The XR people on the train from Dalmarnock were worried about their agogôs: I inched over to where they were sitting, and asked them to tell me more. I don’t have much time for Extinction Rebellion, but I do like their drumming baterias, which borrow from Brazilian samba traditions: among them the agogô, the originally West African double bell that comes in as the rhythm crests. This group’s agogôs had gone tinny. They played some rounds of a tune called ‘Custard’ to show me what they meant.
We were heading in the same direction, so we started walking together. I’m at the COP to write something for my paper, I told them, which that morning had published two pieces (by James Butler and Adam Tooze) about Andreas Malm, the Swedish climate theorist and author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Malm says it’s time, I said, for climate campaigners to move on from XR-type theatrics to disciplined sabotage of fossil-fuel infrastructure; everything is so saturated with risk already, there’s no such thing as a risk-free path. We passed the Lidl, we passed the McDonald’s, we passed the lines and lines of police. I know Malm, one of the drum-bearers said, and he’s wrong. Only the other day he’d heard about a local councillor elected somewhere on a non-party-political climate-change ticket, inspired by XR’s non-party-political, non-violent-direct-action approach. Well OK, I said, but I think ideally you want more than just the one councillor at this stage. We walked on.
Do I think it’s time to blow up pipelines? I don’t even know where the big ones are in Scotland: they come off the North Sea, presumably, and into the refinery at Grangemouth, though I did see reports of a smaller one, just south of the Clyde at Ibrox, that had been leaking as much methane as might be emitted by five hundred cows. I’m gripped, though, by another problem that James Butler raised in his Malm piece: ‘For those convinced that it is impossible to circumvent politics …’ – which is me.
Climate collapse is caused by the cumulative build-up of greenhouse gases over time: CO2 in particular spreads and then sits in the atmosphere for centuries, leading to floods and droughts and deadly landslides, miles and years away from the engine or furnace that made it, miles and years even further away from the mine owner. There are causal chains here, processes and forces, winding back at least to 1850, the year the IPCC takes as a baseline when measuring global temperature rises. So, yes, we need politics, laboriously detailed and on a massive scale; and here I am, looking for the levers. We passed the man in the Darth Vader outfit by the Marine Cloud Brightening poster, the Solar Radiation Management poster, the poster for Collective Intelligence, the Meta-Solution, with a picture of a goose on it giving birth to a golden egg.
I asked my XR friend where he was staying. Hotels had been booked out a year, sometimes two years earlier, and I’d read that a room you would normally pay £42 for now cost £1.4k. I’d just been to visit the Baile Hoose in Tradeston, a former asylum seekers’ hostel under occupation by activists from the anti-HS2 movement, who were offering a bed to people who needed it. The XR man didn’t know anything about it. He’d been renting an Airbnb and was going home that night, via London, on the Caledonian Sleeper. I said I thought the trains were on strike; he said not till tomorrow. He was right: on the night of Thursday, 11 November, there was a walkout by Rail, Maritime and Transport workers on the Caledonian Sleeper service out of Glasgow. The picket was visited by Jeremy Corbyn, back to wearing his Lenin cap.
‘Transport justice IS climate justice,’ it said on a banner at the RMT picket. ‘Social Justice = Climate Justice’ read a banner carried by the striking Glasgow City Council cleansing and refuse workers at the Fridays for Future march the week before. ‘Climate justice also means social justice,’ Greta Thunberg had tweeted: ‘We invite everyone, especially the workers striking in Glasgow, to join us.’ The General, Municipal and Boilermakers convenor told me that Greta had personally invited the bin workers to march with her, which may be true, though I don’t think it matters if it isn’t. Militant GMB workers on a youth climate march; youth climate marchers with the Glasgow bin workers. That is something in itself.
So what’s it like in there, the drum-bearer asked me when we reached the gates of the delegates-only Blue Zone, thickly fenced behind rows of anti-ram-raid bollards, with the nearby drains and lampposts swept for bombs and sealed. Huge. Bewildering. Exhausting. I don’t have a clue what I should be doing, but every day I try to find out. I had thought I’d see inside the sausage factory, the where, the what, the mechanics of how climate laws are made, but all I see are sausages in their packets, though sometimes the label on a packet has another one stuck on top. I read the ingredients and I look them up on Google or Twitter, or I go to a session to find out what they are. I sit in a session and I just don’t get it, or I do get it, which means I’m probably at something unimportant. It’s too big for one person even to begin to follow; you split into pieces when you try. So, actually I’m in despair and I’d much rather be out here with you lot. I met another journalist who said that, the XR drum-bearer said.
Do you think what you’ve been doing was worth it, I asked him, as we watched the woman on the mobility scooter with the daisy headdress, the man on stilts dressed in flags, the pilgrims from the Bristol to Glasgow COP camino, the vegan in the chicken costume handing out leaflets for Supreme Master Television. It’s been OK, he said, the march was good, but to be honest, I’m glad to be going home. The drumming is fine, but when you’ve been doing it for ages, it starts to get on your nerves.
ACOP is a Conference of the Parties, the ‘parties’ being the states that signed up to the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted after the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The UNFCCC is both a treaty and an administrative body, the secretariat, based in Bonn, which runs it, and the correct mode of reference is U-N-F-triple-C. The treaty currently has 197 signatories: 196 countries and the EU.
COP1 took place in Berlin in 1995, and since then the COP has met almost annually, twice in 2001 (Bonn, Marrakech) and not at all last year because of the pandemic. The COPs discuss additions, amplifications and amendments to the UNFCCC treaty, line by line and word for word, in hundreds of feeder sessions, bilateral and multilateral, formal and informal and informal-informal, also called ‘inf-inf’. Observers can in theory observe them, but in Glasgow they were often shut out, because, they were told, of Covid and social distancing. The process moves towards final plenaries, chaired by the current COP president, at which a party – i.e. state – representative may make a comment, welcoming or hedging or totally disagreeing with that day’s iteration of draft text.
The first major COP update came in 1997 at COP3: the Kyoto Protocol. A breakthrough was next promised for COP15 in 2009 in Copenhagen, and President Obama led a call for rich countries to build up a fund of $100 billion a year by 2020. But the talks collapsed with delegates banging name-cards on tables, and the yearly $100 billion still hasn’t transpired. COP21 in Paris in 2015 really did make progress, however, and the focus in Glasgow was to complete what the Paris Agreement started. COP26 in Glasgow was the 26th meeting of the UNFCCC signatories and the 16th of the Kyoto signatories and the third of those from Paris: in UN parlance, COP26/CMP16/CMA3.
Most parties are members of multiple overlapping alliances: the Africa Group and the Arab States and the EU and OPEC; the LMDC (Like-Minded Developing Countries) and the LDCs (Least Developed Countries), and AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States). China is an LMDC, and is also in BASIC – Brazil, India, China, South Africa – and pursues shared interests with the G77, a trading bloc formed in 1964 that now lists 134 members. The EIG, the Environmental Integrity Group, contains Liechtenstein, Mexico, Monaco, Switzerland, Georgia and the Republic of Korea. Alliances run deep and conflicts deeper, though the latter come disguised in diplomatic nicety. You grin and keep sitting there, no matter how much you hate the others at the table. The only thing worse than sitting with these people is not to be sitting there at all.
The UN’s 1945 charter defines its aim as finding peaceful solutions to international conflict, the better to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. You need food and homes for world peace, and a scourge of both is weather: hence the 1950 treaty setting up the World Meteorological Organisation, intended to communicate forecasting information across borders in order to reduce loss of life and property in storms. The Stockholm Conference in 1972 established the UN Environment Programme, then in 1988 the WMO and UNEP together established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body that issues the most widely heeded global-heating predictions. It was the IPCC that issued the ‘code red for humanity’ in August, predicting that a temperature rise of 1.5°C by 2040 is unavoidable. Action must start now if the world doesn’t want a 4.5° rise by 2100, bringing lethal heat, drowned coastlines, poisoned deserts, mass death.
The UNFCCC treaty of 1992 recognises that global heating is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, and that most of these are emitted by developed countries. Responsibility is therefore held in common, but ‘differentiated’ according to the condition and capabilities of different countries – CBDR, or ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, they call this in the negotiations, or ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’, CBDR-RC. The rich lands of the Global North must ‘take the lead’ in cutting GHG emissions – ‘mitigation’, in UNFCCC language – and providing financial support for green transition in countries that are less rich, and have to mitigate while also struggling to adapt. The framework, in other words, recognises the need for economic redistribution from the get-go. System change, not climate change. It’s all in writing, and they signed.
Kyoto dropped some actual dates and numbers into this framework, but it was Paris in 2015 that really generated the momentum, setting a global mitigation target of ‘well below 2°C’ while also acknowledging that 2° really needed to be 1.5°. Specific ‘nationally determined contributions’ on mitigation – known as NDCs in COP circles, and expected to ‘represent a progression’ over time – were also agreed: this is the bit COP people call ‘the ratchet’. Article 9 revisited the emphasis on its being the job of rich countries to give money to poorer ones, drily noting that such a mobilisation of finance ‘should represent a progression beyond previous efforts’. And Article 8 picked up on work begun at COP19 in 2013 in Warsaw to address loss and damage: a long overdue recognition that for the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable countries the disaster has already happened, and is going on happening, and is getting worse.
The COP, Fiona Harvey observed in the Guardian, is one of the last forums on earth in which global governments meet as formal equals: hence ‘the majesty and the unwieldiness of the UNFCCC process’. Applause is noticeably loudest for speakers who say what most of the world is thinking: Mia Mottley, the forceful prime minister of the brand-new Republic of Barbados, used her slot to quote Eddy Grant – her mention of Bob Marley having brought down the house at the UN General Assembly in September – and to draw a parallel between the $25 trillion that central banks should have spent on climate but didn’t and the $25 trillion they actually have spent since 2008 on quantitative easing. It’s one thing to express ‘regret’ about the non-appearance of the hundred billion, Keriako Tobiko of Kenya said in a later session. For Kenya and for Africa, 1.5° will be more in the order of 3°-plus. ‘This is what we live in, this is what our communities live through … It is a matter of life and death.’
Much of the ‘regret’ expressed during COP26 came from the COP president, the UK cabinet minister Alok Sharma. ‘The whole world will regret it,’ he said at the beginning, ‘if we don’t consign coal power to history.’ A couple of days later, he regretted the ‘logistical difficulties’ that made meetings difficult to access and caused unprecedentedly long queues. ‘It is regrettable,’ he said, ‘that we are highly unlikely to have met the $100 billion goal in 2021,’ though he still had hopes of getting there by 2023. ‘I am deeply sorry,’ he said, in the final plenary, after China and India had strongarmed him into accepting ‘a weakening of the language’ on coal, from ‘phasing out’ to ‘phasing down’.
He was obviously exhausted, worn down from weeks of pushing forward just enough to placate the Global South majority – not to mention the increasingly worried and vocal voting public in the UK – without upsetting Britain’s prospects on the Cambo oilfield, Jet Zero, the Whitehaven coal mine, Mark Carney’s fantasy-football $130 trillion Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, and the reported five-hundred-plus fossil-fuel lobbyists in attendance, as well as Claire O’Neill, his predecessor as the COP president, who after Boris Johnson had her sacked got a job representing BP, Shell and Philip Morris, among others, with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Sharma had been subsisting on Jelly Babies and Lucozade tablets. He hadn’t slept for days.
When he became tearful at the final plenary, he was applauded, in a strange combination of appreciation, icy fury, sadness and diplomatic restraint. ‘We are disappointed,’ Switzerland said on behalf of the EIG, ‘both about the process and about this last-minute change.’ Liechtenstein was disappointed too: ‘For the greater good we must swallow this bitter pill.’ Mexico: ‘We feel we have been sidelined in a non-transparent and non-inclusive process.’ Fiji expressed ‘not just our astonishment but our immense disappointment’. The Marshall Islands wished ‘to read into the record our profound disappointment … It hurts deeply to see that bright spot dim.’
The COPs are by far the biggest meetings in the UN system, and COP26 really was enormous, with nearly forty thousand delegates registered by the UNFCCC. From the outside, it’s a sealed campus made up from three events venues – the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, the Ovo Hydro and the Armadillo – linked together, with a temporary structure built over the car park as big again as all three. On the inside, it’s like an airport, concourse after concourse flanked by dull, expensive eateries, huge screens, rooms with guards behind partitions, potted plants. Security is everywhere, and theatrical, as is the constant wiping down of tables and toilet cubicles. In the toilets by the plenaries I met Alicia, a student on a gap year who had found herself an agency cleaning job for £13.25 an hour. When Obama came, he was talking right next to where she was working, but she wasn’t allowed to stop to listen. She thought she might have seen the top of his head.
‘As public expectation of sustainable practices is growing,’ I read in the UNFCCC’s ‘How to COP: A Handbook for Hosting UN Climate Conferences’, ‘host countries will want to be able to demonstrate their efforts to ensure a high standard.’ The sausage rolls were vegan or made from culled Scottish venison, and came marked with their respective carbon footprints. Coffee cups were recyclable, and actually recycled, thanks to Alicia, who fished them out from where delegates had dumped them and put them in the right box. No multinational Coke or Pepsi, just Irn Bru and other drinks in tins from A.G. Barr of Cumbernauld, a conference sponsor. Delegates got a box with a COP26 face mask, a COP26 reusable water bottle, a vial of Dettol hand sanitiser and an impractically enormous pack of Dettol wipes. Dettol’s parent company, Reckitt, was a conference sponsor too.
There was little swag otherwise. The press-room printers imposed a limit of twenty pages, double-sided, on porous grey recycled paper – I spent a lot of time there, trying to print things, and firing up Twitter, and fighting with the online COP26 Platform, which was supposed to let you access meetings remotely, though it seldom did. I was once allowed into an informal, at which parties sit in an open square formation and may speak only in strict order. Half of them were OK about having the word ‘workshop’ in there, the other half really weren’t. A joke about whisky went round the table, to keep everybody in good cheer. Another time, I made it into an inf-inf, where negotiators break into huddles. I saw spreadsheets with categories of emission-generating activities: cement production, lime production, glass production, chemical industry, rice cultivation, prescribed burning of savannahs. Manure management, harvested wood products, other. If you want to, you can find the equations in the 2006 IPCC Guidelines, most recently updated in the 2019 Refinement. You use them when you calculate NDCs.
I was about to leave the Blue Zone one night when I noticed a row of empty chairs by the cloakroom, a couple of which had men sitting in them. ‘Whose chair?’ a woman with a Latin accent called. ‘My chair.’ Men, I thought, and then the woman called again. ‘Whose chair? My chair.’ The men scuttled off. Another woman came with another chair: she was wearing a yellow face mask that said FEMINIST CLIMATE JUSTICE. Then there were more women in yellow face masks, then more.
Civil society engagement is of ‘fundamental value’ to UN climate conferences, it says in the ‘How to COP’ handbook. Demonstrations, ‘also known as actions or media stunts’, are encouraged, so long as permission is sought and UN security is in attendance. The empty chairs were the work of the Women and Gender Constituency, one of nine UNFCCC groupings of civil society observer organisations – there are others for youth, indigenous people, trade unions, farmers, academics. The piece proceeded to call out the exclusivity of the COP space, which ‘remains inaccessible to many Indigenous, Afrodescendant, young, grassroots and frontline activists, advocates and feminists, especially those trying to come from the Global South’. The names of 27 women were listed, who were not at the COP because of the expense and a lack of clarity over visas, vaccines, quarantines, the red list. Some had sent statements: ‘Many times they talk about the voiceless,’ Lourdes Albornoz said. ‘I would like to tell them that we all have a voice, even the mountains.’ The speakers went on ‘to honour the lives of women environmental defenders who … have lost their lives in the process of working towards more just futures’. I counted more than seventy women’s names on this list. Then a moment’s silence at the end.
I sat on the shuttle bus afterwards with a woman called Gertude, who runs SWAGEN, an organisation in Uganda that supports women in areas where indigenous lands have been ‘gazetted’, i.e. enclosed and turned into parks for tourists. She is a COP veteran and was sponsored on this trip by WEDO, a New York-based NGO founded in the early 1990s by Bella Abzug (as seen on Mrs America). WGC members, Gertrude told me, spend all year planning how best to make the points that need making, in meetings, in Blue Zone actions, at the public events outside, and co-ordinate their colours daily to match their face masks. Sure enough, she was wearing yellow leggings, and a scarf. The bus crawled down the Broomielaw, hindered by a small XR uprising on the pavement. Gertrude said she thought these people shouldn’t be wasting their time stopping others from going about their business, adding that tomorrow the WGC was wearing blue, with blue face masks. She gave me a yellow one she hadn’t needed.
I tried to meet up with Gertrude again, but it didn’t happen. She was in meeting after meeting, then I got ill, then someone in Gertrude’s group had suspected Covid and was quarantined in their hotel, which was in Edinburgh, because they couldn’t get anywhere to stay in Glasgow. Then Gertrude was coming to London, hoping to shop at the markets: ‘Everybody from countries colonised by Britain wants to visit London.’ We tried and failed to meet in London too.
Another day, I met a young man in a business suit, with a home-painted sign on the back of the jacket. YOUR GREED, OUR DEATH! it said, with the XR colophon in the corner. He was at the COP with a German youth group and had joined up with other youth delegates to work on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which establishes markets that allow rich countries to pay poor ones to cut emissions for them, by planting a forest, maybe, or building a hydro project. Something similar exists already under the Kyoto Protocol, but has been found open to dodgy accounting and human rights abuses – against the people living on the land to be planted up, for example, or in the valley earmarked for the dam. Article 6 work is dry, time-consuming and technical, which is the reason the working group decided to do it. It’s ‘super-important’, a young man called Vincent said, that the young of the Global North don’t take up all the space going on about being young and it being their future: ‘I think we need something to say, and suggestions.’ The day after, it was the turn of Vincent’s friend Vladislav to wear the XR banner, but when he did it was ‘sequestrated’ by security, and thereafter banned.
‘Our point was, we’re not just a youth group,’ a law researcher called Injy told me. Every day, the working group met, read the drafts from the night before and put together a one-page brief with ideas on ways to strengthen the Article 6 language on accounting and human rights. They staked out negotiators on WhatsApp and around the Blue Zone, thrusting their one-pagers at them, watching them get tireder and tireder, easier, perhaps, to nudge. They did a die-in one day, shouting about ‘zombie credits’: it gave them, Injy said, a way of telling people what was happening in the negotiations, given that observers were having trouble getting in. ‘I think that’s how we got traction,’ Injy said. ‘They could see there were people really closely tracking what they did.’
The Article 6.4 text as agreed establishes an ‘independent grievance process’: Injy and Vincent will never know what happened, but they do know this was something their group had pushed for throughout. ‘It felt like Christmas,’ Injy told me. The point of getting ‘the language’ in is that it creates the opportunity for somebody, somewhere, to push further on it next time. ‘We might have had an impact there and we will never know,’ Vincent said. ‘Just the chance, though, made it the most worthwhile two weeks of my life.’
Ididn’t spend much time at the pavilions, which are like pavilions at trade fairs but more sustainable – fewer boring leaflets on glossy cardboard. The UK, Chatham House and the Russian Federation had swanky pavilions with galleries and staircases. The Russians had a Nespresso machine. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had to share. There was a Water Pavilion for water, a Peatland Pavilion for peatlands, a Bamboo and Rattan Organisation Pavilion for bamboo and rattan, and the Cryosphere – where you went to cry. Though you might also cry in the Tuvalu Pavilion, where the Taiwanese artist Vincent J.F. Huang had installed polar bears in life jackets and a suicidal penguin, hanging from a noose.
Friday, 12 November was my final day. It started with a people’s plenary, featuring Ta’Kaiya Blaney of the Tla’Amin Nation: ‘COP26 is a performance, it’s an illusion,’ she said, ‘constructed to salvage the capitalist economies rooted in resource extraction and colonialism.’ ‘We need more of these folk in headdresses,’ a paparazzo with a Glasgow accent was saying to his friend. ‘Colonialism caused climate change,’ Blaney continued, ‘and I am not going to my coloniser for solutions.’ The room rose and marched out to join the Fridays for Future demonstration outside.
I settled down at the Trent Kitchen on the concourse to watch the morning stocktaking plenary on my laptop. Frans Timmermans, the EU commissioner for climate action, waved around a picture of his grandson. I couldn’t bear the way he always shouted. But Tina Stege, the climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, I could have watched for ever. She makes distinctions with precision: a return to the table next year for 1.5°-aligned NDCs; loss and damage too important to be a workshop with no tie-in to reliable process or outcomes. Sometimes she wore a band of flowers, sometimes seashell earrings, sometimes a single plumeria, and at this session flowers in white and yellow, made for her, I later discovered, by her cousin Mary. Her big strokes are as clear as her fine ones: it’s the next decade that will define human history, for her, for her children and for your children. ‘We must not allow a step back.’
Afterwards, I saw her at the Grab and Go, standing and eating an egg mayo sandwich. I asked her if she could talk and she said sorry, she was about to faint. But she did give me an email address, and we spoke on Zoom after the COP ended. I asked her what she saw happening in the future, given the profound disappointment she and her allies had expressed. She answered me severely. ‘What other process do we have? This is the only process we have. So we show up, and we don’t show up just to say empty words.’ She’d slept, she said, for the whole Sunday after the COP ended. ‘Then Monday was time to start all over again.’
She works from New York because it takes too long to get to meetings otherwise: four and a half hours from Majuro to Honolulu, then another five-plus to LA. In any case, the Marshall Islands have been under strict travel restrictions since 2020. She hasn’t been home for two years. Her brother, she said, sent her pictures just before the COP started, showing his front yard with seawater bubbling up through the ground. High tides flood roads and houses, and wells that used to be fresh have gone brackish. The threat of drought is always present, dengue fever returned in 2019, and what finance there is for adaptation – rainwater catchments, reverse osmosis – is difficult to access.
At 6 p.m. on the Friday, word came that the talks would run on into Saturday. Contractors eyed up the joins on the prefabs. Some of the pavilions were already being struck. But not the Water Pavilion, in which a rave was in progress, with dancers in a circle round the paparazzo who had wanted more headgear. He was doing a Highland fling. ‘Ninety-Nine Red Balloons’ came on in German, then the song from Dirty Dancing, then I was in a ‘Purple Rain’ conga-line between a Green Party member of the Bundestag and a delegate from Togo. On we danced through the pavilions to Lou Bega. Then the music stopped and I met a young Sudanese man who had only just managed to get to Glasgow two days before. Only two Sudanese had made it at all, he said, out of a delegation of fifteen.
I wrote that the Cryosphere Pavilion was where you went to cry, but actually the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative campaigns for the recognition in international law of the special difficulties of habitats in which ice predominates – the poles, but also the Himalaya, the Andes. When soot gets on ice it blackens it, lowering its albedo (its ability to reflect solar rays), which causes it to melt, catastrophically. The cryosphere’s advocate in Glasgow was a woman called Pam, who used to work as a diplomat at the UN. Temperatures have risen in the cryosphere already by at least twice the global average, and this threatens everybody, as seas rise, oceans acidify, carbon spews from melting permafrost. A group of countries, Pam told me, led by Nepal and Switzerland, requested a ‘cryosphere dialogue’ for next June’s intersessionals, though it probably won’t happen. ‘However, the word at least did finally appear in the preambular section. That’s at best a foot in the door, but at least the door has been cracked open.’
The Glasgow Climate Pact as finally gavelled procrastinates on NDCs and finance, it’s weak on coal and fossil fuels, and it doesn’t do much for loss and damage, but it does mention human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, and local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women, a just transition with decent work, and intergenerational equity. Nice words, though all of them were in the Paris Agreement already. It also notes the integrity of all ecosystems, including forests, oceans and the cryosphere, and the protection of biodiversity, recognised by some cultures as Mother Earth. It even notes ‘the importance for some’ of the concept of ‘climate justice’, as the Paris Agreement did before it. The cryosphere language is new, however. Not much, but it’ll have to be a start.