by Tom Scott
I travelled from Cornwall to Glasgow to spend a few days protesting with many thousands of others from around the world during the COP26 climate conference. It was hard not to reflect on the similarities and differences between these protests and the big anti-Brexit marches I’d been on with Cornwall for Europe.
One very striking difference was in the age of the marchers, particularly on the massive protest organised by Fridays for Future, the schools climate strike movement, on 5 November.
It seemed as if every young person in Scotland had missed school to be there, and a huge amount of creativity had gone into their hand-painted messages. I’M MISSING MY LESSONS TO TEACH YOU A LESSON, one read. Another carried the legend: NO IRN BRU ON A DEAD PLANET. One cardboard sign read simply: RESPECT YOUR MAW (Scots for mother).
But the overwhelmingly loud cry was for climate justice. These young people were not just marching for their own futures, but in solidarity with the many indigenous people in the Global South who are already seeing their communities devastated by the first impacts of climate breakdown.
The anti-Brexit marches were also infused with an internationalist spirit, and it was heartening to see this being expressed even more strongly by the youth of Scotland and those from all the other countries who had travelled to join them. Backward-looking nationalism has no answers to the challenges posed by the climate emergency, which can only be addressed by a far higher level of international cooperation than anything we’ve seen before.
The march ended with a rally at which representatives of indigenous communities spoke alongside Greta Thunberg – the person who has done more than anyone else to raise the climate alarm.
Contrasting the hollow promises of the politicians inside their fenced conference centre with the passion and commitment of the young activists in the crowd, Greta said: “They cannot ignore the scientific consensus and above all, they cannot ignore us, the people, including their own children. They cannot ignore our screams as we reclaim our power… This is what leadership looks like.”
The following day saw an even bigger protest, organised by the COP26 coalition. The energy on this felt very different – there was drumming, chanting, bagpipes and a mass of Saltires amid all the other banners, but the rain bucketed down and the mood was one of grim determination.
The policing was more heavy-handed, too. Some activists were arrested and a line of mounted police, their horses clad in protective eye-shields, made me think the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had been recruiting.
As well they might. For the news trickling out from inside the tightly secured conference centre was increasingly grim and hopes of the summit resulting in meaningful action to “keep 1.5 alive” were fading.
As so often, it was narrowly conceived national interests that stood in the way of progress. On the conference floor, EU climate commissioner Frans Timmermans sought to remind leaders of what was at stake for every family on the planet when he held up a photo of his grandson and reflected on the grim future that awaited him if governments failed to reach a strong agreement: “If we fail, he will fight with other human beings for water and food. That’s the stark reality we face.”
But when the Glasgow Climate Pact was finally agreed, it was woefully weak. Each point in the document starts with a verb such as “invites’, “notes”, “recognises”, “requests” or – at its strongest – “urges”, rather than an unequivocal instruction to act.
Perhaps most shocking of all is that there is only one mention of fossil fuels – the direct cause of the climate crisis – in the final text, and that in a mealy-mouthed call to accelerate “efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.
It’s shameful that Boris Johnson’s government, with the presidency of COP26, has not done more to put its weight behind a more positive outcome. It could, for example, have joined with Denmark and other countries in the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance and announced an end to all drilling licences in the North Sea. It could have announced an end to all UK government subsidies for fossil fuels, which – as US climate envoy John Kerry pointed out – are “the definition of insanity”. It could have committed to much greater climate funding for poorer countries, as Scotland’s government has done with its Climate Justice Fund.
As things stand, it’s hard not to see the Glasgow Climate Pact as an elaborate suicide note couched in the language of blah-blah-blah. Or, perhaps more accurately, a note that attempts to disguise its authors’ abject failure to stop profit-driven mass murder on a global scale.
Our “leaders” have not taken the decisive action needed to avert disaster, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Although the Glasgow Climate Pact essentially kicks the can down the road to COP27 next year, it does at least acknowledge that deep emissions cuts are needed this decade. It would not have done so without intense pressure from activists and civil society organisations.
We need to redouble that pressure. And those of us who are lucky enough to live in democracies need to stop voting for the politicians who have failed so dismally to address the gravest crisis humanity has ever faced.
(A longer version of this article can be read at West Country Bylines, here.)