend on agriculture fed by increasingly unreliable rains. In Kenya, unpredictable new storm patterns threaten the lives of people who used to know when it was safe to head out to fish. In South Africa, Namibia and Botswana regional climate dynamics double global temperature rises, meaning that these countries are living in a two degrees world already, reducing their people’s ability to do physical work (including farming), and are on track to hit at least four degrees of warming, a level which will see lethal peak summer temperatures for a population roughly equal to that of the UK. During the conference, Cyclone Idai reached land in Mozambique, destroying 90 per cent of the buildings in Beira and spreading as yet untold misery.
Ranged against this are a set of British climate resilience partners: BBC Media Action is working out how best to communicate weather risk to rural people to enable them to move when necessary. The Met Office is helping national weather agencies to forecast more accurately and meaningfully. Ordnance Survey is helping planners across Africa to map flood risk. The NHS is lending its expertise in disaster mortality risk reduction. These partnerships are creating real climate resilience today.
All this effort, some funded as part of the UK’s commitment to overseas development aid, bolsters the UK’s credibility in international climate negotiations. It also has a human dimension: just as the fact that one in four heads of state were educated in the UK means these leaders will have fond memories of the UK, the real improvements these interventions make to people’s lives across the world, in the face of climate disruption, generates soft power. As these countries prosper in spite of environmental disruption, they will remember the UK for its role in stopping, and adapting to, climate change.
This matters. I was struck by the fact that I, still somewhat under 40, have grown up in societies in which the baby boom generation dominated politics. Their concerns and beliefs have shaped the art of the politically possible. But, in the room with 40 young African leaders, I realised that these are the new baby boom. They will shape the politics of Africa for the next 40 years. And they will do so in the context of a rapidly changing climate.
The UK has started to work with them to co-create climate resilience, but this has to go beyond just disaster relief and into clean growth. This was the core of my argument at the conference, which I’ll flesh out in a blog to follow. The take home message, though, viewed from outside the UK, is that Britain’s place in the world is being defined by its approach to climate change. If there is to be a global Britain, it will be green.