Inside Cop26, things are turning a little surreal

John Kerry does laps of the campus while a man in a Darth Vader suit belts out a 70s hit

Louise Boyle
Glasgow
Thursday 11 November 2021 21:17
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It’s a slightly surreal experience to be reporting from Cop26 not only as The Independent’s climate correspondent but also as someone who was born a stone’s throw from where the summit is taking place.

People have gathered in Glasgow from nearly every nation. And while there’s been some grumbles (from attendees and locals alike) about closed roads, overflowing bins, and opportunistic rentals — like this £7,000-a-week, one-bed flat with “24/7 driver” — the city’s welcome has been predictably, reassuringly, warm.

Inside the cavernous halls of the Scottish Event Campus, the atmosphere is buzzy and purposeful. Teams of negotiators flow past on their way to meetings from early morning until late at night, dozens of languages crisscrossing at once. In a side hall, countries have pitched booths where event after event is held with people putting forward plans and ideas about how to adapt to, and cope with, our rapidly-heating planet.

World leaders are ten-a-penny. John Kerry seems to be doing laps of the place. A murmur ripples through crowds when a famous (masked) face passes, usually conspicuous due to fast-moving security details. “Was that…?” is a common refrain. And no one received a reception like Barack Obama (even Leo). As the former US president made his way up a staircase at the Cop venue earlier this week, cheers went up from the hundreds of people gathered for a glimpse.

In the media center, at the far end of the venue, rows of journalists clatter on laptops in breezy, stark white tents, perched on Ikea-esque furniture under neon lights. I’ve had five, seven cans of Irn-Bru, at last count (but I’m taking heart in how Scotland’s ginger nectar has gained international fandom, via one AOC). I’ve eaten nothing but sandwiches for days. Thankfully, they are intermittently giving out free Tunnock’s Tea Cakes at the entrance.

There’s a lot of mileage inside. Sneakers are the wisest choice, and people are talking step counts. It all sounds very mundane — yet Obama’s presence in Glasgow is the not the only reminder of the stakes of this event. “Welcome to Glasgow, The World is Looking to You COP26,” read posters in stations and on billboards, featuring images of victims of climate disasters.

Activists keep up an unrelenting wave of demonstrations, inside the venue, on its fringes and broadly across the city in their thousands. “Keep it in the ground… keep it in the text,” has been the refrain in these closing days, aiming acute pressure at high-level negotiators over the fact that words very much matter here. Including mention of fossil fuels — for the first time ever — must be in the final Cop agreement to make it meaningful, protesters say.

A wide array of groups — from the Indigenous People’s Network, to Fridays For Future, to Concerned Grandparents Worldwide — are sustaining visible public pressure. Extinction Rebellion hosted a ceilidh on the edge of Cop’s security turnstiles alongside a barrier which read “No Dancing on a Dead Planet”. In a moment of light relief, a tall man in a Darth Vader costume invited those heading to the venue for a conversation on climate change in between bouts of performing Maxine Nightingale’s 70s classic Right Back Where We Started From on a karaoke machine.

During the final, hard slog toward achieving meaningful progress on keeping the 1.5C temperature target of the Paris Agreement “alive”, the tiredness in the air is palpable. (Stories abound of negotiators rolling out sleeping bags in the last days). Last night brought cautious optimism: China and the US announced a sudden pact to work together in this crucial decade. “The coffees are very large here,” one delegate observed earlier as we stood, aimlessly stirring our reusable blue cups with biodegradable spoons.

But from the windows of the main delegate zone, beyond the tents and security fences, sits an illuminated sign on the Graving Docks which belong to the River Clyde’s rich shipbuilding past — and a reminder to those inside why we’ve bothered to come here at all.

“No New Worlds,” it reads.

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