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UK sacks UN Climate Conference President

Written by Science

The UK has sacked its UN climate conference president nine months ahead of the climate summit in Glasgow that she had been appointed to lead. 

Former ‘remainer’ in the Brexit debate, Claire O’Neill (formerly Perry) was dismissed from her role as president, but the motives for her sacking remain unclear. In the December elections O’Neill stepped down as a minister in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet to focus on her new role, yet when questioned about why she was dismissed and when she will be replaced, Boris Johnson could give no answer. 

O’Neill’s track record includes persuading the Cabinet to host the 2020 UN Climate Change Conferenceknown as COP26, and publishing a clean growth strategy. 

However, her stint in parliament as a government minister was not without controversy, most notably surrounding allegations of bullying other parliament members and swearing at civil servants. There have also been mixed reports concerning her performance in the role, with concern over her relationship with senior UK and UN officials and misleading portrayal of the UK’s COP 26 strategy.

In response, O’Neill firmly refuted such allegations in an open letter to the PM, going on to say that her dismissal is distracting from the real issue of climate change.

Following her dismissal, O’Neill also revealed in a radio interview that Boris Johnson’s confessed that he ‘didn’t really get’ the climate emergency. When probed further by the Radio 4 host, she went on to say that there are others around him who do.

Despite her expertise on climate change, O’Neill herself admits that her desire for action and movement is not well-received by those wanting an incremental approach to the climate crisis. This lack of diplomacy calls into question her suitability for the role, an arguably crucial asset for successful negotiations with UN member states. 

So, who will replace her? Rumoured candidates for O’Neill’s job included former Prime Minister David Cameron and former Secretary of State William Hague, both of whom reportedly rejected Johnson’s offer. Despite declining the position, Cameron says the conference is ‘absolutely vital’, highlighting the need for someone with political authority to lead the negotiations. 

This notion is backed up by Mohamed Adow, director of climate and energy group Power Shift Africa, expressing his concern that ‘It was always going to be a challenge to have a president who had no formal role in Government.’ 

After initial handling by the government department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), recent revelations confirm that Alok Sharma will now replace O’Neill in the role of president.

After the chaos surrounding the 2019 conference in Madrid, O’Neill was keen to make a clear roadmap of action in the lead up to Glasgow.

But with the former president now sacked, in addition to no climate meetings planned by Johnson and little indication of how the UK aims to achieve its detailed goals, the success of the November conference looks uncertain.

Perhaps a glimmer of hope comes from the government’s strategic collaboration with Sir David Attenborough, with plans to phase out coal power by 2024 and end the sale of petrol and diesel cars in the UK by 2035. 

From his speeches, it would appear that Boris Johnson is aware that climate action is key. ‘We know as a country, as a society, as a planet, as a species, we must now act.’ 

But whether or not this is acted upon is another story.

Urging Johnson to act on his words and reverse his current failure of global vision and leadership, O’Neill ended her letter with a quote: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’. 

If sincere, O’Neill and Johnson’s messages are the same – it leaves the real question blindingly obvious. Why can’t we all work together and focus on the real issue at hand? 

Last modified: 24th February 2020

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