‘What good is theatre? I believe its value resides in its bringing us together, in the sharing of our common humanity….(David Greig, Artistic Director, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Returning from a brief visit to a play in Edinburgh late last night, I was reflecting on COP26 as theatre, or at least, as performative. The gathering of the world leaders – blink and you missed it- is over, and they have all jetted off to the next destination, taking their ridiculous motorcades with them. But not before they have their own moment in the limelight on the world stage, many of them in speeches characterised by immense hubris. Theirs is so much the theatre of the absurd, against a stage set of corporate green-wash, that parody is irresistible.

The imaginative street theatre of the youth activists should not obscure the fact that these young people are mostly extremely well-informed and fiercely committed (it is their future we are gambling with, after all); this may be at least one of the reasons why they, in particular the young women, attract so much online abuse from sad middle-aged white men. Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion are two movements which attract much opprobrium, but actually bring together elderly people horrified at the lack of seriousness of political leaders, and young climate campaigners burning with frustration at the ‘blah, blah, blah!’

Because their goals are crucial. One of their key demands is that the UK government fund insulation of all social housing by 2025, and that by 2030, they should have created and implemented a  fund  for retrofitting insulation of all homes in Britain. The opening speaker at a UN Side event, with the somewhat ponderous title of Climate-Neutral Housing-decarbonizing the housing stock in an inclusive and affordable way’, said firmly that we will not achieve net-zero without decarbonizing housing, and in this, national strategies are crucial. This event, organized by the UN Economic Commission for Europe, Housing Europe and UN Habitat, missed their welcome by the Leader of Glasgow City Council, who was self-isolating after a COVID-positive  contact, which was instead offered by Brian Evans, City of Glasgow Urbanist (who knew!).

The event included a detailed presentation of the history of Glasgow’s housing, and its decarbonization plan for net zero by 2030, from the heavy price paid by most of its citizens for the city’s pre-eminent role as a 19th and early 20th century industrial powerhouse, in the overcrowded and squalid nature of their housing, through its post WW2 years of poverty, unemployment and mass tenement destruction and clearance. These uprooted communities wholesale and replaced much of the Victorian housing stock with a major high-rise building programme, much of which was of poor quality.

It was fascinating as an Iona Community member to hear about the turning point that was reached in the early 1970s, when a group of architectural students, including our own Raymond Young, created a new paradigm of housing renewal through the development of citizen-led housing associations, ending the destruction of tenements in favour of their re-generation, and eventually through the renewal of local communities in their own neighbourhoods. We in the Community should be very proud of the contribution that Raymond’s work in housing over a lifetime has made to housing, especially in Glasgow.

In Scotland, a third of social housing tenants live in fuel poverty (25% across the UK as a whole), and there are 52 million people in Europe who cannot afford to heat their homes. But these challenges pale into insignificance when considered on a global scale. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing spoke of the indisputable impacts of climate change for homes across the world. Flooding and fires mean that millions are losing their homes, often having to move to already overcrowded cities and camps, where their rights, including their housing rights, are seriously endangered. It is estimated that by 2050, if massive change does not happen, there will be 1 billion displaced and homeless people. At present, the worst impacts are in East and South Asia and the Pacific, but these are likely to spread more widely.

The housing sector does not just face the consequences of climate change, it also causes them. Building-related emissions are a huge contributor to global totals. But increasingly, poor governance, corruption, evictions and land-grabbing are exacerbating the housing crisis, reproducing existing inequalities and increasing discrimination against the most vulnerable communities. Case-studies from different places, highlighted some of the possibilities and opportunities that already exist, but if we do not have clear national leadership and long-term regional strategies, we will be failing the poorest.

This session had none of the theatricality of other parts of COP26; just very determined and dedicated people sharing their expertise, doing their jobs and working hard to create an alternative future. After all of the drama is over, it is in the nitty-gritty of such detail in so many sectors that hope lies.

And in Glasgow University Chapel, a small group of Iona Community-associated students and staff gathered at lunchtime, as they have done every week, to share their prayers for climate justice.


  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.

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