It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the Cop27 climate summit that is set to open in seven days in Sharm el-Sheikh, in Egypt. Soaring carbon emissions, set loose by humanity’s unrestrained urge to burn fossil fuels, have brought the planet perilously close to achieving a 1.5C degree rise in global temperatures. As a result, extreme storms, droughts and floods are already occurring more rapidly and with greater intensity than climate experts had anticipated. Worse, we are very near to triggering a wave of secondary calamities: the collapses of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets; the destruction of all the planet’s tropical coral reefs; and the thawing of Canada and Russia’s permafrost systems, an event that would release vast stores of methane, a gas many times more potent and dangerous than carbon dioxide.
It is a deeply disturbing vision. If such trends are not halted very soon, and emissions cut back and eventually halted, the world will experience, in a few decades, a meteorological catastrophe. Wildlife species will be eradicated in their thousands, droughts will spread over continents and famine will kill millions of people. We will have created a planet that has been stripped of its habitats and biological riches, a scorched and depleted world that we will pass on to our children and future generations. Only urgent action to cut carbon emissions, the prime driver of our climate woes, will stop this happening.
The Cop27 meeting therefore offers a slim hope that we can avert the worst impacts with many nations announcing ambitious plans to attend and address the crisis. According to Cop27’s organisers, around 90 world leaders will take part, including US president Joe Biden. There will be one glaring omission, however. British prime minister Rishi Sunak has decided to turn his back on the meeting despite the fact that it represents one of our last chances to avert global catastrophe. His claim that he cannot go to the summit because he is too busy with his autumn finance statement reveals an ineptitude and short-sightedness that bodes ill for the governance of this country.
The fact that the nation’s environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has also dismissed Cop27 as “just a gathering of people in Egypt” underscores the blinkered incompetence that lies at the heart of the current administration. It should also be noted that Alok Sharma, who had been Cop president since last year’s summit in Glasgow, was told by Sunak last week that he would no longer attend cabinet meetings, like Graham Stuart, the climate minister. These remarks and sidelinings suggest that our current leaders are so obsessed with their own political survival that they cannot appreciate a crisis that goes beyond their limited vision. The fact that Boris Johnson plans to attend Cop27 will only add to the discomfort and embarrassment Sunak should now be experiencing.
We should be clear. The UK cannot sideline the unfolding climate catastrophe on the grounds we have more important things to do. Britain began this whole grim story. We created the Industrial Revolution and were therefore the first to burn coal – and later on, oil and gas – in vast amounts to power our way to global domination in the 19th century. The first significant additions of man-made greenhouse gases to the atmosphere emanated from this country. For its leader to shun this responsibility is an embarrassment and a disgrace.