I do not often have a good word to say for Xi Jinping, the Chinese head of state and Communist party leader. With the world focused on climate change, it is characteristic of his indifference to humanity that he has refused even to mitigate, let alone reverse, China’s steadily increasing consumption of coal and reliance on fossil fuels. Xi justifies his intransigence by blaming older industrialised nations, but this argument is bogus: even if total carbon emissions are extrapolated back to 1850, China is still second only to the United States.
Yet Xi is right on one thing. By choosing to deliver his speech to the UN’s COP 26 conference, not in Glasgow but by videolink, Xi is perhaps inadvertently revealing that such giant conferences on “global heating” (global warming is supposedly too soft a phrase) are out of date. There is something absurd about the extravagance of events such as the one taking place in Glasgow this week. Rather than jetting off to Scotland, the thousands of delegates, lobbyists and journalists* could be meeting virtually. Particularly in a time of pandemic, online technology could and should have been deployed on an unprecedented scale to show the world that it isn’t one rule for them and another for the rest of us. Quite apart from the fact that fêting a brutal, even genocidal despot such as Xi is ethically dubious anyway.
The convergence of world leaders in Rome for the G20 summit just before COP 26 only highlighted this anachronistic impression. Of course, summits are sometimes necessary and jaw-jaw is always better than war-war. But the proliferation of these occasions, with all their pomp and circumstance, strikes a false note at a time when international travel has been all but choked off by restrictions and expense. It
Our elected politicians should consider cutting down the frequency of their travel and especially the size of their entourages.
should not be beyond the wit of the aerospace industry to find new ways in the foreseeable future of transporting billions of people without emitting vast amounts of CO2. Until that day comes, though, our elected politicians should consider cutting down the frequency of their travel and especially the size of their entourages. If meeting on Zoom is good enough for the rest of us, why not them too?
Of course, Xi is not the only leader to eschew the trip to Glasgow, nor even the most celebrated. The Queen has given it a miss on health grounds. So has the Pope. Staying at home would surely also have been wiser for Joe Biden. But the President evidently felt that he had something to prove. He celebrates his 79th birthday later this month and opinion polls suggest that a growing proportion of the American public is concerned about his mental and physical fitness for office. Showing his face in Europe is one way of demonstrating that there’s life in the old boy yet. But his rambling and increasingly random remarks in public may prove counterproductive.
At the opposite end of the age spectrum is, inevitably, Greta Thunberg. She almost never flies anywhere and arrived in Glasgow by train. So far, so virtuous. And at 18 she is young enough not to be worried about Covid. Her problem is a different one: her face is too familiar and so are the protests she inspires. She told Andrew Marr that blocking roads in the manner of Insulate Britain was necessary, however inconvenient it might be for the rest of us. “As long as no-one gets hurt, then I think you sometimes need to anger some people.” Ordinary people trying to get to work, home or hospital might not agree that they deserve to be mere collateral damage.
Ms Thunberg thinks it is “more efficient” to “demand change… from the streets than from inside”. The young lady doth protest too much. Nobody on earth has better access to the powers that be than she does. There is no longer a need for Extinction Rebellion and its offshoots to mount mass demonstrations in Western democracies. (China, Russia and other authoritarian countries are another matter.)
What are needed are hardheaded debates about the conflicts of interest, sometimes amounting to life and death struggles, created by the drastic consequences not only of climate change itself, but also of adapting to a warmer planet. There are winners and losers. Ask Joe Biden about West Virginia, the mining state that is blocking his environmental package in the Senate — or even Xi Jinping, whose regime is hostage to millions of workers who depend on coal. China won’t have a Margaret Thatcher any time soon. These are not problems that can be solved with slogans and symbolism. And of course Ms Thunberg has no solutions to these problems. Asked if she would like to be seek elected office, she replied: “No — at least not now.”
However much I may disagree with her alarmist prophecies and disruptive methods, I have more sympathy for Ms Thunberg than for Xi Jinping. She is learning that all change requires compromise with opposition and radical change requires building a consensus. He, by contrast, refuses to tolerate dissent and prefers to impose consensus rather than to build it. If the world were to follow her demand and her timetable literally, the global economy would collapse and millions would die of starvation — whereas in fact far fewer die as a result of extreme climate or weather today than ever before. But Ms Thunberg has years in which to mature. If she is prepared to listen to dissenting opinions, no doubt she will. Her idealism is attractive; Xi’s ideology is repulsive. By the end of this week we in the West may feel that we have had too much information. There is no danger of that in China.
*Ed. note|: Israel sent 120 participants, the second largest delegation.
Daniel Johnson is the founding Editor of TheArticle. For two decades he was a senior editor, editorial writer and columnist for The Times and the Daily Telegraph, before leaving to set up Standpoint magazine, which he edited for 10 years. He contributes regularly to Daily Mail, Wall Street Journal, Commentary, New Criterion, National Review and other papers, magazines and websites.@DANBJOHN| @DANBJOHNSON
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