COP26: Queen shows up Greta Thunberg and Boris Johnson - Jayne Dowle

Teenage activist Greta Thunberg at the COP26 climate change summit.Teenage activist Greta Thunberg at the COP26 climate change summit.
Teenage activist Greta Thunberg at the COP26 climate change summit.
UNLIKELY bedfellows perhaps, but Boris Johnson and vociferous climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg do agree on one thing. As the COP26 summit rolls on, the biggest thing to watch out for is the ‘blah, blah, blah’.

We’re supposed to be seizing an unrivalled opportunity to deal with climate change, an issue that should unite us all regardless of nationality or political persuasion. The last thing anyone should be doing is switching off.

Apart from Ms Thunberg – and I’ve lost patience with her now she’s started using unnecessary bad language and losing the dignity with which she addressed the United Nations in the past – what has made the biggest impression so far? US President Joe Biden appearing to nod off?

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This was the Queen delivering a video message to the COP26 climate change summit.This was the Queen delivering a video message to the COP26 climate change summit.
This was the Queen delivering a video message to the COP26 climate change summit.

We live in a soundbite culture led by visual engagement. Apart from our 95-year-old Queen, who addressed the conference by pre-recorded video link from Windsor Castle, and made more impact than the rest of the world leaders put together, there’s been precious little appreciation of this in the public eye.

Dressed in chartreuse green, her butterfly brooch echoing the shoal of butterflies in an accompanying video film clip of her late husband, Her Majesty spoke clearly and eloquently of her family’s record in raising awareness of climate change.

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There is only so long that rolling television news can keep the reports fresh and engaging, only so many soundbites and headlines to be garnered from a speech and sadly, only so many times that people can watch footage of rainforests being destroyed and polar ice caps melting before switching off, literally and metaphorically.

Boris Johnson speaking at the COP26 climate change summit.Boris Johnson speaking at the COP26 climate change summit.
Boris Johnson speaking at the COP26 climate change summit.

I’ve chaired a few conferences in my time and it’s no easy task, keeping everyone engaged. I don’t envy the job of Alok Sharma, president of COP26, who should be steering proceedings to keep the interest of the widest possible of audiences. The size and scale of global warming and climate change is the problem, however. The difficulty is hooking into the interests of ordinary people and keeping them hooked.

He won’t like this advice one bit, but he could do a lot worse than look to Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, for inspiration. Speaking from outside the Glasgow conference halls, he told Sky News that climate change should be linked to social change. And he’s absolutely right.

As world leaders and their cavalcades flew in by private jet and helicopter and blocked roads with their motorcades, ordinary travellers hoping to reach Glasgow by rail were stymied by weather delays, trees on the line and over-crowded carriages.

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A more poignant illustration of the disconnect between what’s happening on the stage and the daily experience of ordinary people couldn’t have been found.

And this, I’m afraid, is why Mr Sharma will find it very difficult to keep everyone on board. Until we truly understand the consequences of climate change – and the potential that solutions might actually offer to us as a country – it won’t even begin to make the required impact at all.

Mr Burnham made the very valid point that serious investment in public transport and infrastructure, upgrading homes to not only save energy but improve health, and creating a 21st century green jobs revolution are all key to such public engagement, certainly in the North.

Reminding viewers that the North led the first Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, Mr Burnham said: “I think this is the opportunity that’s staring us now right in the face, the drive to net-zero could re-industrialise the North of England but this time in a good way, where it’s clean and we give people clean air to breathe.”

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He called on the Government to “back” the North on projects to create jobs from new climate technologies before the “window to do something” closes rapidly.

His critics will say that this was nothing more than political opportunism, but I would strongly disagree. We need more public figures to bring the connections between the health of the planet and the health – physical, mental, social, economic – of its inhabitants together.

There are countless debates and exhibitions running alongside the main events in Glasgow. Let’s hear more from these as coverage unfolds. Let’s ask Mr Sharma to intervene and steer away from the predictable polarised track – activists versus politicians.

Of course, we should not overlook the major achievements of COP26 so far. This includes an agreement to end deforestation by 2030 and a global deal to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent.

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And, we do have a while to go – the event ends on November 12. However, as we know only too well with climate change itself, if we don’t shout up early enough, the damage will already be done and this global event, with all that potential to make a difference to all our futures, will fizzle out like a firework.

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