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Boris Johnson and Climate Denial: Can A Leopard Really Change Its Spots?

As the first week of COP26 draws to a close, Adam Bienkov details how the Prime Minister’s record of climate change denial shows he is not serious about defusing the “doomsday device” of uncontrolled global warming

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Sir David Attenborough at the launch of COP26 in 2020. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/PA Images/Alamy

Boris Johnson and Climate Denial Can A Leopard Really Change Its Spots?

As the first week of COP26 draws to a close, Adam Bienkov details how the Prime Minister’s record of climate change denial shows he is not serious about defusing the “doomsday device” of uncontrolled global warming

Boris Johnson was once asked by a journalist whether he had any convictions as a politician, to which he replied that he “only had one for speeding”.

The joke was revealing about a man who has dramatically shifted his stance on some of the biggest issues facing the UK in recent decades.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the Prime Minister’s wildly swerving opinions on climate change.

Speaking at the COP26 climate change conference this week, Johnson called the crisis a “doomsday device” about to go off and called on world leaders to take “real world action” to prevent its explosion. Placing himself at the centre of the crisis, he said he had joined other world leaders in seriously acknowledging the problem some “11 years ago” at the Copenhagen summit.

However, in reality, he has instead spent the majority of the past decade pushing the views of notorious climate change deniers, while delaying any serious action to tackle the problem.

As Mayor of London, Johnson devoted no fewer than four of his columns in the Daily Telegraph to pushing the views of fringe climate change denier Piers Corbyn, who he described as his “old chum”.

In the columns, Johnson denied a link between man-made emissions and soaring temperatures, writing in 2015 that such claims were “without foundation” and suggesting that “there may be all kinds of reasons why I was sweating at ping pong but they don’t include global warming”.

In one column, he even went so far as to suggest that Corbyn may have been right to suggest that the world could instead be heading for a “mini ice age”.

Delaying Action and Fossil Fuel Funding

Johnson has also stalled action against climate change while in office. 

As Mayor of London, one of his first acts was to halve the size of London’s congestion charging zone, saying that any rise in emissions would only be “trivial”. He also promised to personally lie down in front of bulldozers to stop expansion of Heathrow Airport, and then famously flew out of the country in order to avoid a vote on it in Parliament.

Even this week as he hosted world leaders in Glasgow, the Prime Minister continued to delay action on climate, having last month announced new cuts to taxes on short-haul flights and freezing vehicle fuel duty for the twelfth time in a row.

In multiple interviews, Johnson and his ministers have also refused to explicitly say that they will intervene to prevent a new coal mine in Cumbria and prevent the drilling of the Cambo oil field off of Scotland. Pushed on the issue, the Prime Minister would only say that, while he was not personally in favour of new coal mines, it was “not a decision for me”.

Asked by Byline Times whether the Prime Minister would now withdraw his support for the Cambo oilfield, Johnson’s official spokesman would only say that “no decision has been taken” on the issue. Despite this, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack has said that the Government should “100%” back drilling of the oilfield.

Johnson’s Conservative Party has also dodged questions on its financial support from individuals tied to the fossil fuel industry.

Byline Times revealed last month that the Government’s appointed President of the COP26 climate change summit, Alok Sharma, has himself received donations from an individual tied to a billion-dollar oil drilling and shipping company.

Rhetoric and Reality

This hesitance has convinced some of Boris Johnson’s opponents that his rhetoric is merely for show.

“You judge someone by their actions and not by their words,” Green Party MP Caroline Lucas told Byline Times this week. “He’s good at announcing strategies and dates but there’s still a gulf between announcing targets and putting in plans to deliver them and on that he’s completely failing. 

“The messages he’s sending out with the Cambo oilfield and the Cumbrian mine, his road-building plans, the aviation expansion, taking climate change measures out of the Australia trade agreement, those actions speak louder than words.”

One of Johnson’s former colleagues, who Byline Times spoke to this week, was also doubtful about his supposed conversion to the need to tackle climate change.

“It’s a sham,” Johnson’s biographer Sonia Purnell, who once shared an office with him as a journalist, said. “On any subject, his views will be whatever best advances his cause at the time. His own inclination is that he should be able to do what the hell he likes and that is obviously very bad news when it comes to tackling climate change.”

Even if Johnson has had a Damascene conversion to the science of climate change, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will do anything concrete to address it.

“I’m prepared to believe that he does think climate change is happening,” Lucas told Byline Times. “But, in a way, people that delay action on climate are not much better than those who deny it, because at the end of the day the outcome is the same, that we’re not acting fast enough.

“In the environmentalist Bill McKibben’s memorable phrase: ‘winning slowly is the same as losing’.”

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