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G20 Flop: Climate Politics and the English Language

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The American Interest

No surprise: the “Final Communiqué” of the (largely irrelevant, purely cosmetic) G20 summit was difficult for the participant countries to agree on. One of the main sticking points? Again, no surprise: climate change.

Here’s part of the final language on “Energy and Climate”:

We take note of the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The United States of America announced it will immediately cease the implementation of its current nationally-determined contribution and affirms its strong commitment to an approach that lowers emissions while supporting economic growth and improving energy security needs. The United States of America states it will endeavour to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently and help deploy renewable and other clean energy sources, given the importance of energy access and security in their nationally- determined contributions.

The Leaders of the other G20 members state that the Paris Agreement is irreversible. We reiterate the importance of fulfilling the UNFCCC commitment by developed countries in providing means of implementation including financial resources to assist developing countries with respect to both mitigation and adaptation actions in line with Paris outcomes and note the OECD’s report “Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth”. We reaffirm our strong commitment to the Paris Agreement, moving swiftly towards its full implementation in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances and, to this end, we agree to the G20 Hamburg Climate and Energy Action Plan for Growth as set out in the Annex.

Take note of the stark contrast in the language used in the official statement between the U.S.-authored first paragraph and the “Paris”-focused second. Whatever one’s priors are on how climate change is best addressed, it’s difficult not to immediately recall George Orwell’s seminal essay “Politics and the English Language“—on how bad political writing is (at minimum) a tell for very lazy thinking.

The first paragraph is written in crystal clear, easy to understand prose. The United States, which in contrast to Europe is actually succeeding in cutting its own emissions, is doing so by bringing comparatively clean natural gas to market through fracking. It is looking to leverage this bonanza to help provide energy security to its allies. And insofar as it does this by providing them with natural gas, it will be helping wean them off of dirty coal as well, thereby further lowering global emissions.

The second paragraph is difficult to understand—all empty aspirations and limp hectoring swimming in a soup of acronyms and allusions to reports and annexes. Its only clear call to action is for developed countries to contribute money to the so-called Green Climate Fund—an effort that to date has fallen far short of expectations, and that President Trump has (correctly) criticized as an ill-conceived slush fund. Now go back and read the final sentence: “…full implementation in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances…” Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

The FT reported that the phrase in the first paragraph, about helping other countries access and use “fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently”, was particularly contentious. That should tell you all you need to know about how ideological and deranged environmental politics has become.

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