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David StewartNovember 17, 2021
An activist wearing a protective mask takes part in a protest outside the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 12, 2021. (CNS photo/Dylan Martinez, Reuters)An activist wearing a protective mask takes part in a protest outside the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 12, 2021. (CNS photo/Dylan Martinez, Reuters)

I found myself muttering, “I love the smell of downwardly managed expectations in the morning” as COP26’s final weekend in Glasgow approached. But I am no Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore and this is not “Apocalypse Now.” Or is it?

Nobody who had hoped that the Glasgow COP26 Conference would deliver meaningful and permanent change could miss the backdrop of our still-burning planet as the final actors arrived on the scene in Scotland. Glasgow was meant to deliver what Paris had begun. Instead, as its last days ground on, discontent and disappointment were rising.

Those on the inside of the COP26 “Blue Zone,” as the United Nations-managed conference space where VIPs, delegates and negotiators met was called, began a perceptible shift to diminishing the hopes of the many thousands of climate activists then resident in the city—even as the heroes of climate activism, like the firebrand Greta Thunberg and the veteran broadcaster and climate campaigner David Attenborough, offered their pleas for the planet outside the Blue Zone. Excited optimism at the beginning of COP26 had succumbed to a glum negativity; activists and average people everywhere were being readied to accept that there would be no commitment to limit global warming to the 1.5 degrees that science insists is the minimum to avoid global disaster.

Excited optimism at the beginning of COP26 had succumbed to a glum negativity.

Despite the low-hanging fruit of some early pre-planned resolutions on methane emissions and deforestation, the three key aims of COP26—binding commitments to that 1.5 maximum, achieving global net-zero emissions by mid-century and creating realistic protections for threatened communities in the global South—began to look unlikely. The conference’s speeches and press releases were set against a background, not of napalm flames, but of a burning world far more terrifying than any movie.

One wag tweeted: “COP26 ‘a massive success’ according to snap poll of fossil fuel lobbyists.”

As pessimism spread, so did public disquiet about hypocrisy and double standards. America used a popular mobile app—flightradar24—to track at least five conference leaders as they departed from Glasgow Prestwick airport to Glasgow International—a flight of just 22 nautical miles. Other conference participants chose to fly the 49 miles between Glasgow and Edinburgh. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson briefly departed the show, announcing that he had to fly to London, 400 miles away, but would fly back up to COP26 the following morning. It emerged that the urgent trip was for a dinner with a friendly lobbyist in a fancy London club.

U.S. President Joseph Biden’s motorcade from hotel to conference site raised eyebrows—I lost count at 60 vehicles—as did the crowd of giant U.S. Air Force transport jets that delivered the U.S. delegation to Scotland.

There was real anger about U.K. government positions favoring the opening of a new coal mine in the north of England and refusing to rule out the development of the vast Cambo oil field under the sea, west of Shetland. Yet BBC’s Radio 4 evening news reported that COP26 did not make its list of top 10 stories by visits at its website.

Ms. Thunberg, the teen campaigner who rose to worldwide prominence as the Friday School Strike movement she inspired spread, had already declared the conference a failure, assessing the proceedings as no more than “blah, blah, blah.” It was a protest mantra she would repeat several times. She is probably not aware that the Scots Gaelic word “blàth,” identically pronounced, means “warm.”

Speaking to America, a young delegate from Zimbabwe summed it all up in a single, pointed word—“exclusionary”—as reports circulated of tiny numbers of entry tickets released to civic society groups, including Indigenous groups whose communities are in the greatest danger because of the impact of fossil-fuel extraction. Denouncing the proceedings as a “polluters’ conference…not a climate conference,” in remarks widely quoted in sympathetic U.K. media, Native American leader Tom Goldtooth asserted that COP26 had been “taken over by corporate interests.”

As pessimism at COP26 in Glasgow spread, so did public disquiet about hypocrisy and double standards.

A massive march through the rainy and windy host city on Saturday drew well over 100,000 protestors from both global North and South; faith groups prominent among them were united in a determination that government and corporate leaders could not be allowed to waste this moment. Media had predicted half that number would show up for the march; the running gag among us as we trudged through frequent squalls was that Glasgow’s November climate “couldn’t change quickly enough,” while one of our group described our companionship as “soggy solidarity.”

Pithy placards and witty banners always provide some light relief on such marches. Many on this one captured Pope Francis’ theme of “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Our group—including Jesuits and activists from several Catholic and interfaith groups, part of the substantial “faith block” present—enjoyed someone’s colorful billboard proclaiming that “the wrong Amazon is burning.” And among the countless speeches and presentations of these last days, two stood out for their passion and energy: one in the Blue Zone from a global South leader, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, and the homily from one of Scotland’s bishops at the COP delegates’ Mass.

Prime Minister Mottley, whose island nation is threatened by global warming in many ways, pulled no punches in a measured and powerful speech that named most of the obstacles that confronted COP26. Speaking during the opening ceremony, she took aim at the relative lack of women leaders at the conference, noting that globally only 26 women serve as heads of state or government. This COP, she asserted, was populated by far too many white male figures who had more in common with those threatened by the acute changes needed to avoid environmental disaster.

“When will leaders lead? What will we say to our people?” she demanded, echoing many protestors and activists. For Ms. Mottley, “both ambition and needed faces [were] not present in Glasgow.” In fact, neither the Chinese nor the Russian senior leadership were present on Clydeside in Glasgow, although both of these heavily polluting countries had sent negotiators.

U.S. President Barack Obama jetted in once all the leaders had already gone home to declare that “we are nowhere near where we need to be” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At the delegates’ Mass organized by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and celebrated with a full congregation in the Jesuit church of St. Aloysius, Bishop William Nolan drew almost certainly the first recorded instance of a standing ovation for a homily at that church, and perhaps anywhere in religiously dour Scotland. Bishop Nolan, who leads the National Committee for Justice and Peace and environmental matters for the Scots bishops, preached powerfully on how we need to examine our lifestyles rather than to “paint ourselves greener than green.”

Noting that as people of faith we would be “insulted” to be seen only as consumers rather than citizens, he observed “surely our purpose is more than consuming.” An expert on the church’s social teaching, he reminded us that the “earth’s resources are finite and not just to be used by the powerful and rich,” linking his theme to the Gospel of the day, the story of the poor “widow’s mite” (Mk.12:38-44). The bishops of Scotland have themselves participated in the global divestment by many faith groups from fossil fuel industries.

By contrast, former U.S. President Barack Obama jetted in once all the leaders had already gone home to declare that “we are nowhere near where we need to be” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Here was a world-class figure confirming that high hopes and expectations might go unfulfilled. His presence created a celebrity buzz more like a film star than a politician. Mr. Obama urged the younger activists in particular to keep up the pressure.

Accidentally contradicting Bishop Nolan, Mr. Obama described young people as “sophisticated consumers,” though perhaps not so sophisticated to recall how he had boasted only a couple of years earlier about boosting domestic U.S. fossil fuel production to record highs. U.S. oil and gas production grew 88 percent during his two terms in Washington.

But that wasn’t his biggest gaffe. He ruined it all, for his hosts at least, by praising, in reference to Great Britain, our “Emerald Isle”—a phrase used only of Ireland!—then, worse, immediately attributing that misapplied moniker to “the bard,” William Shakespeare. Will is celebrated as England’s bard—rightly so. Scotland’s is Robert Burns—just as rightfully so.

COP26 now enters history as the “Glasgow Climate Pact,” a flawed deal in most respects that has satisfied nobody.

Mr. Obama had already taken some of the gloss off his box-office appeal by persistently referring to “Glass-cow” rather than “Glaz-go.” (This always irritates weary “Weegies”—the local truncation of “Glaswegians.”) But this was the final, non-plastic straw at COP26. Thus, despite a colorful swipe at his successor, Donald Trump, for pulling out of the Paris Agreement, Mr. Obama earned himself a definite two thumbs’ down from the locals.

It’s all over now and Glasgow’s visitors have gone home. Yellow-vested workers are already dismantling the temporary conference structures along the Clydeside Expressway, now reopened and easing after three weeks of traffic congestion in the city.

By all accounts it was a nail-biting ending, but next to nobody liked the final scenes. The world continued to burn as the negotiators talked, and the conference president, U.K. Conservative Party politician Alok Sharma, essentially apologized for its timid outcome, appearing to break down in tears when in the final few frames it looked like the entire script might be ruined and a desperately sought compromise slipped away.

A last-minute word change to the screenplay on coal-burning, replacing “phase out” with “phase down,” caused widespread dismay. Those lowered expectations deployed in the final days were proving prescient.

Snatching some kind of victory from what looked like an impending defeat, negotiators at the last minute closed out COP26 with a hurried agreement that offers some hope. It includes another revised commitment from participating countries to meet again next year and in the meantime to work on developing tougher emission reduction targets.

But will they deliver? Most campaigners for climate action, and scientists too, don’t trust the politicians, but the pressure on corporations and governments will continue. Advocacy groups are already planning ahead. Unfortunately, so is the loophole industry. Much urgent work remains to be done to help frontline countries adapt to the changing climate. These regions contribute little to global emissions yet are the first to suffer.

COP26 now enters history as the “Glasgow Climate Pact,” a flawed deal in most respects that has satisfied nobody. Climate justice activists may be left wondering if their impressive displays of solidarity in the streets of Glasgow penetrated the walls of the Blue Zone at all. Faith groups are left wondering if their prayer and protests were any match for the muscle power of transnational corporations and the major emitting nations that seem still eager to serve them.

Civil society got, at best, a bit part at COP26, primarily as the extras in the crowd scenes. The pre-conference trailers had all previewed the main plotline of keeping global emissions below 1.5 degrees, but on the final cut that figure dissolved into something between 1.8 and 2.4 degrees over this century, a quarter of which is already behind us, while people (particularly, as always, the poorest) are already suffering the effects of climate change.

Like other COPs, COP26 ended with a commitment to try to do better at COP27. That will be convened next year in Egypt.

If this, the movie of the fate of our “common home,” as Pope Francis describes this blessed earth in “Laudato Si’,” began with a global inferno as a backdrop, we pray and campaign to avoid apocalypse now and to come.

Our closing soundtrack must not be The Doors lamenting “This Is the End.”

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