The COP26 summit in Glasgow has already provided a few gems for avid news-watchers: notable amongst these was CNN’s confusion of Scottish geography by placing their news crew outside Edinburgh Castle, a new and more shouty approach by now-veteran environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg – described by The Spectator as ‘Thunberg’s Miley Cyrus moment’ – and the inevitable sight of US President Joe Biden nodding off during a key speech, one of the few aspects of the summit a notoriously world-adverse US domestic press has chosen to cover.
Before we start, let’s underline the fact that the decisions made at COP26 by the leaders and policymakers of the world’s largest, most influential, and least sustainable nations will be vital for achieving net zero in the next century, preserving biodiversity, preventing adverse climate events, sea level rises, lack of food security, and potentially staving off climate collapse and untold suffering and hardship for billions across the world. But with the seriousness of the climate problem taken as read, and the environmental statistic, pledges and targets discussed at length elsewhere, let’s drill down into some of the peripheral issues of the summit itself – its political and cultural runners and riders, both domestic and international.
The choice of Glasgow was always a strategic one. The sight of the Union Flag flying high alongside that of the United Nations above Glasgow and draped behind every speaker sends a clear message that this event means to conclusively strengthen ties not just with the world, but also within the Union itself. Just look at the messaging from the government: ‘it’s a huge undertaking by the whole of the UK’, Boris Johnson recently told the BBC, ‘every part of the UK is now working together’. This is a high-profile event, the optics of which have been calculated by the Johnson government to show London is still in control north of Berwick. Having stressed the need to put egos aside for the sake the climate, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon then went on to produce a shameless advert for the SNP entitled ‘a nation in waiting welcomes the nations of the world’. Sturgeon and the SNP have always been keen to associate themselves with anything that might be considered popularly progressive, or at least calculated to score off a Conservative government in Westminster – so lots of selfies with Greta Thunberg. How popular the summit and this new green Conservatism will be with the Scottish people is unclear, and with the conference not yet over it remains to be seen who, in retrospect, will be considered to have won the day over COP26 when it came to the Union.
Some in the Nationalist press were keen to blame logistic disruption to COP26 on the government too, but local factors like a binmen’s strike might have also been causing headaches. Indeed violent climatic events themselves got a look in – storms and problems with the rail network causing major foul-ups at the main Euston connection for many attendees. Journalists have complained of large queues outside the venue and there have been the usual predictable and dramatic political errors – including the Israeli energy minister unable to enter the venue due to her wheelchair. The choice of many to fly to and from the conference has been met with widespread derision, although as the BBC reported it has been a golden opportunity for Scottish plane-spotters to photograph official transport and chartered flag-carriers from all over the globe.
International summits like these tend to attract an interesting audience. Amongst the array of world leaders, Jeff Bezos was also in attendance – one of many eclectic figures to appear, including Leonardo di Caprio – and pledged a measly $2billion for land reclamation in Africa through the Bezos Earth Fund. Considering his personal and corporate wealth eclipses many of the sovereign states present, this is hardly surprising. The question of absurdly wealthy individuals solving the world’s problems seems increasingly topical, with Elon Musk not escaping responsibility in his $6billion spat with the World Food Programme, but the casual acceptance of billionaires acting on the same level as state actors and NGOs on the world stage is something of a new phenomenon. Bezos acting alongside Biden as a flag-carrier for the United States abroad and a policy influencer in his own right has echoes of JP Morgan’s saving of the US Treasury and economy before the First World War – and continues to demonstrate the growing international power of the megarich on issues as diverse as food security, climate and space exploration.
As with all such events – and the G7 summit held in Cornwall in June 2021 was no exception – there was the usual crop of inventive protest. Where environmentalism was once a fringe issue – with early adopters like Prince Charles once depicted as gentle and harmless loons for being interested in such crackpot ideas as organic crops and biodiversity, now hailed as visionaries in a serious war against fundamental climate collapse – the issues discussed at COP26 are swiftly becoming the main debate of our time. One of the UK’s rumbling culture wars which continues to provoke heated debate on Twitter, and now on roads and motorways, is the extent to which the British public is willing to tolerate climate protestors when they begin to become genuinely inconvenient. Although more equally divided on the merits of other less divisive groups like Extinction Rebellion, particular bile is currently directed at Insulate Britain, seemingly a self-satisfied, middle-aged, middle-class, property-owning group described recently with some justification by the Prime Minister as ‘crusties’, with YouGov recording 72% of the British public opposing their actions and 34% happy to see them imprisoned. YouGov polling shows that while the public are happy to adjust much of their lifestyles to help the environment – although large numbers remain reticent over dropping meat and dairy entirely – the way to win them over is not by making their commute any harder.
With the UK-hosted G7 Summit and COP26 following each other thick and fast, Brexiteers will be considering this something of a vote of confidence in the new Global Britain. Both summits have failed to be overshadowed by an increasingly furious Emmanuel Macron, who from Northern Ireland to submarines to fishing rights seems to be making a committed, but not altogether coherent or successful, attempt to influence domestic French politics and their current election cycle by standing up to les Anglo-Saxons. The most important reflections and outcomes of COP26 will be those related to how the world is going to tackle the climate crisis – but as with all such events, domestic and international politicking has continued unabated in the background. Such considerations may, in hindsight, look increasingly trivial if the more serious goals of COP26 fail.