Last September, at the UN, the prime minister called the COP26 climate conference “the turning point for humanity. We must”, he said, “limit the rise in temperatures… to 1.5 degrees. We must come together in a collective coming of age. We must show we have the maturity and wisdom to act.” Opening the conference, he said: “It’s one minute to midnight… and we need to act now. If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow.”
He was right. But fast forward six months and the urgency of climate action has been displaced by the urgency of war in Ukraine. Environmentalists may still routinely hold to the line that we have no more than ten years to avert an irreversible climate and nature catastrophe, but the international co-operation that is the essential condition of effective action is in abeyance.
Consider last week’s remarkable speech by Liz Truss. The foreign secretary heralded the return of geopolitics, although geopolitics never went away. Indeed, climate change and biodiversity loss increasingly shape geopolitics, though they did not feature in the speech, which focused on the need “to double down on our support for Ukraine”.
Russia, Liz Truss said, should be excluded from international networks such as the G20. “There can be no more free passes… Russia’s pass has been rescinded.” China too should take note. “Economic access… has to be earned. Countries must play by the rules. And that includes China.” NATO, she said, should increase its military spending. “There is no substitute for hard military power, backed by intelligence and diplomacy”.
This is no time for tabloid diplomacy
What are we to make of this? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is outrageous and Ukraine’s resistance heroic and admirable. Ukraine deserves support and the UK government’s response, on military, if not on refugees, deserves praise. But this is surely no time for tabloid diplomacy.
Russia is a nuclear power with an apparently unhinged leader. That is not an argument for appeasement; Liz Truss may be right to say that “inaction would be the greatest provocation”. As Michael Howard warned in War in European history: “Nothing has occurred since 1945 to indicate that war… could not still be an effective instrument of state policy. Against peoples who are not prepared to defend themselves it might be very effective indeed.”
Nevertheless, Liz Truss’s speech was alarming in many respects. President Putin has confused myth for history; her version of the past is similarly unbalanced (“Britain has always stood up to bullies”). Her punkish reading of the Cuban missile crisis is positively dangerous: it is not true that the Soviet Union backed down simply because it was “confronted and called out”; the US also compromised, promising not to invade Cuba and to withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Kennedy and Khrushchev communicated with each other directly, and subsequently improved the channels of communication between US and Soviet leaders.
Two years before the crisis, Senator Kennedy (as he then was) reviewed a book by the British military thinker Basil Liddell Hart. He highlighted “a few impressive lines of advice”:
“Keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save his face. Put yourself in his shoes – so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil – nothing is so self-blinding.”
We could do with similar sobriety now from our leaders.
But, while everything possible must be done to avoid the use of nuclear weapons, the impact on international and domestic politics even of a new cold war will be felt for many years.
Last month, UK, US and Canadian ministers, and central bank governors, walked out of a G20 meeting when the Russian delegate got up to speak. The gesture was understandable, but world leaders must find a way to co-operate on nature and climate. For the sake of all our futures, we cannot afford walk outs at this year’s UN COP15 biodiversity conference, or at the COP27 climate conference.
For the UK, it is rational to suppose that Russia’s aggression should boost support for decarbonisation. More renewables and less demand (such as building retrofits and a swift move to electric vehicles) are the best ways to improve energy self-sufficiency and reduce reliance on Russia and other unsavoury regimes.
Environmental delays will be a disaster
But, in reality, the politics are more complicated. Calls for massively increased military spending come against a backdrop of a battle over the future of the British right, with net zero acting as a proxy for all bad things (Jacob Rees Mogg recently joined in, straining cabinet collective responsibility, by labelling net zero “the biggest regulatory cost that we face”). There will be more of this.
We can also expect the Ukraine crisis to be used to undermine farming reform, here and in the EU. Agriculture reform was the outstanding environmental gain from Brexit. But the war has increased the price of fertilisers and exacerbated food price inflation, leading to growing calls to delay the introduction of the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.
That would be a disaster. It would leave a substantial gap in the UK’s net zero plans and make it almost impossible for the government to achieve its 2030 targets for nature’s recovery, not least because it is highly likely that any delay to ELM would become permanent. We would either continue with the sort of farm support policies that have had such a disastrous impact on nature for 75 years (and done so little to support progressive farmers) or, more likely, see support cut altogether as the Treasury questions the value taxpayers get for £3 billion a year.
Implementing ELM, with an equal split between its three elements, is a test of the government’s environmental credibility. It is also a test of Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ credibility: both parties are opportunistically flirting with turning the clock back to the bad old days of condition-free farm subsidies.
The horrors of war and the suffering and bravery of the Ukrainian people must be foremost in our minds. But the war does not render irrelevant the intense hopes and fears we felt last November as global delegations assembled in Glasgow at COP26 (“the future of humanity and nature herself are at stake” – Prince Charles; “the last best hope for the world” – John Kerry; “our opportunity to write history” – Ursula von der Leyen etc). The war matters, but so does our mission to avert climate and ecological disaster. Politicians should tone down the rhetoric and seek ways to end, not escalate the conflict. And they should resist opportunistic calls at home to reverse green policies that are more needed now than ever.
[Image: UK government flickr, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss gives Mansion House Speech]