As long as we talk in emotive terms like reparations, we make the climate political
No matter if a delegate was wearing an Arabian thawb, an African dhuku or a Western business suit; all attendees I encountered at Cop27 in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt were unanimous in recognising that action must be taken to stem the impact of climate change – and fast.
It was clear from the very beginning of this climate summit that a key theme was going to be “loss and damage”.
In other words, rich countries paying with cash for the impact of their carbon use on developing nations. Naturally, this carries political contention.
For Rishi Sunak, who debated whether to attend the conference at all, the optics coming from Sharm El-Sheik were not ideal. In less than two weeks, Jeremy Hunt will take to his feet in Westminster and deliver a difficult Autumn Statement that is likely to see the painful combination of tax rises and spending cuts. Yet, 3,000 miles away in the Egyptian desert, Sunak was doubling down on Britain’s commitment to spend £11.6bn to tackle climate change. In Westminster speak, that’s equivalent to the salaries of 350,000 NHS nurses.
Whilst some are calling for “reparations” to developing nations, it is terminology that is deeply unhelpful. In truth, climate change has no borders. Instead of framing climate change investments from developed nations as pay back, they should instead highlight the universality of the impact of climate change. Rising sea levels in the Asia-Pacific region will eventually have an impact on global supply chains and critical infrastructure. Financing projects to stop that from happening is not a reparation. It’s an investment in the future.
Allowing ourselves to get bogged down in a blame-game about the past is unlikely to help our future.
Delegates at the climate summit were universal in their acceptance of the risks we face, but there are still those, far away from the private jets and gala dinners of a UN summit that are sceptical. Those people simply can’t be dismissed. In fact, to remove political contention from action on climate change, these audiences must be brought on board.
For many struggling to make ends meet now, the idea of spending vast, unimaginable sums on tackling an invisible enemy such as climate change leaves a sour taste in the mouth. So do the protestors glueing themselves to motorways. So does the evocative language around reparations and pay back.
Climate change shouldn’t be a political or partisan issue, but its reality means it has to be. Whilst Joe Biden will jet into Egypt soon, his predecessor (and perhaps successor) could be less inclined to do so.
To eliminate the risk of climate change action being rejected by the global electorate, we must start talking about the issue in retail terms that appeals to those struggling with everyday problems. Let’s not be shy in talking about the risk to businesses and the economy. Let’s highlight the need to diversify our energy supply in light of a hostile Russia and other energy-producing states. Let’s remove emotion around the conversation about climate change, less about “stolen childhoods” and more about “maintaining our existing way of life”.
There is no easy answer to climate change and it is understandable that some may become frustrated by the lack of speedy action. But the stakes are too high for the grown-ups in the room to simply ignore. Instead, let’s re-frame the debate on climate and bring everyone along. Failure can’t be an option.