This is what I discovered last week, when I had the chance to visit COP’s restricted Blue Zone. This is where delegates and observers meet and different countries have their own pavilions. Although I have not visited the negotiations directly, for which I would have (in most cases) needed a different badge, I did get a sense of the environment in which our prime ministers, diplomats and lobbyists have spent their time last week.
Now, I traveled to Glasgow by train, an initiative kindly organized by the volunteers of an organization called Rail to the COP. My hopes for the COP were kindled, as the train was packed with activists, engaged scientists, and journalists. To give you a sense of the atmosphere: Andreas Malm’s How to Blow up a Pipeline popped up everywhere in conversation, all laptops were covered in stickers demanding climate justice, exceedingly strong stories of past climate actions were exchanged. So, here I discovered the first COP26: the conference as an activist space. My fellow travelers were all deeply aware of the urgency of the ongoing climate crisis.
I cannot say the same of the delegates in the Blue Zone.For, in the Blue Zone I discovered a second version of COP.
Wandering around the pavilions of the countries, I couldn’t escape the impression of being at a large travel fair. Pictures of idyll landscapes embellished the stands. Slogans and empty phrases everywhere. Men in suits took the opportunity to network at this or that event, shaking hands, dispersing again. Even Qatar performed a halfhearted attempt at assuaging the passerby that net zero would be within reach, and that they were in the forefront for getting there. It all left me rather unconvinced. Business as usual was hardly challenged at this negative image of the activist COP, even though we know that it leads us deeper and deeper into the climate emergency.
Yet, it would be too simple to equate the Blue Zone with nothing but blah-blah-blah. Other COPs can be discerned. For example, in one of the restaurants, I had a long chat with Joan Carling, who has been an indigenous activist for many decades. She spoke about the need to recognize the services that indigenous people have provided in fostering biodiversity and slowing climate change. The indigenous COP is a struggle for recognition and a struggle for life. Moreover, in the hallways of the Blue Zone, one regularly found young activities holding signs decrying the current state of affairs. Fridays for Future’s COP demands immediate action, yet another layer to COP26.
And, of course, outside, the activists from all over the world have each declared their own COP. Shamefully, my research has kept me inside the Blue Zone most of the time, but it was amazing to see the persistent presence of groups like XR that were taking to the streets on a daily basis, despite the ridiculously large police presence (I have heard numbers of 10.000 policemen standing by). Although their protests were only audible as a slight murmur through the walls of the fortress of Glassgow’s Scottish Event Campus, it is undeniable that such protests raise the stakes for the delegates. Even Australia does no longer dare to outright celebrate coal. Within the Blue Zone, despite its isolation, Greta’s name is spoken with reverence.
For my research, I have listened to the stories people tell of why they are here. Besides the usual stories of progress by the ecomodernists and nuclear enthusiasts, I have been touched by voices that I hope will be amplified over the years. These form the alternative COPs that I welcome and hope to see more of. They come from three places. First, from the youth. Youth delegates are working extremely hard to get things done here, and I have been impressed of their professionalism. Second, the indigenous, who brings stories of more meaningful relations to nature. Another modernity might just be possible. Third, the vulnerable, like those living in Bangladesh who see their livelihood threatened. For them, too much is at stake to keep shaking hands and smiling.
These three movements are too impatient to wait for non-existing technologies to come and save us. They request a better, more just world, and they demand it now. There is hope still that the future will be theirs.