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Johnson: Grandchildren will blame us for climate destruction if we don’t act now

·6 min read

Coronavirus proved that “gloomy scientists” will be shown to be right on the devastation set to be caused by climate change, Boris Johnson is expected to tell world leaders in a speech in New York.

The Prime Minister will address the United Nations General Assembly at about 2am UK time on Thursday, with what he hopes will be an agenda-setting address that will warn the world is running out of time to tackle the climate crisis.

Mr Johnson will acknowledge that it is too late to stop global temperatures rising, but will say there is still hope to “restrain that growth” and “achieve carbon neutrality – net zero – by the middle of the century”.

The climate emergency has been one of the key points of agreement Mr Johnson and US president Joe Biden have reached during the PM’s trip to the US this week.

Boris Johnson visit to US
Boris Johnson meets Joe Biden at the White House (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Johnson earlier presented the president with a signed copy of Tim Peake’s Hello, Is This Planet Earth? with an inscription reading: “I hope this book provides a reminder of what we’re fighting to save as our countries tackle climate change together.”

And ahead of the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, he is expected to tell other world leaders the planet is “not some indestructible toy”.

He will say it is not “some bouncy plastic romper room against which we can hurl ourselves to our heart’s content”.

And he will add that: “Daily, weekly, we are doing such irreversible damage that long before a million years are up we will have made this beautiful planet effectively uninhabitable – not just for us but for many other species.”

In his speech he will say: “Our grandchildren will know that we are the culprits and that we were warned, and they will know that it was this generation that came centre stage to speak and act on behalf of posterity and that we missed our cue.

“And they will ask what kind of people we were to be so selfish and so short-sighted.”

Boris Johnson visit to US
Boris Johnson arrives at the Capitol Building in Washington DC (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Johnson’s eco focus is a far cry from his past climate-sceptic views.

He admitted on Monday that “if you were to excavate some of my articles from 20 years ago you might find comments I made, obiter dicta, about climate change that weren’t entirely supportive of the current struggle, but the facts change and people change their minds and change their views and that’s very important too”.

But in his speech, he claims now that while he is “not one of those environmentalists who takes a moral pleasure in excoriating humanity for its excess”, who sees “the green movement as a pretext for a wholesale assault on capitalism”, that it is imperative that countries work together to bring down emissions.

Mr Johnson will say: “An inspection of the fossil record over the last 178 million years, since mammals first appeared, reveals that the average mammalian species exists for about a million years before it evolves into something else or vanishes into extinction.

“Of our allotted lifespan of a million, humanity has been around for about 200,000. In other words, we are still collectively a youngster.

“If you imagine that million years as the lifespan of an individual human being, about 80 years, then we are now sweet 16.

“We have come to that fateful age when we know roughly how to drive and we know how to unlock the drinks cabinet and to engage in all sorts of activity that is not only potentially embarrassing but also terminal.

“In the words of the Oxford philosopher Toby Ord ‘we are just old enough to get ourselves into serious trouble’.

“We still cling with part of our minds to the infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure and we combine this narcissism with an assumption of our own immortality.

“We believe that someone else will clear up the mess we make, because that is what someone else has always done.

“We trash our habitats again and again with the inductive reasoning that we have got away with it so far, and therefore we will get away with it again.

“My friends, the adolescence of humanity is coming to an end.

“We are approaching that critical turning point, in less than two months, when we must show that we are capable of learning, and maturing, and finally taking responsibility for the destruction we are inflicting, not just upon our planet but ourselves.”

The PM will urge leaders to prioritise four areas – coal, cars, cash, and trees.

And he will say: “It is time for us to listen to the warnings of the scientists – and look at Covid, if you want an example of gloomy scientists being proved right – and to understand who we are and what we are doing.”

Mr Johnson will call on countries to cut their carbon emissions by 68% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, praise the end of China’s international financing of coal, and congratulate Pakistan’s pledge to plant 10 billion trees.

Mr Johnson previously said he thought there was a six out of 10 chance of getting developed nations to agree to give 100 billion dollars (£72 billion) a year in climate finance to developed countries – a key target for Cop26.

But speaking to reporters on Wednesday he said: “When I said six out of 10, it was more than 50/50. I thought we were in with a good chance. The worst thing now would be any kind of complacency. There are lots of things that now have to go right. Some things are starting to go a bit better now.”

Mr Johnson is expected to tell the UN General Assembly: “Sophocles is often quoted as saying that there are many terrifying things in the world, but none is more terrifying than man, and it is certainly true that we are uniquely capable of our own destruction, and the destruction of everything around us.

“But what Sophocles actually said was that man is deinos and that means not just scary but awesome – and he was right.”

He will add: “In the next 40 days we must choose what kind of awesome we are going to be.”

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