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Boris Johnson finds it’s not easy being green, after all

Considering the prime minister is fond of his global Britain rhetoric, he struggles to have any gravitas on the world stage.

Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres, British prime Minister Boris Johnson and Sir David Attenborough attend the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Change Conference. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

As Boris Johnson welcomed world leaders to what is arguably humanity’s most consequential summit ever, he compared the existential threat posed by climate change to a James Bond movie. 

Bond, Johnson said, “generally comes to the climax of his films strapped to a doomsday device, while a red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a detonation that will end human life as we know it. We are in roughly the same position, my fellow global leaders … Except that the tragedy is that this is not a movie, and the doomsday device is real.”

The allusion struck a dissonant chord in a room where other leaders would subsequently evoke their all-too-real fears that their countries were on the brink of annihilation from the effects of the climate emergency.

For a man who came to power heralding a new era for Global Britain, Johnson seems singularly unable to embody gravitas on the world stage. More Little Britain than Global Britain even in the gravest of times.

The truth is that while COP26 was meant to consolidate the UK’s post-Brexit stature, Johnson is a bit-player. For weeks, the British press has wondered whether Johnson could pull off a “deal” in Glasgow, despite his own late arrival on the environmental stage.

But this was never his deal to make, as Richard Black, the BBC’s former environmental correspondent and senior associate and the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said on Twitter. 

“The No10 spin machine appears to be framing the summit as an event where Boris asks other leaders to deliver and – so far – where they are falling short. But that’s just not how these things work.”

In an article asking when and why Johnson became an eco-warrior, ITV’s political editor Robert Peston said it might be his social circle, his upbringing and his partner but also the political calculation “that it is better to be on the side of the climate angels, to shame his peers into doing more”. 

As a strategy, it has its merits and we may even get some positive action out of it in Glasgow. But what is more likely is that any success achieved at COP26 will come about despite Johnson. 

Already, he’s in trouble. He was roundly criticized on Twitter for not wearing a mask while sitting next to veteran naturalist David Attenborough and for appearing to doze off during the speeches. 

“It’s one thing to show how little you care but quite another (to) sit next to 95 year old David Attenborough and NOT wear a MASK,” tweeted Anna McMorrin, Labour MP for Cardiff North. 

Then it emerged that Johnson would be flying back to London on a private plane instead of taking the train. In the end, if he really wants to impress, Johnson may want to take a leaf from Attenborough’s book. His speech was widely praised as both moving and hopeful. It was, perhaps, exactly the tone the leader of a Global Britain might have wanted to strike. 

“We need to rewrite our story to turn this tragedy into a triumph,” Attenborough said. “We are after all the greatest problem solvers to have ever existed on earth. We now understand this problem.”