Welcome to Glasgow! Affectionately known as ‘the dear green place’ since it was a small fishing village on the banks of the River Clyde, it’s Scotland’s biggest city, and it’s about to host the 26th United Nations Convention of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26). It’s an appropriate location for this most crucial event, which may be the last realistic opportunity to get runaway climate change under control, and finally face up to the fact that we have reached our planetary limits.

Today, the sun was shining and the trees were golden in Glasgow, as thousands of participants, official and unofficial, arrived for the start of COP26. In the city centre, as thousands of Glaswegians did their shopping, the pavement cafes were full, the street musicians played, and not only did the statue of the Duke of Wellington have the customary traffic cone on his head, so did his horse (we know how to treat our statues in Glasgow!). On the steps of the Concert Hall, a regular site for demonstrations, several Scottish MPs and the director of the Scottish Refugee Council were among those offering a welcome to refugees to COP26. In George Square, a large group of Sudanese refugees were protesting the military coup in Sudan, accompanied by drumming. In Buchanan Street, the Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign and the Communist Party had set up their stalls. All of this is normal for a Saturday afternoon in Glasgow, and there seemed little sign of what’s about to happen.

But in the middle of the street was a huge sign advertising the Global Day of Action and the March for Climate Justice on November 6th. In a city centre church, Protest Art: A Lament in Black Paint is displaying three arresting portraits of climate refugees by Glasgow artist (and former Iona Community staff member) Iain Campbell, each one dipped in black paint so the subjects are all-but obscured. And everywhere there is branding; hanging from the lampposts and wrapped round bollards – even in the Botanic Gardens. I live only thirty minutes walk from the Scottish Events Campus (SEC), where the formal COP26 negotiations will take place. But I cannot get anywhere near it; for the next two weeks, it is officially territory of the United Nations, heavily fortified and policed, with helicopters circling overhead.

The scale of the event is immense! You can imagine it as a series of concentric circles. The innermost circle in the Presidency Programme at the SEC, in the so-called Blue Zone, which begins with the 2-day World Leaders Summit, followed by ten themed days at the delegate level of nations and regions. Wrapped around the Presidency Programme as a second circle at the SEC are the Side Events and Exhibits, hundreds of high-level events of the various UN secretariats and multilateral platforms, institutes and organisations, such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to name just a few. The Blue Zone is not open to the public.

The third circle, also part of the COP26 programme, is the Green Zone, located in the Glasgow Science Centre. This is the Civil Society Programme – youth groups, academia, NGOs, faith groups, businesses, artists – and it’s open to the public, but by ticket only, and all the tickets for its over 200 events are already gone, though many of them are also accessible online.

The fourth circle is the Host City Zone, being held in Glasgow City Chambers and in some City Council venues, with another extensive programme of civic receptions and seminars, often with leaders and citizens from other cities.

The fifth circle is a whole host of fringe events taking place in churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, universities, cinemas and community venues across the city, and indeed right across the Central Belt of Scotland and into Edinburgh on the east coast. Some of these are quite polite, some are political (the Scottish Green Party has a base in a church near me) and some are living out Glasgow’s radical reputation. The People’s Summit for Climate Justice runs from 7-10 November, and this is very much education and action from below, with a strong emphasis on indigenous peoples’ struggles, youth events and local environmental activism. Many of its events take place in Govan, first home of the Iona Community.

Glaswegians have many concerns about COP26; from how they are going to get about their daily lives with so many traffic diversions and street closures, to whether this influx of people from all over the world is going to cause a spike in Covid-19 infections (despite all the precautions that the various organisers are taking). Some folk don’t think it should be happening at all, or that it should all be done on Zoom or that its means are inconsistent with its ends. Many are deeply cynical about a positive outcome: about limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees C, about rich nations putting their money where their mouths are, and about the UK government’s seriousness on real change. Boris Johnston is not a loved politician in Glasgow.

But others are deeply engaged, looking forward to welcoming visitors in our homes over the next two weeks, and of the conviction that we owe more than cynicism to the people (who have mostly been excluded from COP26) in the places which continue to suffer the worst consequences of climate change in spite of having done nothing to cause it.

– Kathy Galloway

Kathy Galloway is a writer, activist and practical theologian. She has worked for the Iona Community, Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty. She lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

Photo © David Coleman

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