NEW YORK — Boris Johnson said he came of age on climate change when he was in charge of London — and now he wants the rest of the world to do the same.
The U.K. prime minister told reporters he “really dug deeper into the science of it” when he was mayor of the U.K. capital between 2008 and 2016 and concluded there was “no question that we have to deal with it.”
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, Johnson said it was time for humanity to “grow up and halt the slide towards dangerous rising temperatures and protect the planet.” The irony is that while many grown ups around the world were trying to fix the problem, Johnson spent much of the past couple of decades casting doubt about the need to do anything at all.
On his way to New York, Johnson admitted he had not always seen the climate crisis as pressing. “If you were to excavate some of my articles from 20 years ago, you might find comments I made obiter dicta about climate change that weren’t entirely supportive of the current struggle,” he confessed. He added that “the facts change, and people change their minds and change their views and that’s very important too.”
Others who were right all along wish the facts were indeed fungible. In an interview with NBC Nightly News, former U.S. vice president and long-time climate campaigner Al Gore said: “I wish the scientists whose work I was simply conveying had been wrong. But they weren’t wrong and they’re not wrong now.”
Since the facts have not changed, POLITICO asked Johnson on a train journey between Washington and New York what prompted him to rethink his stance. Some say his environmentalist wife, Carrie Symonds, has been a powerful influence on his thinking. But Johnson insisted there wasn’t one single moment, statistic or person that had affected his view. “I wouldn’t say there was one specific epiphany,” he said.
Whether Johnson did wake up about the threat of global warming during his tenure as London’s mayor is far from clear. “I am all for theories about climate change, and would not for a moment dispute the wisdom or good intentions of the vast majority of scientists,” he wrote in a column for the Daily Telegraph in 2013. “But I am also an empiricist; and I observe that something appears to be up with our winter weather, and to call it ‘warming’ is obviously to strain the language.”
The Johnson skeptics remain skeptical, and mull whether his new climate zeal is motivated more by electoral politics than science. “I think the Conservatives got a sharp shock at the 2017 election [when they lost their majority] — and in their soul searching, realized climate change is important to voters, particularly younger ones,” said Richard Black, senior associate at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. “Hence the net-zero target, hence hosting COP26,” the United Nations Climate Change Conference that’s due to be held in Glasgow in November.
Black added: “There’s no doubt he has been on a journey on the issue but he’s not the only Conservative MP who’s expressed doubts in the past but now espouses the myriad benefits of a net-zero transition.”
Others are just happy Johnson is now picking up the stick at the right end. “I think it’s good that he is saying these things and I think a good strategy would be to keep encouraging him,” said Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives and the current speaker of its parliament.
Whatever his motivation, Johnson is making the climate argument in true Johnsonian language. “We have come to that fateful age when we know roughly how to drive and we know how to unlock the drinks cabinet and to engage in all sorts of activity that is not only potentially embarrassing but also terminal,” he declared at the summit.
“My friends, the adolescence of humanity is coming to an end,” he added. “We are approaching that critical turning point — in less than two months — when we must show that we are capable of learning, and maturing, and finally taking responsibility for the destruction we are inflicting, not just upon our planet but ourselves.”
The “critical turning point,” he argued, should be the COP26 summit. Johnson wants other nations to phase out coal by 2030 for the developed world and 2040 for developing countries; abandon polluting vehicles by 2035 at the latest; deliver $100 billion in climate finance per year for developing countries; and to stop deforestation by 2030.
His hope is to stop global temperatures rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius — the U.N. says the world is currently on track for 2.7 degrees Celsius. A pledge from the U.S. to double its funding to the development pot and a promise from China to stop investing in overseas coal plants have been a big puff into the sails ahead of the climate summit.
“Moving swiftly to net-zero emissions is the perfect Boris Johnson policy in that you can really can have your cake and eat it — reducing emissions to tackle climate change while also reaping the economic benefits of increasingly cheap clean energy,” said Black. But he warned that the government is “behind on its own agenda, with policies on decarbonizing, heating and the overall net-zero strategy seriously and somewhat embarrassingly, given COP26, overdue — and stale cake is to no one’s liking.”