The script for climate change conferences was established years ago: the grim-faced, stern launch is followed by reporters standing outside in the dark to comment on “talks continuing through the night”, until eventually everyone declares they have done a pretty good job of saving the world again. Each such event is a festival of technicality and publicity for officials, politicians and green lobbyists. As it was in Kyoto, so it is today in Paris.
The actual outcome, of course, barely gets a walk-on part in this particular scene and act. That’s for later.
There are structural problems with carrying out major talks in this way. As Matt Ridley argues in The Times, multilateral renegotiation lends itself to meaningless fudges – particularly on issues on which the politicians involved will be retired, or even dead, by the time anyone can judge whether they succeeded or not. The eco-pragmatist policy expert Mike Shellenberger warns that “for everyone attending, all the incentives are on the side of exaggerating”.
As I say, the actual outcome of such talks – rather than the heavily spun outcome – is an issue deferred until a later date. In this instance, we may have got off relatively lightly compared to the economic and human harm green campaigners would like to force upon us. The targets are non-binding and the financial costs are voluntary, so voters can still ensure that British Governments don’t have to abolish too many jobs or hammer taxpayers too hard, should they wish – though they will now have to do so in the face of endless allegations of breaching the sainted Paris Agreement.
This is the fundamental problem with such summits: not everyone is adequately represented at them. We hear a lot from green enthusiasts and from the battalions of UN officials (a group who have a notably bad record on judging UK policy, from refugees to welfare reform and gender equality), and from politicians who feel that this is their moment to grandstand. But when did anyone say they were in Paris to give a voice to those harmed by green measures – the steel workers whose jobs are destroyed by artificially high energy prices, the householders whose cost of living is increased by green taxes, or the taxpayers who are expected to foot the bill for endless subsidies?
In Paris, to utter such a view would have been marginally more suicidal than sending Donald Trump along to frack under the Eiffel Tower. Green campaigners were already putting up ‘Wanted’ posters adorned with the faces of academics with whom they disagreed while others rioted against police who are still dealing with the aftermath of a major terrorist attack – how would these people have reacted if a politician had dared to announce, “Actually, I’m here with the interests of my electorate in mind?” No wonder such events have become a moment for airy poetry, only for the agreements to unravel in miserable prose once everyone is safely back at home.
These are not hypothetical matters for the British people. For some, they are the difference between productive work and the dole, and they make others choose between heating their homes and being able to eat. Taxpayers struggle with the scale of the deficit, even after five years of the Chancellor’s efforts to rein it in, while Paris negotiators talk about the extra billions they should cough up. Meanwhile, as Tony Lodge recently warned, Britain is at severe risk of blackouts. If those voices were better represented round the UN’s table, the talks and the deals might fit better with reality.