U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson: 'The doomsday device is real'

·Senior Climate Editor
·3 min read

GLASGOW, Scotland — British politicians have long been admired across the Atlantic for their rhetorical flourish, and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson rose to the occasion during his opening address as the host leader at the U.N. Climate Change Conference that opened in Glasgow, Scotland, on Monday.

Johnson opened with a clever analogy, welcoming the assembled delegates “to Scotland, whose most famous fictional son is almost certainly a man called James Bond.” Bond films, Johnson noted, often culminate with the hero “strapped to a doomsday device, while a red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a destination that will end human life as we know it.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the opening ceremony of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland on Monday. (Jeff J. Mitchell/AFP via Getty Images)

“We are in roughly the same position, my fellow world leaders, as James Bond today, except this is not a movie, and the doomsday device is real,” Johnson said. “The clock is ticking to the furious rhythm of hundreds of billions of engines and furnaces and turbines that are enveloping the Earth in an invisible and suffocating blanket of CO2.”

Johnson is the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. But his position is typical of the major center-right parties in Europe. Indeed, his counterparts, such as Germany’s outgoing conservative leader, Angela Merkel, have, if anything, exceeded him in transitioning their economies away from fossil fuels and providing financing to developing nations to grow on a greener path than developed countries have.

So Johnson is not an exception among conservatives in advanced industrialized democracies; U.S. Republicans are. Indeed, Johnson’s whole posture toward climate science — which former President Donald Trump flagrantly rejects — is indistinguishable from that of an American Democrat like President Biden.

“We know what the scientists tell us, and we have learned not to ignore them,” Johnson said before listing the horrifying effects of increased additional global warming, including more frequent cyclones and droughts, “jeopard[izing] the food supply for hundreds of millions.”

“The children who will judge us are the children not born, and their children,” Johnson warned.

Environmental activists covered in fake blood demonstrate in London.
Environmental activists covered in fake blood outside the London base of News UK in August. (Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

“We must not fluff our lines or miss our cue,” he added, with a reference to live theater that would surely seem too obscure to most American politicians.

To an American who cares about climate change and is frustrated by the political divisions over the issue in the United States, Johnson’s language was a stirring reminder that in other rich, powerful countries, the cause is increasingly universal.

In fact, outside the U.S., the biggest impediments to climate action aren’t necessarily right-wing politicians, or even fossil fuel corporations, so much as the natural tension between prioritizing economic growth and climate action. European nations, including the U.K., reduce their own carbon footprint even as they continue to extract and export oil. China and India invest in renewable energy but keep building coal-fired power plants.

So far, it is not clear whether those obstacles will be overcome at the conference in Glasgow, also known as COP26. But the stakes are enormous, as Johnson made clear.

“If we do not get serious about climate change today,” he warned, “it will be too late for our children tomorrow.”

Global temperatures are on the rise and have been for decades. Step inside the data and see the magnitude of climate change.

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