More than 20 years ago, a UK foreign secretary declared that in the modern world, foreign and domestic policy are inseparable and that our quality of life at home depended on the health of our global environment. As our climate crisis deepens and worsens, supporting climate action must no longer be a footnote of our foreign policy but at the forefront.
This week I held a Westminster Hall debate to explore the interacting and interlinked relationship between the climate crisis, human rights and UK foreign policy. Little did I know that the UK government had already folded and struck a backdoor deal with Australia, one of the world’s worst emitters, to remove references to the landmark Paris Agreement and commitments to emissions reductions in our upcoming trade deal.
It is a shameful episode that underlines not only how hollow this government’s “Global Britain” rhetoric is, but increasingly and unacceptably, our commitment to climate action. As one colleague noted, if we cannot even convince a prosperous ally and friend to engage seriously with the climate crisis, why should anyone – particularly from the global south – listen to the UK at the upcoming Cop26 summit in two months?
This really does matter. Tragically, the climate crisis is going to hit the countries with the least responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and the least resilience to its effects the hardest, even as they try to develop. This means harder and shorter lives for millions of people across the world. The World Health Organisation believes that between 2030 and 2050, the climate crisis is expected to cause a quarter of a million additional deaths each year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone.
Changing weather patterns like extreme heatwaves and unreliable levels of rainfall mean that one in four children – around 600 million – could be living in areas of extreme water stress by 2040. These children could very well be dependent upon the additional 100 million people the World Bank believes will be impoverished by the climate crisis by 2030.
We can see the climate crisis happening before our very eyes. Forests ablaze, coral reefs dying and whole towns and cities flattened or flooded by extreme weather events. Yet our foreign policy, the very strategy underpinning our engagement with the world and our message to global partners, seems geared to two centuries ago. Far from humbled by the tragic debacle in Afghanistan, the government seems determined to pursue a less effective repeat of history by sending warships to distant seas, striking shoddy trade deals, and financing fossil fuel investment on a huge scale.
Take just two examples: the UK has pledged £720m of UK export finance to support an offshore liquid natural gas project in Mozambique and has contributed £700m for the design, construction and operation of an oil refinery in a “strategic maritime location” in Oman. By facing both ways on the climate crisis, Boris Johnson is making a mockery of the UK’s presidency of Cop26.
Worse for those who direly need our help, this government turned its back on green projects and the world’s most vulnerable when it disgustingly cut the international aid budget due to “fiscal circumstances”. Somehow those circumstances didn’t apply to our nuclear weapons budget.
Each example is appalling; collectively, they’re shameful. What we learn is that far from seizing the unique opportunity as both co-host to a Cop summit and current president of the G7 to advance a positive, green, post-Brexit agenda, this government has missed its moment.
Global take-up of climate action has been muted rather than amplified by UK diplomacy. The government failed to get the G7 countries to definitively phase out coal, has so far been unable to secure the $100bn of climate assistance promised to developing nations and now, with Australia, it seems we’re not even prepared to talk tough with our purported allies to mitigate the climate crisis.
Our climate simply can’t wait. Nor should we. As we learn the hard lessons from recent UK foreign policy, it is time to put our green agenda front and centre. It is the challenge of our time, and unfortunately for many people and creatures across the world, the challenge of their lives.
Hywel Williams is the Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon
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