Sir Crispin Tickell is a former diplomat and UK Ambassador to the United Nations.
With Barack Obama visiting Britain this week, there has been much speculation on what he will or will not say about many of the big issues facing us.
It is no secret that the President believes in multilateralism, and would rather see the United Kingdom employing its influence within a strong European Union rather than from outside. If he wanted examples to reinforce this point, he need look no further than the global agreement on climate change made in Paris in December. Both the United States and Britain played major roles in securing the agreement; and as was well said by Charles Kupchan, senior director for European Affairs at the White House, Britain has “exercised an outsized influence in the world”.
Britain was a key player in preparing the ground for the Paris Agreement. Under Chris Huhne it helped revive the United Nations climate negotiations after the relative failure of the Copenhagen summit in 2009. In Paris the British delegation played a vital role, often behind the scenes, by representing the European Union on key issues and facilitating the so-called High Ambition Coalition which eventually gave less ambitious countries nowhere to hide.
United States leadership was grander in scale, notably encompassing the deal struck between President Obama and the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014 under which each agreed major constraints on their greenhouse gas emissions. This gave the right momentum ahead of the Paris summit.
In international diplomacy, words need to be backed up by deeds. When President Obama attended the Copenhagen meeting in 2009, the United States did not demonstrate much leadership. In the lead up to Paris, it did so through such measures as the Clean Power Plan.
No country looking at the United Kingdom’s history, from the Climate Change Act to the planned phase out of coal-fired power stations, could fail to acknowledge that we were already putting our house in order. It is worth remarking how diligent were both the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in sticking to their guns in the face of bad tempered and evidence-free criticism from some within their own party.
So when Barack Obama and David Cameron stand together this week to discuss a rich variety of subjects, let us hope that they will reflect on the success of Paris, their own roles within the agreement and what should happen next. Climate change could well have played a role in fomenting the Syrian crisis, and could exacerbate instability in the Middle East and North Africa. So the Paris Agreement might help reduce the risks of similar conflicts. Likewise, the Paris Agreement confirms the importance of a European approach to such global issues, led perhaps by such countries as the United Kingdom and France, which also played an important role.
President Obama is now coming towards the end of his term in office. When future generations look back on the Obama presidency, several achievements will stand out: among them will certainly be the outcome in Paris under which all nations agreed to constrain their carbon emissions. It is an impressive record, gained in the face of feral opposition from some in Washington.
Mr Cameron’s time in office may also be limited; and his part in driving home the Paris Agreement will look well on his record, too. Nonetheless there is at the moment some confusion in the Government about next steps.
For reasons which have everything to do with short term politics and almost nothing with sensible policy-making, the Treasury seems to be applying the brakes and making difficulties in working out the necessary long term policies. The Prime Minister should now insist that the Government accepts the proposed Fifth Carbon Budget with no ifs, buts or caveats. Decarbonisation requires a domestic energy strategy, and we have yet to hear what it really is. At least it should be the product of what he and Barack Obama have done so much to achieve, and will show that as before on climate change Britain is still a leader.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Barack Obama for his robust defence of multilateralism as enshrined in the Paris Agreement. The best we can do is to avoid short term wobbling, and remain with him in coping with issues that are fundamental to both our countries and of course to Europe and the world as a whole.