Comment: COP26 is not the great leveller the world needs it to be
It’s clear from the way COP26 has been touted as the last best chance to save the planet that the UN climate summit, which got underway in Glasgow yesterday, is expected to find a global solution to a global problem every single person on the planet is going to be affected by.
It is only fitting, then, that the event should be imbued with a sense of equality, with Scottish journalists braving the two-hour plus queue for entry to the site alongside Ugandan government delegates and US academic observers.
The former, who claimed never to have been to a worse-organised event in 15 years of attending COPs, just wanted to gain entry so discussions could get underway in earnest; the latter hoped to be able go home to Minnesota with positive news on how human rights concerns are being factored in to whatever is agreed at the summit.
Though the mood in the queue remained positive in spite of the inexplicably long entry process, anyone taking the ubiquity of the cold Scottish welcome as evidence that the conference is some kind of great climate justice leveller only needs to take a stroll around the pavilion to be disabused of that idea.
Much has been made about this COP being the most exclusionary ever, with the impact of Covid-19 preventing huge numbers of delegates from attending. Polluting nations are out in force – Australia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia have some of the largest, jazziest stands – but the countries of the global south – those that face being wiped off the map completely if a solution to global warming is not found with haste – are conspicuous by their absence. In the exhibition hall only Tuvalu has the luxury of telling its story at a stand of its own, with the rest of those tiny, diverse nations being represented collectively by the Association of Small Island States.
There is clearly much more to the conference than a hall full of exhibitors, but the implication of what can be found in the pavilion is clear: those with the deepest pockets and loudest voices are going to have the greatest say at COP26 despite arguably having the least amount of skin in the game.
And so to the World Leaders Summit, which opened with a serious of elderly and ageing wealthy white men – Eton-educated British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, senior UK royal Prince Charles, veteran broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough – making the case for saving the planet.
Though their pleas were impassioned, and each noted the important role that younger generations are playing in the fight for climate justice, the optics could not have been worse. In a barnstorming speech that followed, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley – who stressed that a two degree temperature rise would be a “death sentence” for nations such as her own – made the case not only for immediate and far-reaching action, but for the importance of having a diversity of voices at the decision-making table too.
After making their national statements, the world leaders were due to be whisked to a gala dinner in Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, a city institution whose main entrance is flanked by banners bearing the inscription ‘People Make Glasgow’. That may be the case, but when world leaders are in town the people must be kept at bay and the police presence around the museum and surrounding streets was so tight that even local residents had to make a strong case to cross the security barrier.
Of course, when 120 world leaders are in town the common man cannot expect an invite to the party, but for Cat Scothorne of protest group Glasgow Calls Out Polluters, the sight of prime ministers and presidents cavalcading the short distance from the SEC to Kelvingrove in official cars sums up everything that is wrong with COP26.
"How dare these world leaders have a fancy dinner on the first night of COP26, as if they have something to be proud of,” she says. “The continued support of the fossil fuel industry by the heads of state, particularly in the global north, is killing millions of people. The consequences of climate change are faced by people not in power, but those mainly in the global south and people on sites where extraction occurs, yet the perpetrators sit in luxury, insulated from it all."
Climate change is impacting on people from all walks of life no matter where in the world they are. It is a shame that, from the outset at least, COP26 does not appear to be reflecting that.