COP26 in Glasgow was a disappointment to environmental activists but history will record it as a key step in combating climate collapse. Joe Biden, Micheal Martin, and Boris Johnson were among hundreds of world leaders, thousands of government negotiators, and tens of thousands of protestors who made the pilgrimage to Scotland to grapple with the nitty-gritty details like “phasing coal out, or phasing coal down’ and to make their voices heard.
My travel to the UK, the first since the onset of Covid and Brexit, was more complicated than previous trips. The UK requires fully vaccinated travelers to present proof of having scheduled and paid for a ‘Day 2 lateral flow PCR test’ (a new covid-era phrase like ‘flattening the curve’ that I hope to forget) before check in. This unique UK requirement has resulted in entirely new tests, kits, processes, procedures and infrastructure.
I scheduled the test online from Dublin and it was mailed to my Airbnb address in Glasgow. When I received it, I used the camera in my laptop to verify my identity, self-administered the test, put the barcoded tube in an addressed cardboard box and dropped it into a neighborhood Royal Mail red mailbox. The negative results were emailed back to me from the lab that had received the parcel, all within hours. It is nothing short of amazing that the test, the procedure, the kits, the technology, and the processes were all developed in the last few months and that it all worked. Human beings are even more inventive and resourceful when focused on a project of existential importance. Imagine if we put that same focus on eradicating homelessness or, more to the point of this trip: combating climate breakdown.
There is no more important existential project for our world but as Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has pointed out, the only entities that are behaving like climate collapse is existential are the fossil fuel companies. They know that if they lose this argument they will cease to exist. Therefore, they have done everything they can to survive but the sense of the conference is that the jig is up on fossil fuels. Most of the rest of the world knows that human-caused climate collapse is real but have had other priorities like putting food on the table. The disparity of urgency between the fossil fuel companies fighting for their lives and the rest of the world not viewing the debate as directly affecting them in the present has extended the use of fossil fuels for decades. The urgency gap is narrowing as the effects of climate change are felt here and now.
The ancient Celts had names for colors that are no longer part of our lexicon. One example is the word ‘Glas’ sometimes spelled ‘Glass.’ The Bretons, the Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, and Manx all use this word to describe a very specific color: ‘ Blue- Green- Grey.’ In the lands inhabited by the Celts, where the sea meets the sky, it is easy to see why they developed a specific word for this. Ireland is known for being the land of ‘a thousand shades of green’ but there is a similar number of shades of grey. The color ‘Glas’ is everywhere, especially at dawn or at dusk in the City of Glasgow which derives its name from the color.
Glasgow was once home to 25 major shipyards. In the early 1900’s 20 percent of all ships afloat had been built in Glasgow and launched into the deep River Clyde. Proximity to steel and coal as well as the skill of shipbuilding, honed over centuries, and access to both capital and cheap labor in the form of local Scots and Irish immigrants made Glasgow the most important shipbuilding city in the world.
Over 300,000 Irish, fleeing the great famine, came to Glasgow. Tens of thousands of them worked in the shipyards. The Irish founded the Celtic Football club in 1887 and still proudly and defiantly display their green jerseys and shamrocks against the dreaded rivals, The Rangers (founded in 1872) who are draped with red, white, and blue. Irish labor was welcomed by the shipbuilders and capitalists who stoked sectarian divides between the Catholic and Protestant workers to keep wages low. Divisions remain. Orange Order marches through Catholic neighborhoods still occur in Glasgow and when Celtic plays against the Rangers, the fans must enter the stadium on entirely separated sides with zero mixing between the fan groups. High fences and columns of uniformed police keep the sides apart. Side note: my airbnb wifi password was: ‘Rangers1’ Ugh!
In a grim acknowledgment of Glasgow’s strategic importance, the German Luftwaffe bombed Glasgow intensely in 1941. The city recovered and the naval vessels built in the yards were essential to winning the war. In the years after the war, the bitter compensation to Glasgow for their role in defeating fascism was the steep decline and the disappearance of most of the manufacturing jobs in the shipyards as manufacturers chased even lower wages to Asia.
The COP26 conference was separated into two campuses or ‘zones’ on either side of the Clyde river on acres that were once shipyards: Blue and Green. (‘Glas’ colors again!). The Blue Zone was devoted to the negotiators, bureaucrats, and experts from countries around the world. The Green zone was reserved for NGOs, tribes, think tanks, business consortia, private companies, and the public. Protesters tended to congregate nearest to the policy makers in the Blue zone but the larger scale protests were organized in the city’s center. The protesters came from all over the world promoting messages ranging from grief and rage all the way to hope and optimism. Protesters were sometimes organized in drum circles of greying hippies, kilt clad musicians playing Irish or Scottish jigs and reels or leading sing-a-longs. Legions of the very young inspired by teenaged Greta Thunberg marched through the city’s elegant center.
Glasgow became wealthy and even opulent for the privileged few during the expansion of maritime trade when Brittannia ruled the waves as the world’s first global economic superpower. It does not take a great deal of research to discover that much of the foundational wealth was derived from the slave trade. In speaking with a 50-year-old Glaswegian named Sue who has lived here all her life, she described her shock and embarrassment to have learned only recently that the massive profits from slavery underwrote Glasgow’s prominence.
I attended a COP26 event at Merchants House, a guild founded in the 1600s as a meeting place for leading Glasgow businessmen and as a charity to help the widows and orphans of sailors lost at sea. It still operates as a respected philanthropic organization. The stately building on George Square was rebuilt in the 19th century during Glasgow’s golden age. Plaques on the walls of the club honor the generous benefactors that built the club, endowed its charity, and gave Glasgow its grandeur. But since the Black Lives Matter movement began, Glasgow has been studying its own history in the era of George Floyd. To their credit, Merchants House added a new plaque just six months ago.
Cities and towns in Europe and America that became vastly wealthy during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries are linked by the euphemistically named ‘Atlantic trade.’ I commiserated with Sue that I had only recently learned of the depth of my beloved Boston’s ties to slavery that were hiding in plain view. The first American slave ship Desire was built in Marblehead. The fortune of Ward Nicholas Boylston, whom I’d understood to be a philanthropist and benefactor to Harvard University, was built on the slave trade. Brown University’s University Hall was physically built by slaves with money also derived from the slave trade. The list could, and should, go on. Many of the endowments of educational, cultural, artistic and philanthropic organizations in Glasgow and in Boston come from slavery. Acknowledging that slavery created foundational wealth is essential to attempting to correct those historic wrongs.
Slavery, Fascism, and Climate
Like abolishing slavery or defeating fascism, reversing climate breakdown is a moral obligation. Climate collapse will disproportionately damage people in countries that have done little to create the problem. Everyone on earth will be hurt by climate breakdown, as fires in California or flooded subway stations in Manhattan show, but it is the global south that will be hurt most catastrophically.
The pessimist might say that there is still forced servitude in the world, so we never truly eradicated slavery, or that there are still strongman leaders like Victor Orban, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsinaro (and, sadly, even the former occupant of the White House), so we never entirely defeated fascism. The lament could continue that perhaps we have already warmed the planet too much to make a difference and that an accelerating increase in temperature is inevitable. But in 2021 human beings from all fields of endeavor are finally laser focused on this issue and one should never bet against human beings’ genius or resilience.
On the banks of the river Clyde stands a monument to the fallen Glaswegians who were volunteer members of the International Brigade that fought against fascism in Spain from 1936–1939. Volunteers from Scotland, Ireland, the USA, England, and elsewhere went to Spain to try to stem the rise of fascism. The fact that the fascists won and that it took a world war to defeat Hitler and Mussolini, does not diminish their sacrifice. The true value of the International Brigade is the example they give to other movements like the campaign for climate justice.
The inscription reads:
Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees.
A twelve-day meeting cannot reverse the damage to our environment overnight, but history will eventually view COP26 in Glasgow as neither a disappointment nor a turning point, but as a step forward in unleashing human genius and cooperation to address the defining challenge of our age.