LONDON – It can be tricky to stand out in the annual lineup of world leaders addressing the United Nations General Assembly, especially when you’re assigned a mid-week, late-night spot. But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson managed to get attention for himself and his climate action pitch in a Wednesday speech that careened between references to Greek philosophers and muppets.
He compared humanity to a trouble-making teen: “We have come to that fateful age when we know roughly how to drive and we know how to unlock the drinks cabinet and to engage in all sorts of activity that is not only potentially embarrassing but also terminal.”
He scolded everyone for their treatment of the Earth: “This precious blue sphere with its eggshell crust and wisp of an atmosphere – is not some indestructible toy, some bouncy plastic romper room against which we can hurl ourselves to our heart’s content.”
And he declared: “It is time for humanity to grow up.”
This was Johnson’s final event in the United States before flying back to Britain on Thursday, and he concluded his trip with both wins and losses.
President Joe Biden announced that the United States would relax a travel ban imposed at the start of the pandemic and begin to allow visits by vaccinated Europeans. However, the U.S. president downplayed the prospect of a U.K.-U.S. trade deal happening anytime soon. Johnson had talked up the prospect of a lucrative deal as one of the key prizes of Britain leaving the European Union. This week he flew home only able to hype a new deal on lamb.
At the U.N., where leaders typically use their speeches to hit a range of issues, Johnson devoted his entire 20 minutes to climate. He’ll be hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, in Glasgow in November. And he has just a few more weeks to lobby countries on their commitments.
If radical action isn’t taken, he said in his address – broadcast in Britain in the early hours on Thursday morning – “we will see desertification, drought, crop failure and mass movements of humanity on a scale not seen before, not because of some unforeseen natural event or disaster but because of us, because of what we are doing now.”
“And our grandchildren will know that we are the culprits,” he said.
He singled out the United States and Denmark for their pledged contributions to a $100 billion-a-year climate fund aimed at helping poorer countries cut carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. He also praised China for its pledge to end international financing of coal-fired energy plants, and he applauded Pakistan for promising to plant 10 billion trees.
But far greater action was needed, he said, to keep the global average rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). On current trajectories, he said, temperatures would rise by 2.7C (4.9F) or more by the end of the century.
Serving as chief climate champion marks a somewhat remarkable conversion for Johnson, who once ridiculed “eco doomsters” and invoked climate change deniers. But he is now deploying his rhetorical flourishes to emphasize the pending climate catastrophe.
He used characteristically colorful language in his speech – clearly written by him – to argue that the change required need not be hard.
“When Kermit the Frog sang, “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” I want you to know that he was wrong. It is easy, lucrative and right to be green, although he was unnecessarily rude to Miss Piggy, I thought.”
On Thursday morning, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy were trending on social media in Britain, and one user wrote, “Boris Johnson made a speech yesterday telling everyone to ‘grow up’ hours after insulting an ally and including a reference to a tv show puppet.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Johnson further inflamed tensions with France, which is upset about the implosion of a nuclear submarine deal, when he told reporters that the country should “prenez un grip” (get a grip) and “donnez-moi un break” (give me a break) – a favorite phrase of his when he breaks into Franglais.
While some found his language amusing or accessible and welcomed his enthusiasm for the cause, the reaction from the opposition Labour Party was scathing.
“After a year of diplomacy, the Prime Minister’s “year of global leadership” seems to have collapsed into insulting Kermit the Frog,” tweeted Lisa Nandy, the party’s point person on foreign affairs.
“Boris Johnson just can’t help himself, turning a serious speech to UN General Assembly into a Daily Telegraph column,” said Kevin Maguire, a columnist at the New Statesman, a left-leaning political magazine.
Johnson was a correspondent and later a columnist for the conservative Telegraph newspaper, and he became famous for provocative – and often incendiary – rhetoric used to savage opponents and play to his right-wing constituents.
Johnson concluded his moment on the podium Wednesday with a reference to the ancient Greek writer Sophocles, who said he was often quoted – by Johnson – as “saying that there are many terrifying things in the world but none is more terrifying than mankind, and it’s certainly true that … our species is uniquely capable of our own destruction.”
“But if you look at the Greek, what Sophocles actually said … was that man is ‘deinos’ and terrifying isn’t quite right as far as a translation for ‘deinos.’ What Sophocles really means is mankind, humanity is awesome – both terrifying but also awesome.
“We have an awesome power to change things and to change things for the better, and an awesome power to save ourselves.
“In the next 40 days, we have to choose, the world has to choose what kind of awesome we’re going to be.”