It is no exaggeration to say that much of the world is burning. In Greece, the Acropolis was closed as temperatures on the hill headed towards 48C and villagers were ordered to leave their homes as wildfires were fanned by strong winds. In Rhodes, holidaymakers raced to the beaches as wildfires raged. Across the Atlantic, nearly a third of Americans – about 113 million people – are currently under what are called ‘extreme heat advisories’.
The poorer countries have contributed the least to the climate crisis but they are facing the gravest consequences. In the African country I know best, Uganda, changing weather patterns result in intense rains and prolonged droughts all at the same time. Consequent crop failures, land conflicts, growing poverty and increased migration are all tightening the screw. The dreadful conflict in neighbouring Sudan is a warning. There they are well advanced in what is arguably the first Climate Change war.
What has been the UK response? Last week, in that brief window when the press took a pause from stalking celebrity newscasters, some might have heard how Britain is preparing to renege on its promise, made at the COP 26 climate change conference in Glasgow, to support developing countries. UK spending was due to increase to £11.6bn for 2021-2026, but it now seems the government is preparing to drop this flagship pledge.
Beating the retreat?
Our MP here in Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, was among the first to raise the alarm. A wider constituency has since woken up: 51 MPs, including four Tories, have written to the prime minister asking him to recommit to the target and not retreat from “the UK’s climate leadership”. Former international environment minister, Zac Goldmith added today that if Michael Gove understands the gravity of this issue, and at the same time takes his foot off the accelerator for political expediency, “I just think that would require you to be a monster.”
So, is Britain yet again going back on its promises, even as the world burns under our noses?
I worked on the UKAID Climate Smart Jobs programme in Uganda, the country-specific level of all these promises. UKAID’s vision was a ‘transformation’, a move to ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’. It was ambitious stuff. Uganda faces severe depletion of natural resources alongside threats from population growth and climate change. Agriculture, based on densely settled, poor, smallholder farms, is the largest economic sector and more sensitive than most to global heating.
The state of play at the end of 2020 was an outline programme worth £200m. It consisted of five interlocking components, each reinforcing the others to maximise the impact of the whole. But then PM Johnson, in his infinite wisdom, announced the axing of the internationally regarded Department for International Development (DFID) and the absorption of what was left of it into the Foreign Office.
Culture war target
Johnson’s friends, who had already targeted the BBC, Channel 4, the civil service and what they called the “blob” of “neo-socialists, green fanatics and pro-woke crowd”, had smelled an easy target in their culture war. And amid complaints, even from their own supporters, they pushed ahead and doubled down with a substantial cut to the UK’s aid budget.
At first, for the Uganda programme, nothing much actually happened. Then, in late 2021 – about the same time as those UK pledges were being finalised in Glasgow – news emerged that the climate programme was to be slashed by 80% to just £39m. Decimated wasn’t the half of it.
But this was not all. By early 2022, as tenders were eventually issued for two of the components, it was apparent there had been further cuts, the total now down to £27m and the coherence of the whole programme lost in confusion and silence. Now, with only one of the components actually up and running, only a fraction of the targeted budget will be spent and there is no prospect of anything being transformative.
It would now appear to be a part of a bigger picture: the UK’s uncertain and equivocating commitment to climate change action. If this is the pattern in all the recipient UKAID countries, it is no surprise if the UK government struggles to meet its stated target.
Exodus of climate know-how
And there is another issue. Freedom of Information requests made by The Guardian indicate the falling numbers of FCDO staff working on climate change and energy issues. An earlier freedom of information request had already revealed that 213 former DFID staff had left FCDO since the take-over. With this exodus of expertise it would hardly be news if the departmental machinery was found to be seriously compromised. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has struggled to obtain information about programmes performance.
The reasons must be partly related to the hugely reduced capacity, post-Johnson, to staff and supervise complex programmes. It is certainly not because, as the government has claimed, climate spending would squeeze other budgets for aid such as help for women and girls. The recipients will certainly be worse off once global heating really kicks in.
Tory voters don’t care?
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak may calculate that – with a general election looming – there are no Tory votes in climate spending, especially in faraway Uganda. This thinking, with country specific examples like Uganda’s, is some kind of window onto the UK’s ‘retreat from leadership’. But is it true that Tory voters don’t care? Did the canvassers in this month’s by-elections find people on the doorstep insisting the UK pulls back from its climate change commitments?
We understand they didn’t, but the calculus will have to play out. Maybe Tory strategists are right in thinking Middle England would be pleased to see the country pulling in its horns, relieved that the press can get back to its proper job of hounding celebrity newscasters. Only time will tell. But with the climate clock ticking, we haven’t got long.