With the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow over, Boris Johnson called a press conference to hail the summit as a success, and played down the last-minute weakening of the commitment to end the use of coal.
“Whether the language is ‘phase down’ or ‘phase out’ doesn’t seem to me, as a speaker of English, to make that much difference,” Johnson said. “The direction of travel is pretty much the same.”
Johnson argued that opening new coal-fired power stations would become a socially and politically unacceptable thing to do within the next few years. The precise wording of the “English” in the text of the Glasgow pact doesn’t really matter, he said.
But, as George Orwell argued in his famous 1946 essay `Politics and the English Language,’ imprecision in political communication can be dangerous. “Political language,” he wrote, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
It’s obvious that Johnson wanted to be able to claim the biggest gathering of world governments ever to take place in Britain had been a triumph, or at least had exceeded the low expectations he offered for it in advance.
But it stretches credibility to argue that promising to end coal is “pretty much the same” as promising to use less of it. And the resulting difference really could be a matter of life and death for those communities and nations worst affected by climate change.
Johnson’s spin was somewhat undone by his colleague, Cop26 President Alok Sharma. Sharma has been widely praised for his diligence and integrity as the lead coordinator of the summit, even earning glowing reviews from senior Labour frontbenchers Ed Miliband and Angela Rayner.
On Saturday night, as the Chinese and Indian delegations diluted the wording on coal during a fraught final hour of negotiations with the world looking on, Sharma was on the brink of tears. He explained later that he felt “the weight of the world on my shoulders” because he feared the entire agreement was at risk of falling apart.
Asked for his view during Sunday’s press conference, standing alongside Johnson, Sharma told it straight. “Of course I would have preferred stronger language,” he said.
Despite the change, Sharma made the fair point that the summit had at least “moved the goalposts” on coal. Including for the first time a promise to reduce reliance on the fuel is an important moment for the UN-led climate talks. His argument is more credible for being nuanced and not overstated.
And Johnson’s exaggerated spin may just be that, of course. If the UK government remains fiercely committed to driving forward its own green agenda behind the scenes, it is possible that British diplomats and trade negotiators will not let India or China off the hook for scuppering more ambitious pledges on coal.
Yet the prime minister’s answers to other questions suggested there is still reason to doubt whether he will still be wearing green for much longer, now the Glasgow summit is done.
Labour wants the government to rewrite its trade rules to put climate clauses at the centre of them. For a start the UK should rip up and renegotiate its trade deal with Australia, a climate laggard, Miliband argued on Sunday. Australia has the highest emissions per capita in the world from burning coal for electricity.
But when Johnson was asked whether he would bring the UK’s trade leverage to bear on India, to keep up the pressure for stronger action on coal, he demurred. There is no particular need to bring the climate disagreements into the UK’s bilateral relationship on trade with Narendra Modi’s government, he said.
The tragedy for the small island states – those climate vulnerable countries whose leaders Johnson likes to say were the “stars” of Cop26 – is that ultimately, it won’t be possible for politicians to spin their way out of global heating.