Tue, May 24, 2022

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Inside with diplomats and carbon counters, outside with protesters and their manure


GLASGOW, Scotland - They say the last best chance to save the planet is happening here, in a bland cavernous conference center, where indigenous leaders in feather headdresses brush past Prince Charles, and Wall Street money huddles with green hydrogen nerds.

Inside the global climate summit known as COP26? The vibe is pandemic meets the annual meeting of the World Geophysical Society. There's virtue signaling, greenwashing and speeches in sometimes half-empty halls.

The pledges came fast and furious this past week. About all the great things that will happen in 2030 or 2050 or 2070.

Meanwhile, in the backrooms, the planet's actuarial accountants were toting up how many more gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents we can emit before the polar ice caps melt.

Outside? There were 100,000 people in the streets of Glasgow on Saturday, marching through the wind and rain.

It's called "dreich," according to Tamara Colchester, 35, of London. "It's like a grim, drizzly day," she said. "Specifically in Scotland."

Costumes and creative signs abounded: one man on stilts was bedecked in blue fabric and cloth sea creatures. Children held up a long piece of fabric meant to look like a caterpillar.

Alice Francis and Malcom Strong, from southwest Scotland, arrived pushing a homemade "bulls--- cart," complete with a trash bin, rake and real manure from their horse, Dougal, back home

Strong, a woodworker, was particularly angered by what he deemed problematic forestry practices in Britain. Humanity - and specifically Britain's Conservative government - needs to clean up its mess, he said.

But hey, the negotiations are going well. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry is cautiously optimistic.

But hey, the talks are a failure. Swedish superstar activist Greta Thunberg thinks COP is a con.

Inside the summit, masks. Negotiators drinking carbon-neutral coffee in sustainable blue coffee cups.

Outside the summit, the comedic actor Rainn Wilson paid to have a melting iceberg shipped to Glasgow from Greenland. Little kids waved signs echoing Thunberg's disdainful refrain, "blah, blah, blah."

What does COP26 feel like? Depends.

After four years largely in absentia under president Donald Trump, the United States has reestablished a foothold at the conference under President Joe Biden.

Like hand sanitizer, Kerry has been omnipresent. The old climate warrior said he'd never been to an environmental summit with "a greater sense of urgency" and "a greater sense of focus."

Kerry has been coming to these shows since the first "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Hana Kidy, an economic liaison with the Liberian delegation, is at her first COP.

"It feels awesome," she said. "It feels overwhelming. It feels intense. Mostly intense."

Intense, but also not that intense?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the summit it was "one minute to midnight." But he appeared to have time to take a short nap on camera. President Biden may have been resting his eyes, too.

There have been long lines to get into the Blue Zone, the secure guts of the summit. You need a negative coronavirus test. The security guards check, usually.

At the star-studded beginning of the week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's entourage was everywhere, rushing back and forth past the Scottish Larder and Grab & Go, where participants could purchase overpriced egg mayonnaise sandwiches.

Prince Charles moved more slowly, and with a smaller posse. Prince William had no posse at all - or if he did, it was very discreet.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are no-shows - which means both fewer potential spoilers and lower expectations for what the summit might accomplish.

Actor and climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn't miss it, though. He flew commercial to Glasgow, in coach.

Al Gore was in the house, too. The former vice president told the summit that satellites will serve as the new "neighborhood watch" to monitor compliance with emissions pledges.

Over beers, Ukrainian gas representatives pitched their products to Japanese firms. Titans of industry lurked behind closed doors.

Bill Gates sat in a meeting room, hosting one journalist, then another, some of whom asked questions that made his leg tap impatiently.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stood by himself, waiting for his team to locate a BBC reporter who had promised to be tall but was actually shorter.

The Indonesian pavilion served a steady stream of hors d'oeuvres. The Australians had the best coffee. Or so our WhatsApp feed said.

In the rain a few blocks away, tens of thousands thronged into Kelvingrove Park. Friends had to shout to hear each other over the chants and songs and wind.

Hermione Spriggs, 33, reveled in the sodden chaos. "It's lovely being part of being part of this big blob of humans," she said.

Spriggs, who runs tracking and foraging workshops in her native Yorkshire, was decked out in a costume made of netting woven with leaves and native grasses. Only her face was visible through the mass of green.

When she's out in nature, she said, the outfit helps her blend in.

"And it helps us stand out at a protest," she said.

As she walked through the park with similarly-dressed Colchester, strangers kept stopping them to take photos. The women vamped and laughed.

But at a climate protest, even two foragers clad in clothing made of leaves can find kindred spirits.

Derick MacKinnon, a 39-year-old musician from the Scottish highlands, handed them a concert flier made of biodegradable paper embedded with wildflower seeds.

"Oh how lovely," Spriggs cooed, tucking the flier into her costume.

"I'm moved by the way people are gathering here," Colchester said. "People are meeting who wouldn't otherwise meet. We're all here for a common purpose. Weathering the weather together."

The virus is still in the game. Britain is facing a surge in covid. Several conference-goers have been overheard muttering beneath their masks about the potential for a "super spreader" event of global proportions.

But COP26 President Alok Sharma revealed that case rates at the conference are "significantly below" rates among the general public in Scotland. That was supposed to be reassuring.

The menus at food stands in the conference hall list the carbon footprint of each item. For the carbon-conscious, a Scottish delicacy called "haggis, neeps and tatties" will set you back 3.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, while the vegetarian version will ease your eco-guilt with only 0.6 kilograms.

At the center of the conference venue, countries and organizations have their own pavilions, where they highlight their efforts to cut emissions and the challenges they face.

The pop-up hosted by Egypt, the largest oil producer in Africa outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, features a towering green replica of a windmill.

At the pavilion hosted by Tuvalu, an independent island nation midway between Hawaii and Australia, attendees gaped at a striking art installation. It depicts three polar bears wearing life preserver vests, standing on an iceberg, while a penguin hangs with a noose around its neck, a victim of despair.

The artist, Vincent Huang, said his work is a metaphor for the people of Tuvalu, who are responsible for "almost zero carbon emissions" but who face an existential threat from sea-level rise, which could make their country uninhabitable in 100 years.

"Like the penguin and the polar bear, they didn't do anything wrong," Huang said in an interview. "This is an injustice."

Entering the conference on Friday, Indigenous leaders from Brazil were instructed to remove their feather headdresses and place them in gray plastic bins before passing through metal detectors. The colorful feathers crumpled against the stiff corners of the bins, as the leaders walked uncertainly through the beeping machines. The items in adjacent bins included designer handbags belonging to a coterie of European diplomats.

On the other side of security, Simone Vidal da Silva stood out amid a crowd of journalists and diplomats in black suits. Decked in a vibrant green headdress, yellow-and-blue feather earrings, and red face paint, da Silva said she came to Glasgow to tell the world about the importance of protecting the Amazon rainforest.

"It is important not only for the Indigenous people in those territories, but for all of humanity," da Silva said through a translator. She spoke quickly and urgently, using her hands to punctuate her words and to gesture at the seeming absurdity of the conference around her.

Asked whether she trusted the pronouncements of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, another no-show, who has presided over the destruction of roughly 10,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest, da Silva said world leaders have made promises that "are lies for us. They don't exist in the real world."

Published : November 07, 2021

By : The Washington Post