May 7, 2023

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13 lessons from a climate change diplomat with months left to live

14 min read

One day in March last year, scores of people around the world who work on climate change received a disturbing email. The message was from a man in London named Pete Betts, who explained that he’d had a bad cold the previous week, when suddenly his heart started racing. He lost his ability to speak, had a seizure and was taken to hospital with a suspected stroke. “I remained coherent mentally — in so far as I ever am,” he wrote. “But it turned out not to be a stroke.”

Betts, who had just turned 63, had a malignant brain tumour. He would need an operation to “debulk” it, then chemo- and radiotherapy. “But it is certain that the cancer will come back, and it will kill me,” Betts wrote to the group a few days later. “The median life expectancy for someone in my position is 15 months.”

The news jolted recipients, many of whom, like Betts, belong to a little-known but influential group that has been at the centre of the international response to climate change. In the course of his long career in the UK civil service, Betts became one of the world’s most respected climate diplomats, serving as a lead negotiator for the UK and EU and helping deliver the historic Paris agreement treaty in 2015.

A fireman’s son who grew up in south London, Betts went to Oxford university and the École Nationale d’Administration in France. Slim, balding and watchful, he was fond of short-sleeved white shirts, rimless glasses and relentless self-mockery. “I spent 35 years in the civil service, and it was a matter of professional pride to be boring,” he once protested to a newspaper editor trying to enliven an opinion column he had written.

By turns warm and bracingly frank, he was a formidably effective negotiator whose advice was valued by a series of ministers from all political parties. He quit the civil service in 2018, when Claire Perry O’Neill was climate minister, but was brought back in 2020 as a part-time strategic adviser on the COP26 Glasgow climate summit.

“Pete Betts is a legend of UNFCCC diplomacy,” writes Simon Sharpe, another former British civil servant, in his recent book Five Times Faster. “UNFCCC” is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1992 treaty that governs the Conference of the Parties, or COPs. The conferences, where countries thrash out agreements to curb climate change, have taken place annually since 1995.

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I first met Betts in 2011, when I was a new FT environment correspondent, trying to navigate my first COP, in the South African city of Durban. He answered my endless questions — “What are non-Annex 1 parties?” “What’s 1/CP.13 in the Bali Action Plan?” — in a way that never made me feel as clueless as I patently was.

Like many who received Betts’ March email, I had last seen him four months earlier at COP26 in Glasgow. He looked as fit as ever, possibly because by then he had been out of Whitehall for three years. He had been advising a range of global bodies including the International Energy Agency, as it worked on a groundbreaking 2021 report that showed no new oil and gasfields would be needed in a world that was serious about net zero (the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5C). The agency’s head, Fatih Birol, has said Betts’ advice was pivotal. He was, as usual, the most informed and least assuming person in the room.

I remembered that last June, when Betts sent another email saying people had said he should hold some sort of celebration of his life. “It’s a bit strange to have a party to mark one’s impending death,” he wrote. But that is what took place one brisk night in October when some 150 people gathered in a large Westminster hall.

Barack Obama’s chief climate negotiator, Todd Stern, flew in from the US. Birol came from Paris. Francesco La Camera, head of the International Renewable Energy Agency, came from Abu Dhabi. Economist Nicholas Stern was there, along with dozens of others, young and old, all veterans of the climate trenches. Former climate ministers from each of the UK’s three main political parties spoke. Some were funny. The Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey took off his coat to reveal a short-sleeved white shirt he had worn in Betts’ honour. All were grateful. The Conservative party’s Amber Rudd said Betts’ expertise, advice “and the respect that everybody had for you” helped to seal the Paris agreement in 2015. Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader, said Betts had “taught us all something extraordinary in the way you’ve handled your illness because you’ve done it with such incredible bravery and courage and honesty and humour”.

Many of the guests had been in touch with Betts about a book he had decided to write, on how the world got to where it is on climate action and where it is headed now. It is partly about the UN negotiations that consumed so much of his career and the pressure they put on governments to act. But it also charts the world’s failure to cut emissions at anything like the scale and pace needed to ward off a gathering climate crisis and what can be done about it.

After the event, we agreed that I would interview him about his reflections on a lifetime of work on the defining issue of our time and how his thinking has been shaped by his illness. Much of our conversation took place over email. When I saw him in March at the home he shares with his wife Fiona MacGregor, chief executive of the UK’s social housing regulator, he had recently finished another hospital visit.

He was as thoughtful and trenchant as ever. He did not shrink from discussing serious flaws in UN climate negotiations, including a cumbersome process made worse, at times, by inadequate political leadership. He identified little-known figures who have made an invaluable difference, as well as those holding back progress. And he spoke of what approaching death has taught him about what matters in life.

This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversations. Unless otherwise noted, these are Pete Betts’ words. It has been 14 months since he was given 15 months to live. He still has a lot to say.

COPs are wildly misunderstood

It is incredibly frustrating to see how poorly understood these UN summits are. NGOs and the media haven’t grasped how they’ve changed since the 2015 Paris agreement. The decisions that really matter are taken months before a COP starts. That’s when most countries announce their so-called nationally determined contributions, or emissions-cutting pledges, as required by the Paris agreement.

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When we made that agreement, we thought there would be lots of scrutiny by civil society and others of these climate pledges before COPs, so countries would be under pressure to set ambitious goals and change them if they were widely seen as insufficient. We were wrong. For one thing, the pledges sometimes don’t come in early enough. Also, nobody criticises the pledges unless they’re made by developed countries.

There should be a much bigger spotlight on the failure of countries such as China, whose emissions are bigger than those of the entire developed world, to seriously strengthen their commitments. It should be more obvious when countries such as Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro weaken their commitments. Instead, there is far more attention at COPs on things like what is said about fossil fuels in the wording of a final decision to which no single country can be held to account.

My generation failed Greta Thunberg’s

I have never met Greta but I think she did a great job to get climate change on politicians’ radar when it was in danger of slipping off. I do think some of the other groups, like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, need to be a bit wary about whom they target so as not to undermine the cause.

But I would agree that my generation failed today’s young people. I don’t think that was down to individual negotiators, though I don’t shy away from blame. I suppose I had more scope to make a difference than others did. But we did collectively fail them, that is true.

The 1.5C goal is hanging by a thread

Countries’ collective failure to agree on sufficient emissions cuts between now and 2030 is hugely significant — and China matters most here.

This is not to point fingers at Beijing. Developed countries outside Europe, especially the US, Canada, Australia and Japan, have failed to act for decades, when they could have done so at very manageable cost. But this is the central reality of where we are now, and it means that global temperatures may rise slightly above the Paris agreement’s 1.5C goal, unless there is urgent additional action now.

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After any overshooting, the world could of course get its act together and achieve negative emissions in the 2030s and 2040s, bringing the temperature increase back below 1.5C. But overshooting 1.5C carries the risk of irreversible ecological tipping points. The world’s weather systems will find a new equilibrium and scientists can’t predict how it will differ.

Many will try to use such a moment to argue that we should give up on 1.5C. These are the same people who caused us to fall short of the target in the first place.

If we do go above 1.5C, the message is not to give up. It’s to double down. The scientific and economic case is overwhelming, and the real point of 1.5C has always been that we must go hell for leather for action rather than a steady-as-she-goes approach.

Even insiders don’t always know exactly what is going on

The COP process is very difficult for all involved to follow. Delegates from 195 countries are organised into different negotiating groups that all work at once on scores of different issues: finance, adaptation, measuring and reporting on emissions and so on. It is impossible for any individual to be on top of all of this activity.

Added to this, governments have very different views on which countries bear the most responsibility for causing climate change. That inevitably leads to widespread mistrust and suspicion, which countries keen to slow progress can easily exploit by spreading rumours about the positions of other nations.

For example, at COP17 in Durban in 2011, the EU, led by the UK, built a formidable coalition of developed and developing countries that all agreed the Paris agreement should be legally binding. My close friends in the Colombian delegation say they were told at a very high level by the South African chairs that the EU was abandoning this commitment, which was simply untrue.

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I spent a lot of time as a lead negotiator worrying about how to make progress through this complex process. When Ed Miliband was the UK’s climate minister, he once said to me in frustration: “Why are you always going on to me about process? Tell me about substance.”

“Minister, in this process, process is substance,” I wearily replied. Believe it or not, I took myself seriously when I said this.

Ministers sometimes make bad mistakes

I advised a succession of UK and EU ministers in the negotiations. Most were highly effective but none could be expected to be on top of the Byzantine COP processes.

I still remember, with a sense of horror, the last days of the 2015 summit that produced the Paris agreement, when the French COP presidency produced a draft text of the agreement. It is normal practice for a presidency to test the water with a near-final draft before tabling the final one. It was clear to me as EU lead negotiator that this was not the final text, because it contained things that would never be approved by national leaders at home.

A commitment for developed countries to mobilise $100bn a year in climate finance for developing countries was, for example, included in the treaty section of the document, not the accompanying COP decision.

If it had stayed in the treaty section, that commitment would have become a legally binding obligation, rather than a non-binding goal — something no government in Europe, let alone the US, would have allowed.

To my dismay, the German delegation immediately said we should accept the text and, as minister after EU minister spoke in support, the whole room was soon celebrating the finalisation of the Paris agreement.

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I approached the EU climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, and told him in expletive-ridden terms what would happen to my career and his if we took this text back to our capitals. He was initially sceptical but eventually acquiesced after Amber Rudd, the UK’s climate minister, intervened. Gradually EU ministers stopped congratulating themselves, and we narrowly missed a dangerous moment. Miguel is a delightful man and never held this against me.

Climate campaigners treat China too gently

It is true that the US is the biggest historic emitter and has done nothing like its fair share over the past 30 years. But the biggest emitter today, by far, is China, and decisions taken in Beijing matter more than any others. I’m amazed by how much pushback I get from some NGO leaders for saying this.

I think there are some good reasons why they are reluctant to pressure Beijing. Doing so risks exacerbating tensions between China and the west, which are worsening. It also plays into the hands of those who argue China is doing nothing, which is not true. NGOs operating in China have legitimate fears about being punished if they are too critical, but others may be acting out of political correctness.

The truth is the emissions cuts of a country like the UK will always be arithmetically insignificant compared with those of China, and the climate problem does not get solved without China.

I am absolutely not saying NGOs shouldn’t pressure developed countries. Plainly, these nations should be pushed to come up with measures needed to meet their targets and show emerging economies that tackling climate change can still be done while growing economically.

But given that the bulk of global emissions now come from emerging economies, it’s even more important to press richer countries to provide the financing to help poorer nations shift to renewable energy, which is cheaper over its lifetime than fossil fuels but very capital intensive at the beginning. This funding is dramatically insufficient at the moment.

Personal relationships really matter

Todd Stern, the US lead negotiator, and his opposite number in China, Xie Zhenhua, formed a very close bond that was at the heart of many of the compromises that helped deliver the Paris agreement. They visited each other’s homes.

If I had to name one person who was crucial it would be the late Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands. Tony was not a barnstorming speaker. He never hectored or badgered, but his commitment to solving the climate problem was obvious. The Marshall Islands is also less susceptible to being browbeaten by China than other smaller nations. It has a US military base and recognises Taiwan.

But Tony was willing to challenge all of us, including the US and the EU. The upshot was he had tremendous personal authority, which he used to create an unstoppable “high-ambition coalition” of countries that eventually included the US and helped to produce the Paris agreement.

World leaders can be helpful or hopeless

Leaders behave in very different ways at these summits. Gordon Brown was all over the detail at the 2009 COP in Copenhagen and personally helped to save the meeting from failure by throwing himself into the negotiations. David Cameron spent a lot of the brief time he was at the 2015 COP in Paris sitting in the VIP tent and was one of the few heads of government not to meet his delegation.

In Glasgow in 2021, Boris Johnson and his team were almost entirely focused on producing headlines that presented the COP as a success. Johnson also lambasted his COP president Alok Sharma for succumbing to tears after a last-minute intervention from India and China weakened efforts to phase out the use of coal power. Apparently, Johnson thought it made the COP look like a failure. (Editor’s note: David Cameron’s office says he played an active part in Paris and met members of the UK delegation. Neither Sharma nor Johnson responded to requests for comment.)

A climate negotiator’s life is not fun

The life of a climate negotiator can sound glamorous, but it almost never is. COPs last for two weeks and 16-hour days are typical in the first week. This can extend to 20 hours in the second week, which very often ends with three or four days when you have no sleep at all.

Delegation rooms are typically converted portacabins, though in Durban the UK room was in an underground car park, where we inhaled diesel fumes for a week.

The food is almost always terrible and will often run out when you most need it.

There are two things that can help people come to terms with dying

Because I am a nerd, I started to read books about how to come to terms with death. I was disappointed by many, which were gruesome accounts of people’s experience with radio- and chemotherapy. I wasn’t interested in that.

The most useful book was by Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist who my wife and I have been seeing, and she said there were two things that help people. The first is a sense that one is loved and valued; the second is a sense that one’s life has been useful.

I think this confirms what I have done instinctively, which is to reach out to everyone in emails. Some people might think that’s needy. I know not everyone chooses to do this and I respect that, but it is working so far for me.

Pete Betts with his wife Fiona MacGregor in Fife, Scotland, October 2020
Pete Betts with his wife Fiona MacGregor in Fife, Scotland, October 2020

The book I am writing on the reasons we’ve got to where we are on climate, and where we go from here, is also a way of capturing where I hope I made a difference. I’ve finished most of the first draft but I would like to do a lot more work on it. One of my dreads is that I’ll run out of time to finish it.

There is one advantage to being ill

One of the few benefits is that I didn’t feel I had to write hundreds of Christmas cards last year.

Having terminal cancer has changed my view of violence

I hate violence now. I can’t even watch cartoon violence. I think I’m more aware of vulnerability, my own and that of all of us. I look at things like the Pakistan floods, and I just think it’s terrifying.

None of us lives for ever, and I’m more aware that awful things can and will happen, and we’re going to see more and more of them.

I have learnt a lot about valuing every moment

We all lapse at times into seeing life as something to be endured, something to get through. But life is to be enjoyed. I never say now that I’m “looking forward” to doing something. I’m enjoying every day.

I have been struck by the number of my friends who tell me, honestly or not, that I have helped them to value what they have. If I have encouraged people to do that, then I’m pleased.

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Pilita Clark is an FT associate editor and business columnist

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