Does anyone talk about acid rain these days? Reflections on COP26 in Glasgow.

Well the circus has left town and things are getting back to normal in Glasgow. I couldn’t let COP26 happen on my doorstep and not write a few words about it.

I was lucky enough to attend the rally in Glasgow Green and some of the allied events organised under the banner of the “people’s summit” that brought community, interest and activist groups together in spaces all over the city to discuss different aspects of the climate crisis. It wasn’t the main event in the guarded Zones, I wasn’t rubbing shoulders with Prime Ministers or Presidents but it was a fascinating experience nonetheless.

It was great to be back in amongst campaigners. I used to be heavily involved in Amnesty International and took part in many efforts to raise awareness, change policies and protest injustices. I recognised the type of people involved and felt not only a solidarity with them, but a familiarity. Whilst the majority were young people, I was glad to see some older hands there and was pleased when one panellist called on these campaign veterans to share their expertise. Older women who fought against sex discrimination, against nuclear weapons, against apartheid whose values have never wavered despite struggle after struggle and who have a wealth of experience in community organising. Older men whose outer frailness belies the strength of their determination to fight for workers’ rights, for a fair and free society, who have picketed and striked more often than they care to remember but still they turn up and hold a banner and stand for that which they believe is just.

Rally in Glasgow Green

I met people from Lithuania, Portugal, Laos, indigenous people from the Americas and activists from Nigeria. Speakers and panellists from all over the world spoke passionately, eloquently and persuasively about aspects of climate change that meant the most to them. They lead us in chants, they lead us in song, they encouraged, inspired and uplifted. They begged and they pleaded. Their stories were complex but their solutions are simple. Consume less, burn less, destroy less. Consider others. Put people before profit.

I heard a lot of talk about young people. Listen to young people. Think of young people. Young people are the future. All that is good and true, but the issues at stake aren’t new. When I was a child in the 80s we were very aware of environmental issues. We campaigned to save the whales. We learned that an area of the Amazon the size of Wales was being destroyed every year. Pesticides and other chemicals were being banned and deemed harmful to the ecosystem. We were obsessed with acid rain and the Ozone layer. Chernobyl happened. We were aware. We spoke up. We wrote letters and made posters and joined Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. We were aware. The politicians in charge today, the company bosses and financiers, they were most likely children in the 80s. They are aware. They have been aware their whole lives.

I saw a clip on Twitter from George Monbiot which pretty much summed it up. The excerpt is here:

“There is no economic barrier standing in the way, there is no technological barrier standing in the way, the only thing which stops them from doing what they need to do is the lack of political will.”

We can gather, we can march, protest, chant, sing, shout as much as we want but it will make very little difference. Joining groups which share your values is a good step. You feel less alone, like you are actually doing something. But that isn’t enough. We have to consume less and consume smarter. Support local and ethical and sustainable companies. Educate ourselves. Vote for politicians who share your values and continue to put pressure on those who don’t.

I said that we’ve been aware of the issues longer than I’ve been alive, but when I was a child everyone smoked and nobody ever drank water. Now we agree that smoking is pretty much the worst thing you can do to your body and kids are sent to school with water bottles to help them study. We have learned to take better care of our bodies, hopefully we can now take care of our planet.

COP26 was the biggest event to happen in this city since the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Whilst there was the same air of hospitality, celebration and energy as 7 years ago, there were also questions as to whether Glasgow is really equipped to cope with such a huge international event. Many local people only saw inconvenience. Road closures, transport disruptions, streets barricaded, shops, restaurants and venues off-limits and a massive police and security presence the likes of which I’m sure has never been seen here before.

Some said it was a waste of time. Why can’t they do it virtually? I certainly understand the concerns about holding a mass event in on ongoing pandemic (yes, it is still ongoing) but these talks do have to be done in person, in real life. The speeches from stages, platforms and podiums inside the main arena aren’t what shapes the ultimate decisions or agreements. These are negotiated by people running from room to room in the back corridors and small meeting rooms. Delegations rely on a quiet word and exchange here, a chance encounter and hastily seized opportunity there to develop the plans, bargains and language that goes into the drafts that are produced. That kind of thing can’t happen remotely in a virtual space.

Why Glasgow? I have no idea. The cynic in me suggests it’s a Tory unionist ploy. See, stay part of the UK and we’ll give you all these big shiny things! Either way, I think it’s a good thing that these events don’t always happen in London. The decentralising of power is generally to be welcomed. Saying that, I live near Glasgow Airport and there were so many wee aeroplanes and helicopters buzzing about our skies for the whole 2 weeks that it seemed entirely counter-productive to the whole theme of the affair.

When Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games it came along with various associated sporting and active lifestyle initiatives, anniversary events etc. I hope the same happens after COP26. There’s certainly been more attention given to it here because it has been on our doorstep – my older child’s school did a whole theme day on the first Friday for example, and it’s been headline news every single day which most certainly doesn’t happen when COPs are hosted elsewhere. I’m not sure if there are plans for COP26 legacy events but I sincerely hope so.

My take-away? I have more questions now than answers. I leaned that much that seems good is actually harmful. Initiatives that plant trees? Not if they are the wrong type of tree. Protecting animals in reserves? Not if people can’t get access to their traditional lands. Hydro-electric dams as an alternative to fossil fuels? Not if they cause rivers to stagnate depriving local people of traditional fishing and travel and result in algae which releases methane. So I need to learn more. More about “greenwashing” and the multi-faceted nature of all these issues. I need to learn more about not only what I as an individual in the UK can do (a little more about that can be found here), but how I can support those in other countries. I need to learn more about the various campaign and activist groups and support them either through work or volunteering.  

They say “Glasgow” means “Dear Green Place”. I hope history will be kind to the Glasgow COP, both in terms of any progress made worldwide as a result of the agreements and in how our city and Scotland as a whole takes this as a jumping off point to do better, go further, be Greener than ever before.

March nearing Glasgow Green

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