Rishi Sunak has made a positive start by halting fracking, but not going to COP27 is a grave error of judgement, says Joseph Kelly

With the appointment of Rishi Sunak as the UK’s latest Prime Minister, there was perhaps some small hope that a period of calm and predicability might be returning to Westminster. Taking to the dispatch box on Wednesday for his first Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Sunak unsurprisingly gave a Teflon smooth and seamless performance – replying to some questions with candour, deflecting others and ignoring some completely. No doubt many felt that normal service has been resumed and the familiar, combative narrative is restored as the means of curating the country.

There was one unexpected moment – Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton, Pavilion pressed her hands to her mouth and all but blew a kiss at Mr Sunak when he confirmed that he would honour the 2019 Tory election manifesto promise to maintain the current moratorium on the climate-wrecking fracking industry. Lucas, who is Leader of the Green Party of England & Wales, has been at the forefront of fracking opposition for years, and was devastated when Liz Truss appointed the Catholic MP and fossil fuel zealot Jacob Rees-Mogg as her Energy Secretary. Within days of Rees-Mogg’s appointment, maps began to appear across social media indicating where fracking companies had submitted new applications for exploratory fracking – many in areas close to large population centres, almost all in that mysterious political outland known disparagingly in Westminster as ‘up north’.

“Who doesn’t love fracking?” the now ex-energy minister declared at last month’s Conservative Party Conference.

“The socialists, and Caroline Lucas,” quipped Mr Rees-Mogg, somewhat smugly.

Well, apparently, neither does Rishi Sunak, or at least that’s what he’d like us to think. Given that the south east of the country is currently under pretty literal attack from frustratingly random climate protests actions, kicking out fracking was a decent first play of the ball from the new Prime Minister, and took at least one beating stick away from the Opposition.

With the COP27 jamboree just a week away, a new UN report released this morning declares that the immediate future looks bleak to say the least. Their Emissions Gap Report 2022 “finds that the international community is falling far short of the Paris goals, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place.

“Only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid climate disaster,” the report states.

Now in its 13th year of publication the UN emissions gap study cut a straight line through the mountain of political rhetoric to highlight the reality of climate change. Today’s report makes it clear that to be in with even a chance of hitting the critical 1.5C global temperature rise limit by the target date of 2030, we’d need to see an immediate reduction in global emissions of 45% – a hopeless prospect.

The report predicts that even with the best efforts of all involved, the current policies in place will result in a rise in global temperature of around 2.8C this century. That will be absolutely catastrophic for the planet, and especially for the poorest and most vulnerable, who generally live in the most vulnerable areas, and who have the least capacity and wealth to offset climate disasters.

Given the many other fiscal difficulties and internal divisions that are confronting our new Prime Minister, there’s hope that a focus on climate change action might be seen as both a vote-winner, and a safe distraction from his current internecine and domestic difficulties.

Today also saw the publication of the first report of the 2022-23 session of the House of Commons Joint Committee on National Security Strategy. Amongst many things this report cites the looming climate change crisis as a significant threat to national security and infrastructures.

Chair of the committee, Dame Margaret Becket MP, was scathing in her criticism of legislators.

“The thing I find most disturbing is the lack of evidence that anyone in government is focusing on how all the impacts can come together, creating cascading crises,” said Dame Margaret.

“There are simply no ministers with focused responsibility for making sure that our infrastructure is resilient to extreme weather and other effects of climate change.”

No doubt all of this will be on the mind of another prominent Catholic legislator, Therese Coffey, whom Mr Sunak has appointed as his Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Ms Coffey having previously served under Liz Truss as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and Deputy Prime Minister.

The announcement took the energy sector by surprise, but was generally welcomed. Ms Coffey has prior experience within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and has often expressed her commitment to biodiversity, green investments and the circular economy.

The prospect of Sunak and Coffey at COP27 on an agenda to show unity, stability and the UK’s commitment to a green future would certainly have enlivened the event, but sadly our new PM won’t be attending, citing “other pressing domestic commitments including preparations for the autumn Budget”. His decision has been met with dismay from environmentalists, with Labour abour accused the PM of a “massive failure of climate leadership”. Only yesterday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the BBC that he would like to have seen both the PM and King Charles in attendance.

When you look back at the turmoil in UK politics over the last few months, no-one can be in any doubt that things have reached a dangerous tipping point. Such has been the extent of u-turns, broken promises, political machinations and personal revelations that few voters will have been unaffected. To forgive the misjudgements of one or two is generally regarded as a healthy aspect of the democratic process, but we are now in the realms of disassociation from all aspects of democratic participation. In simpler terms, knowing that the other party was hypocritical was assumed and tolerated, but discovering that all parties re equally hypocritical is fatal. You can well know that when you have homely organisations like the National Trust and the RSPB taking to the streets in protest, politics is in real trouble.

Recent political actions, such as the Stop Oil movement pouring tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting in London’s National Gallery may seem irrational to many, counter-productive even, as such protests tend to focus on just one aspect of the environmental problem, rather than addressing the inter-related and highly complex nature of climate destruction. Indeed, to those of us who may have been participants in many of the social and political protest actions of the 1960-80s, what we are witnessing today often looks alienating and contrary to the causes being championed.

But times have changes, and our planet is now under a very real threat of extinction, seemingly at the very time that our politicians and world leaders seem to have diminished in vision and slumped into self-interest and nihilism, so equally desperate and direct protest is inevitable; perhaps even warranted. The terrible irony is that global warming is one of the few phenomena that knows no discrimination, and has the capacity to annihilate even the most robust of economies, and impenetrable of defences. Our failure to address and revert global warming will undoubtedly impact the poorest and most vulnerable first, but no-one will be spared its effects, not least because most developed economies depend disproportionately on the co-operation and labour of the poor, and the exploitation of precisely those regions that may be most adversely affected by climate change.

The time to avert disaster is desperately short, and it’s no exaggeration to say that next week’s COP27 summit may be the last meaningful chance we have to avert a global catastrophe of absolutely biblical proportions. Sunak should attend, and it wouldn’t be bad idea if our new king was to be present also.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer, and founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk