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29 October 2021updated 30 Oct 2021 2:14pm

Boris Johnson likens climate change to “the decline and fall of the Roman empire”

The Prime Minister warned that “things could go backwards at a really terrifying speed” on his flight to the G20 in Italy.

By Tim Ross

The world is at risk of sliding backwards into an era of economic and social decline, and even armed conflict, triggered by climate change, according to Boris Johnson. 

The Prime Minister is in Rome for last-ditch talks with world leaders at the G20 summit as he seeks to persuade them to take action to protect the planet from global warming. 

Johnson spoke to Chinese president Xi Jinping on Friday, urging him to move more quickly away from reliance on coal-fired power generation within China.  And at a meeting in Rome on Saturday, he pushed Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to go further on committing cash towards the target of $100 billion to help poorer nations cope with climate change.

Johnson’s message to his counterparts was not to take civilisation for granted. He likened humanity’s fate as it faces the climate threat to “the decline and fall of the Roman empire”. 

“My point is that things could go backwards and they could go backwards at a really terrifying speed,” Johnson told reporters on his flight from London. “Team World is up against a very formidable opponent in climate change,” he said. “If this was half-time, I would say we were about 5-1 down. We have got a long way to go but we can do it.” 

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The G20 is the last chance for Johnson to persuade some of the world’s biggest emitters to adopt more ambitious targets for cutting greenhouse gases ahead of the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow next week. Xi will not be in Scotland and Johnson said he “pushed him” to cut emissions and go faster in reducing China’s reliance on coal. 

He reached for the metaphor of the decline of the Roman Empire, arguing that the Dark Ages which followed could return if the world fails to stop disastrous climate change. After the Roman Empire collapsed, standards of education declined, cities were left in ruins, and even cattle became smaller, he said.

At home, Johnson’s trip is being overshadowed by the continuing disagreement with France over fishing rights after Brexit. The UK has summoned the French ambassador and a Scottish boat was detained at Le Havre by the French authorities. Jean Castex, the French Prime Minister, has written to the EU insisting that the UK should be made an example of, to prove that leaving the bloc carries heavy costs, according to reports.

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On Saturday, Johnson stepped up his warnings to the French, saying he would not rule out triggering legal action if France goes ahead with threats to disrupt British fishing and cross-Channel trade. In an interview with the Financial Times, French President Emmanuel Macron said British credibility is on the line. Johnson is due to have a brief meeting with Macron on the fringes of the summit on Sunday.

“France is one of our best oldest closest allies and friends and partners. The ties that unite us and that bind us together are far stronger than the turbulence that currently exists in the relationship,” Johnson said. “That is what I will say to Emmanuel, who is a friend I have known for many years. There may be people on either side of the Channel who may think they have an interest in somehow promoting disharmony between the UK and France – or promoting the impression of disharmony. I don’t think Emmanuel shares that perspective personally at all, and so I will be making that point.” 

He said the UK was “puzzled” by the French government’s attitude. “We will do whatever is necessary to ensure UK interests,” Johnson said.