John Flesher is Head of International Programmes at the Conservative Environment Network.
It’s easy to be cynical about big global summits. When we see footage of world leaders shaking hands and smiling for photos, many of us understandably wonder what the point of these gatherings is, if we are even interested at all.
Experience has led us to expect that empty promises lie behind the staged-managed speeches and press conferences. This weekend, as COP26 begins and the great and the good descend on Glasgow, no doubt that cynicism will be felt once more.
This isn’t because the public don’t care about climate change – quite the opposite, in fact, with polling across major countries consistently putting it at the top of voters’ list of concerns. But while most people care about it, this has not yet translated into an interest in COP itself, with only a fraction of the public even knowing what it is.
The public’s sense of disengagement from the politics of climate change is too often fomented by the dry language of targets and funding pots that dominates these discussions, and even more so by the absurd language and dangerous tactics of the “uncooperative crusties” in Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.
We conservatives are naturally sceptical about talk of revolutions. But while proper interrogation of the costs and benefits of going green is both necessary and helpful, across the world too many on the Right still see it as their job to pretend that action on climate change must be watered down, or else opposed altogether.
This not only flies in face of the overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes of global warming and the consequences of insufficient action, but ignores the huge opportunities that the transition away from fossil fuels brings, and the threats that inaction would entail for our economy, our foreign policy and our national security. If conservatism does not encompass the preservation of a healthy planet to pass onto future generations, then it means very little at all.
It is imperative that we move away from a debate on whether to act; but there are bigger and more important decisions to be made on how to cut emissions fairly and effectively, and the balance between public and private sector action. It is here that conservative parties, politicians and activists can play a huge role in shaping the course of the coming decades.
The facts are on our side. The UK’s record of cutting greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 by nearly half while achieving economic growth of over 75 per cent, not to mention the thousands of jobs being created across the country in green industries, is clear proof that the doom mongers on the Left are wrong – a strong economy is the bedrock of environmental protection, not the roadblock to it. World leaders in Glasgow this weekend could do a lot worse than seeking to ape the UK’s approach as they seek to decarbonise their domestic economies.
As Peter Franklin noted on this site on Monday, free marketers should take heart from the plummeting costs of wind and solar power and lithium-ion batteries, for it is private sector innovation and competition that continue to drive price and performance improvements across a wide range of clean technologies, not the strong arm of the state. Now is not the time to bet against the power of the market doing the same with the solutions we need in heating, heavy industry and agriculture.
What does this mean for COP itself? Away from the public-facing side of things, negotiators from across the world will be poring over pages of draft agreements on all manner of issues, from the Prime Minister’s key asks on coal, cars, cash and trees, to much more technical minutiae on the functioning of carbon markets.
Too often at previous COPs, Right-leaning voices have been muted or absent – we need conservatives inside and outside those negotiations making the case for pragmatic agreements, for example, on using free trade to make clean technologies cheaper and more available worldwide, or to redirect the billions spent globally on agricultural subsidies towards environmental benefits.
But perhaps most importantly for the politics of all this is the opportunity that COP provides to show that conservatives understand the problem and have a positive answer to it. Like it or not, climate change is not about to disappear as an issue – the consequences of failing to grasp it would be profound and hugely damaging.
Conservatives hoping to ignore the climate debate in the vain hope that it will go away are in for a shock – voters will punish them and political opponents will marry emissions cuts and socialist economic policies with little regard for the consequences.
At the Conservative Environment Network, we will be bringing together politicians and campaigners from our sister parties across the world in Glasgow to discuss and debate how to get our approach right, including the launch of a world-first centre-Right climate action declaration and a summit for conservative legislators, students and policy experts.
Accepting the need for climate action is an important first step, but embracing it and owning it must be conservatism’s goal. Our movement has always believed in dealing with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be – and we shouldn’t stop now.
As the UK plays host to the largest international summit and gathering of world leaders ever seen on these shores, it’s time for conservatives to speak up and make the case for an ambitious and pragmatic approach to what will be the defining issue of the coming decades. We do not need to surrender our principles; we need to have confidence in them and put them into practice.