When I knew I wanted to be in Glasgow during COP26, I signed up as a volunteer with COP26 Climate Coalition, offering my time as a steward and a helper at events or Covid-19 registration points: all volunteers must show daily evidence of a negative lateral flow test before they’re allowed to participate. Generally, there is much more care taken here in Scotland – with masks and distancing mandatory, a clarity I’ve found helpful.
The Coalition has been overwhelmed with support so I am only on a waiting list for several shifts this week. Meanwhile, as the world’s leaders gather to decide what path they want to establish towards our shared future, I’ve been able to do my own bit of flaneusing in this city whose name means ‘Dear Green Place’, built on coal and colonialism. Walking over 10 miles each day between the Kelvin and the Clyde, I’ve seen and heard so much it’s going to take a while to process, but for now this is just a quick dispatch of initial impressions.
One of the first things you can’t help noticing are the mounds of rubbish piling up everywhere and spilling all over the streets. The summit is coinciding with a strike by the bin collection and street cleaning union GMB. Climate activists have been invited to join the picket lines in solidarity with the workers seeking a pay rise – a gesture that indicates the blurred lines between climate justice and economic justice. The main criticism of the COP26 discussions is that they don’t go far enough and fail to take into account the need for a radical overhaul of a corrupt and unsustainable system – not just human rights but the rights of the environment itself. Indigenous activists are in Glasgow to make the point from their direct experience – although they insist they are simply repeating what they’ve been saying for over a decade at previous COPs. As you walk through the streets there’s an air of carnival with costumes (and music) from all over the world enlivening the predominant greys and blacks – Sami, Native American, Central American, African, and a pleasing array of kilts. Even some of the police (out in greater numbers than I’ve ever seen before) are wearing jaunty red, orange or white baseball caps – signifiers of some code known only to them.
Each evening there is a Coalition Movement Assembly, an open democratic space where we hear updates from the main event’s Blue Zone (mostly seen as empty pledges, even the welcome agreement about halting deforestation showing no concrete detail). Speakers from all over the world present different aspects of what’s at stake and what needs to be addressed. It’s a great chance to meet and talk with others, educate ourselves and find out what questions need to be asked to inform what actions need to be taken. Pollokshields Community Food Project are in the kitchen making wonderful vegan food, which is followed by an Open Mic Ceilidh. Last night I listened to a set from Poets for the Planet, several spirited musicians and watched Matthew the Juggling Gent. A welcome bit of downtime after so much intense reflection and discussion.
All the grass roots camaraderie is in stark contrast to another thing you can’t help noticing as you walk round the city – that every available surface seems to be plastered with an advertisement or display extolling a retailer’s, manufacturer’s or council’s green credentials. It does strange things to your sense of reality because if it were all true, surely we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. When was buying or using more stuff the route to a sustainable future? ‘Greenwashing’ comes up again and again and the conference spoken of as more a trade agreement than a climate agreement.
Going beneath this predictable capitalist veneer, arts and culture offers more sobering evidence of what’s really happening. In the window of the CCA (Centre for Contemporary Arts) on Sauchiehall Street, there’s a stark announcement that last year 611 climate activists were murdered in Colombia. Some of their faces look out at you as you read about their fate. Inside the gallery, there’s an exhibition called The Word for World is Forest (after the 1968 Ursula K Le Guin novel). I watch a film made by young Nunavut people about the effect of the ice melting in the Arctic and look at Sophie Reuter’s photographs of tree protectors in Germany’s Hambach Forest, violently assailed by police trying to uphold plans to raze the area for high-carbon lignite mining.
In the Assemblies there’s lots of talk about Outside and Inside – the need to find ways to move between the two, break down the barriers between those ‘in power’ and those apparently ‘powerless’. Everyone who’s made an effort to show up here in Glasgow – and enormous efforts have been made, with several groups walking here all the way from Spain, the Netherlands, Cornwall, Bristol and London – all of them are keen to prove that power doesn’t involve exploitation, and the real power lies with the people and the time has come when they/we will stop at nothing to make it known.
Ursula K Le Guin ends her introduction to The Word for World is Forest with the question that in a hundred different ways is being asked of the leaders at the summit: ‘I wonder, couldn’t we start listening to our dreams, and our children’s dreams?’ At least now dreams are actually being mentioned. Old silences have been broken.
To be continued…
Tuesday 2nd November 2021