Claire O’Neill, who served as Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth under Theresa May, was told by Downing Street on 31st January that she had been removed from her post as chair of the November climate conference because she was no longer a minister. According to the BBC, sources close to the former-MP have suggested that Mrs O’Neill was fired for being critical of the government’s record on climate action.
In a tweet following her departure, O’Neill said that she was “very sad” at the government’s decision, adding that it was “a shame we haven’t had one climate cabinet meeting since we formed.” O’Neill’s departure comes amid growing speculation that the 2020 Conference of Parties (COP) meeting could be the most significant since the negotiation of the Paris Accord in 2015.
The Cabinet Office has since confirmed that “preparations will continue at pace for the summit”, before adding: “going forward, this will be a ministerial role.” The Cabinet Office thanked O’Neill for “her work preparing for what will be a very successful and ambitious climate change summit in Glasgow in November.”
Since O’Neill’s departure, speculation has continued to grow that government ministers had been vying to lead the United Nations (UN) meeting since winning the General Election in December. The conference, intended to encourage governments to strengthen their approaches to the climate crisis, faces growing challenges to attain its goals in the wake of the USA’s scheduled withdrawal from the Paris Accord.
Claire O’Neill rightly pointed out that the Glasgow COP was our ‘last shot’ at delivering on the Paris climate goals
In the opening week of February, it has since emerged that David Cameron and William Hague have both reportedly turned down the opportunity to lead the November COP26 summit. Cameron, who vacated Downing Street following the Brexit referendum in 2016, has insisted that the conference is “absolutely vital”, adding: “I’m sure that there will be a government minister, or someone, who will be able to do the job and do it very well. The Government has my backing as they go forward.”
O’Neill’s departure, and outspoken comments about the government’s approach to climate change, has sparked fears that the government is not suitably prepared for the Glasgow conference. O’Neill’s suggestion that Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, was given a key role in the organisation of the event was shot-down with “salty” language.
The COP26 summit has been widely identified as the final opportunity to establish a coordinated response to climate change. A statement by the organisation responsible for the Doomsday Clock, the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, has underscored these concerns in a recent statement: “humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers: nuclear war and climate change.” The clock, which serves as a symbol for worldwide disaster, is now just 100 seconds from midnight, the closest it has been since its 1947 creation.
O’Neill has been critical of the government’s response to climate change, suggesting that “we are playing at a kind of Oxford United level when we need to be Liverpool if we are actually going to do what the world needs us to do.” The Conservative Party’s 2019 General Election manifesto referred to the “climate” on only ten occasions, while the Prime Minister’s absence from the Channel Four climate debate has led opposition figures to be critical of the government’s approach to climate change.
The government is yet to hold a climate cabinet meeting since it agreed to host the COP26 meeting, amid growing hostility to the Paris Accord from the United States, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Russia. In comments to The Guardian, Professor Dave Reay, carbon management chair at Edinburgh University, has claimed that “time is now really against us, for there are fewer than ten months to go”. Reay added: “Claire O’Neill rightly pointed out that the Glasgow COP was our ‘last shot’ at delivering on the Paris climate goals. At this rate, we won’t even have the gun loaded.”