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  1. Diary
6 December 2023

The hypocrisy of Rishi’s Right

Also this week: the power of the Nativity, and why books are like batteries.

By Jeanette Winterson

I was astonished like everyone else to hear that the Cop28 president and fossil-fuel fantasist, Sultan al-Jaber, had told the former UN special envoy for climate change, Mary Robinson, that there is “no science” behind the world-wide obligation to phase out gas and oil in order to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. Had he been on the phone to Donald Trump? Or Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who favours the worst hairdos of Draco Malfoy and has vowed to halt his country’s climate change policies?

Meanwhile, our own unelected Prime Minister rattles on about sensible choices, which to him means pushing back on the UK’s climate obligations. Commitments, in the view of many, that should be far greater than those of other nations because Britain industrialised first.

Those carbon emissions don’t go away. Yes, a percentage is absorbed by the sea, but otherwise they hang around like gloomy ghosts from the past, with plenty of disruptive power. Even as CO2 levels drop, temperatures will take much longer to fall.

It seems odd to me that while Rishi’s Right loves to tell us to be proud of our history and to claim the glories of empire (including the Parthenon sculptures), the greenhouse gases that the UK released into the atmosphere over the same glorious period are no longer our problem.

It is true that the UK has cut its home-grown emissions since 1990 – mainly due to the shift away from coal power, and because we import goods rather than manufacture them ourselves. And here’s the snag: we don’t have to include in our figures the emissions on goods produced overseas but bought by us. So we look like we are doing much more than we really are. Check this out on the website carbonindependent.org.

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[See also: In 2024, Labour must offer hope]

Light in the darkness

There’s a cynical and nihilistic argument that runs along the lines of: “What can I do about the state of the world when political realities are stacked against change?” There is an answer to be found in the Christmas story.

It begins with business as usual: Caesar Augustus wants to compile a census for tax purposes, and everyone must register in their home town. The inns are full – only a stable is left for a new baby. And what can a new baby do against the might of Rome, the grip of organised religion, the indifference of everyday life?

Well, we know how that one worked out. You don’t need to be a believer to meditate on the power of this story. It’s not a hero saga. It’s a story about hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people letting go of their old gods and beliefs, and remaking their minds.

Now, I know that religion has a lot to answer for. No excuses. Humans can’t manage to live in the light for long, it seems. That doesn’t mean the light is not there, or that we are not drawn to it. Changing the way we live is the only way to sustain life on Earth. The old dogmas, the false gods we worship – economic growth, wealth, power – must be put aside. The beauty and mystery of the Nativity story is found in the symbol it offers of new life, unprotected and vulnerable. Impossible. But only the impossible is worth the effort.

[See also: Writing for children is hard, and they need good books more than ever]

Life-saving literature

I’m off to Shakespeare and Company in Paris for an event. The bookshop is a beacon of hope. It is full to the rafters every day with people from all over the world buying books. Books are like batteries; they recharge you when you are depleted. Put your phone down. Get a book out of your bag. You will feel better.

Uninvited guests

I love Christmas because as a child those were the only 12 days of the year when my mother was happy. We decorated our tiny terraced house with paperchains and terrifying lights left over from end-of-the-war celebrations in 1945. We’re talking Bakelite plugs, cloth-wrapped wiring and no earth. One year the lights electrocuted the cat. In my kitchen in the Cotswolds, I hang as many baubles as I can from the beams. Outside, I mega-watt the fence that abuts the lane – even though this makes my house look like a carvery.

This Christmas will be a bit different because two peafowl have moved into the garden. They came in the summer, and they won’t go back to the Big House. Why not? I have built them a tin shed because I feel responsible, but they might have to share it with a Nativity scene for a few weeks. For me, Christmas is a time to reflect and take stock of the year disappearing. I know these dates are arbitrary, just as New Year starting on 1 January makes no sense of the reality of the seasons. We need not be literal. A bit more imagination would help the world right now.

As we go into 2024, my hope is for peace on Earth and goodwill to humans everywhere.

Jeanette Winterson’s latest book is “Night Side of the River. Ghost Stories” (Jonathan Cape)

[See also: How permanent are our digital memories?]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special