The Spanish government has urged Rishi Sunak to demonstrate a clear commitment to fighting the climate emergency, describing the British government’s flip -flopping over the prime minister’s attendance of the forthcoming Cop27 summit as “sad” and “surprising”, given the UK’s global reputation and its current presidency of the conference.
Spain’s environment minister, Teresa Ribera, also said the “absurd”, heel–dragging political debate over climate change in the UK was “surprising and disappointing”.
Speaking to the Guardian before this year’s summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, the minister said Europe needed to be strategic, transparent and purposeful – especially in the wake of a report that found temperatures on the continent have increased at more than twice the global average in the past 30 years.
Ribera, who is one of Spain’s three deputy prime ministers, also insisted the UK had an important role to play in tackling the climate emergency. She pointed out that the country still retains the Cop presidency following last year’s summit, and said she had been disconcerted by Sunak’s initial refusal to attend the conference and by the British government’s decision to request that King Charles did not go to the talks.
“I was hugely surprised by that,” she said. “I think there’s been a lot of comment on social media but you need to remember that the UK still has the presidency of one of the most important multilateral UN forums, a forum that’s called on to respond to global challenges.
“And it’s surprising that they’d limit the presence of the head of state and call into question the presence of the prime minister. Given all that the UK has been for so long when it comes to analysing global problems and proposing global solutions, it’s very sad to see that debate.”
While Ribera welcomed Sunak’s U-turn on attending, she said she hoped it would be more than a “token step” and that it would be matched by meaningful policies.
“What matters is domestic action, and I think that’s another of the lessons that we’ve seen with the election of Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the new president] in Brazil now and with the election in Australia [won by Labor] and in so many other places,” she said. “The fight against climate change isn’t sorted at Cops – it’s sorted at the ballot boxes of each and every country. And I think it’s important that the British prime minister makes it clear that his commitment is the one we expect from a country such as the UK.”
Regardless of which party was in power in the UK, she added, the government “can’t be allowed to fall on to the same side as the [climate crisis] deniers or delayers”. Ribera acknowledged that Sunak had not won office through a general election, but noted that the fall of his two predecessors had “had a lot to do” with how they had tackled social problems.
The minister – an environmental veteran who was Spain’s secretary of state for climate change from 2008 to 2011 – admitted that explaining the injustice, inequality and suffering wrought by the failure to address the climate emergency was difficult, as was breaking old habits.
“But while it’s one thing for those inertias and tensions to be normal, I expect a lot more of those of us who are in a position to facilitate the decisions,” she said.
“The important thing is how we react in the face of this turbulence … That’s why it’s surprising and disappointing that you have this absurd debate in the UK. That’s why it’s surprising and disappointing that people still talk about things in such a delaying and very selfish way. It shows that there are a lot of people who either haven’t understood anything, or who deliberately want to hide what [climate] change means.”
Ribera said Spain’s recent summer of record-breaking temperatures and devastating wildfires had come as “a very important jolt” to public opinion.
“I think people realise that climate change isn’t something that’s far away in time or space,” she said. “That it’s not just something for polar bears or for their great-grandchildren. We’re living with this and it’s affecting us in a far more cross-cutting way than the average citizen once imagined.”
Ribera said she hoped Spain – the European country most threatened by desertification – could act as a bridge to the countries in the Sahel and Central America that are already experiencing problems with water, food security and loss of soil quality. She also said the international community needed to stop ignoring “the big elephant in the room” and do more to anticipate the predictable disasters of the coming decades.
“Obviously, drought, desertification and poverty mean tension, conflict and migration or Boko Haram,” she said. “There are problems that we’ve still got time to address – if we’re serious about adaptation policies and financing them. I say policies because it’s not just about money. There needs to be the capacity to use up those resources.”
If global leaders were committed to alleviating the worst ravages of the climate emergency, said Ribera, they needed to be clear, calm, resolute and persuasive.
“It’s vital to be very transparent with explanations but also very purposeful about how we solve these problems,” she said. “We can’t just rely on shocking people because if you do that, the reaction is: ‘Carpe diem.’ And we can’t just content ourselves with medium- and long-term ideas: we need to be very purposeful about the short term too.”