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En route to the G20 summit in Rome, the prime minister said the world could “go backwards” – as it did after its famous empire fell – unless a deal to halt the climate emergency is struck at the Cop26 summit.
“Humanity, civilisation and society can go backwards as well as forwards and when they start to go wrong, they can go wrong at extraordinary speed,” Mr Johnson said.
“You saw that with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.”
And he added: “It’s true today that, unless we get this right in tackling climate change, we could see our civilisation, our world, also go backwards.”
“We could consign future generations to a life far less agreeable than our own,” he said – pointing to shortages of food and shortages of water and conflict caused by climate change.
“There is absolutely no question that this is a reality we must face.”
Pointing again to the example of the end of the Romans, the prime minister said: “People lost the ability to read and write and the ability to draw properly. They lost the way to build in the way that the Romans did.”
He also compared the situation to a football match, saying: “If this was half time, I would say we were about 5-1 down. We have a long way to go, but we can do it.”
Ahead of urging other G20 leaders to beef up their CO2-cutting commitments, Mr Johnson told reporters: “We need to spit out our oranges and get back on the pitch.”
Admitting his own “road to Damascus” conversion - after a journalism career in which he scoffed at climate change - Mr Johnson said the key moment had only come after he became prime minister.
He said he was briefed by government scientists soon after arriving in Downing Street, in 2019.
“I got them to run through it all and, if you look at the almost vertical kink upward in the temperature graph, the anthropogenic climate change, it’s very hard to dispute,” he said.
“That was a very important moment for me. That’s why I say what I say.”
Asked if he was eating less meat as a way to cut his carbon footprint, Mr Johnson replied: “I’m eating a bit less of everything, which may be an environmentally friendly thing to do.”