Before arriving in Glasgow, the phrase I heard most in connection with the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) wasn’t “just transition” or “sustainability” or “resilience.” It wasn’t “carbon capture and storage” or “green hydrogen” or “renewable energy.” It was “shitshow.” Par exemple: “COP 26 is going to be a shitshow.”
I heard this from friends, activists, university colleagues. Everyone agreed that COP26 would be some kind of performance, the needle on the end of delusion. Greta Thunberg put it best in a speech she delivered one month before the conference at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan: “Green economy blah blah blah, net zero by 2050 blah blah blah . . . climate neutral blah blah blah . . . Our hopes and dreams drown in their empty words and promises.” Only nonsense named the truth of what would take place. Of what wouldn’t take place.
The heads of state themselves seemed primed for failure. On October 25, a week before COP26 began, British prime minister Boris Johnson addressed twenty-five of the planet’s future leaders at the Children’s Climate Press Conference in Downing Street. Hunched over a desk, his tie twisted, he lowered his eyes and mumbled discouraging words. “I’m very worried,” he said, “because it might go wrong, and we might not get the agreements that we need.”
A few days later, President Biden announced a much anticipated “framework” for the Build Back Better Act. A bargaining chip of sorts, robust regulations at home would restore confidence in the United States as a climate leader abroad. Unfortunately, its promised clean energy standard was now missing the key mechanism to transition the entire electricity sector (the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after transportation) to renewable energy by 2035. Gone, too, were penalties for polluting industries and a border tax on imports from polluting nations. Without these, the goal of halving 2005-level emissions by 2030 was unlikely. Gutted, the bill would bleed out little more than $300 billion in tax incentives for new-fangled technology.
Even the president of COP26, Alok Sharma, admitted that the “overarching ambition” of the conference wasn’t to prevent more than 1.5ºC of warming, which the 2015 Paris Agreement warned against, but simply to sustain belief that achieving the target was possible. Forget a more rigorous plan or more just policies: just don’t renege on a (nonbinding) promise you made six years ago. Banners proclaiming “Keep 1.5ºC Alive” were hung around the city. Inside the conference, a mural showed a young brown girl with gold earrings, wearing a black shirt that read “1.5 TO STAY ALIVE.” She stood in water up to her neck. Behind her, a mountain blazed.
Wine at World’s End
I arrived at the start of the second and final week of the conference. Lining the airport hallways, posters for COP26 featured a graphic of the earth rendered in antifreeze green and cobalt blue with whirling clouds—the planet as if seen from space on LSD. Wall-length corporate billboards spouted statistics (“Energy is responsible for 72 percent of global emissions”) followed by suggestions (“Let’s change that”).
This was a conference on the climate crisis? It looked more like a Sonoma holiday party.
The official site of the conference was named the Blue Zone, a fenced-in area surrounding the Scottish Event Campus, a giant convention center that sits on the north bank of the River Clyde. Canvas-draped tunnels connected its main buildings—among them a great hall spreading beneath a glass ceiling, an armadillo-like auditorium, and a stadium whose outside glowed green at night. A number of temporary structures had been built over a parking lot—hot desks, small meeting rooms, and offices, the floors of which bounced under the foot traffic. More than twenty-three thousand people passed through this pop-up village, not counting the more than fifteen thousand it took to run it.
Once inside the Blue Zone, I found myself pulled toward the Action Hub, an ovular arena where, suspended in the center, an enormous Earth rotated slowly, lit from within with those chemical greens and blues. Here, diplomats chatted, assistants thumbed on phones, LEDs lit up well-framed handshakes. Everyone, it seemed, spoke in English, except for the TV reporters.
Dazed, I sat on a cardboard stool made to resemble a tree stump. The other stumps were occupied. Two young women in cardigans faced each other and whispered. A young man in a bun, white Oxford, suspenders, and herringbone trousers rested his elbows on his knees while he flicked through his phone with impatience. No more than five minutes after I’d sat down, something slammed into the base of my stump, narrowly missing my back. Before I could turn, I watched one of the stumps soar from over my head, across the room, and smack into the opposite wall. Behind me, manbun was standing, holding his phone out like a firebrand. “THEY. ARE. KILLING. PEOPLE,” he shouted in an Eastern European accent, emphasizing each word between a breath. “AT THE BORDER.” The room quieted. I assumed he meant the entrance to the Blue Zone.
“People are DYING on the Belarusian border,” he clarified. No one moved or said anything. “And you people are just CHILLING and BLAH BLAH BLAH.” Everyone stared at him, unsure what to do. He let out an agonizing, wordless howl. A few seconds of silence passed, and then the room began to buzz with activity as before. An aide walked the log across the room and righted it next to me.
A tall security guard soon appeared and asked what had happened. “Nothing,” manbun said with strained calm. “I just got bad news on my phone. What would you do, if—”
“Sir,” the guard said, cutting him off with a hand, “I am uninterested in what you have to say.” Two other guards appeared, and they escorted manbun out of the room.
That night, I would hear on the BBC that at least two thousand migrants, largely from the Middle East, were trapped at the border between Belarus and Poland. Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko had been accused of luring them with false promises of crossing into Poland in a wicked political play. Manbun had been right. They were killing people at the border. So far, eight were confirmed dead from cold or starvation, including a Syrian infant.
After this outburst, I wandered over to the exhibition hall, where most countries had a pavilion. Many served food and drink. At Sweden, a few dozen suits were drinking white wine in glass goblets. Somewhere, cutlery clinked. A man next to me gently swirled his vitt vin. When I brushed by him, he scowled. This was a conference on the climate crisis? It looked more like a Sonoma holiday party. Frankly, my heart was with manbun.
Division by Zero
I returned to the country pavilions the next morning. At the Indonesia booth, I grabbed a paper cup of klepons—mint-green glutinous rice balls coated in coconut—and, biting halfway through one, squirted liquid palm sugar all over the floor. (No one seemed to notice.) Across the hall, the Australia pavilion offered gourmet coffee. They’d flown in baristas just for the occasion; a diplomat boasted that their espresso machine had outpaced all the official conference pavilions combined. Brochures on low-carbon technology lay strewn across a table, but the Australians seemed giddiest about the coffee. Later, on a press call, a reporter asked what Australia, the third largest global exporter of fossil fuels, had put forward at the negotiations. Richie Merzian, director of the Climate & Energy Program at The Australia Institute and one of the country’s former COP negotiators, answered. “The only thing that Australia has really brought to this negotiation is good coffee.”
The theme that day—there were themes—was “Gender.” I took a break from the carnival of nations and suffered through one of the giant plenaries. Speaking to a room of several hundred people, Patricia Fuller, Canada’s Ambassador for Climate Change, unveiled the country’s commitment to $5.3 billion (CAD) in climate finance, 80 percent of which would go toward projects with “gender equality outcomes.” Everyone applauded. Why, I wondered, wasn’t that percentage one hundred?
Then, the lights dimmed and Angélica Schenerock of Agua y Vida, México, appeared in a short film calling out “capitalist, colonial, and patriarchal systems.” “Another economy,” she said, “based on the care of the earth, is possible.” A less certain applause for this, but I clapped hard, surprised by her frankness. As the lights turned on, Nancy Pelosi took the podium and acknowledged those “most vulnerable” to climate change—i.e., women and girls—and the United States’ commitment to “including indigenous communities.” She gushed that the United States was arriving in Glasgow with the “most ambitious climate action plan in American history”—a low bar to clear. The United States would bring “public, private, and nonprofit sectors to . . . scale the solutions necessary for achieving net-zero pollution globally.”
The mention of “net zero” set my alarm bells ringing. “Net zero” isn’t real zero, though it sure sounds like it. That’s by design, and the difference is striking. The concept “reduces the climate crisis to an accounting problem,” as Nikki Reisch at the Center for International Environmental Law puts it. Corporations and states can continue polluting while claiming “net zero” as long as they invest in projects that prevent or sequester an “equivalent” quantity of their annual pollution through carbon offset projects—reforestation, carbon capture and storage, renewable energy technology, and so forth. The problem is that most offsets are inefficient or simply nonexistent. Trees store carbon, but it takes decades, and they tend to light on fire, releasing any carbon they once stored. No one has the technology to trap carbon and store it safely, reliably, and at scale—but the pollution budgets include it anyway. And reliance on renewables ignores the fact that production of this infrastructure is still carbon-intensive and resource-extractive. In the big picture, “net zero” isn’t “better than nothing.” It is nothing.
The most insulting aspect of Pelosi’s statement is that net zero encourages land grabs, often from the very indigenous communities she would like to “include.” Offset projects like reforestation, solar, and wind require vast tracts of land, which corporations and NGOs take from those with the least resources to fight them, all in the name of “ecological services” or “nature-based solutions.” Before leaving the stage, Pelosi repeated the unofficial Democratic slogan: “America is back!” Parts of the plenary hall stood and clapped, some from the coalition of Least Developed Countries. I left.
Later, I made my way to the UK pavilion, a two-story structure with an event space and a showroom of high-tech gadgets. A dashing young man in a navy suit and pinstriped shirt strapped on a VR headset with the words “A BRIGHTER FUTURE” printed on the outside. Behind him, someone pressed a white pen onto a large, glass globe the size of the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball. Clouds swirled across the surface as dates appeared: 1982, 1983, 1984. It was hard to tell what was happening. The clouds were getting denser? Maybe?
The man with the VR headset jumped up and asked if I needed help “interpreting the datasets.” It turned out he was part of the UK delegation, working the gadgets wing. I told him I’d worked on air-conditioning, and his eyes lit up. “There’s a dataset for that.” He spun the globe using his pen, and frenetic splotches of color flashed around the land masses, the months wheeling by. Though I now knew what I was looking at, it wasn’t any easier to spot trends. I walked away with new knowledge, but not of the earth. I was easily dazzled, I realized, by crystal balls.
Pavilion after pavilion offered more of the same. As I passed the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a man launched into an explanation of “geospatial tools,” which could be used—had already been used!—to revise a country’s emissions targets. He insisted I take a seat for the upcoming presentation. Was he flirting? Did I want him to be? Why was I even thinking about this as he spewed words like operationalize? I should have asked him what the hell a geospatial tool was—something more than a ruler, I gathered, but also different from a digital map?—but I was too tired and embarrassed. I lied and said I’d be right back.
Days before COP26, the G20 Leaders’ Summit had convened in Rome. Boris Johnson gave Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon an interview from inside the remains of the Colosseum of Vespasian. He warned that “civilization could go backwards and history could go into reverse” if we failed to reach an agreement to limit global warming. Gesturing toward the ring of open arches encircling him, he went on: “When the Roman Empire fell, it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration, the empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east and all over the place.” It was as if Johnson were talking not to Gary Gibbon but to Edward Gibbon, who wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that “the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.” The floods to fear were not of water but refugees.
In the big picture, “net zero” isn’t “better than nothing.” It is nothing.
Though COP26 claimed to value global cooperation, it played out in a similar atmosphere of stark division, which took two forms. The first was spatial. Only those accredited by the United Nations could access the Blue Zone. Primarily, this meant heads of state, diplomats, speakers, and delegates, but also representatives of NGOs, activist groups, and, most notably, corporations, including a reported 503 oil and gas lobbyists—twenty-four more than Brazil, the largest country delegation. Even with accreditation, many had been denied entry to the UK, among them Diaka Salena Karoma, a climate activist from Sierra Leone, who was refused a travel visa, and the entire delegation from Palestine. I heard of visas denied to activists from Senegal and Afghanistan, too. It’s not difficult to understand why. Coming from the United States, I hadn’t needed a visa at all.
The second kind of division—more subtle and thus more distressing—was temporal. For many, history had been banished; only the present mattered. On this side of the fence were leaders of rich nations, CEOs, and not least, those who wrote the conference propaganda. On the street, digital billboards flashed “NOT TOMORROW / TODAY.” A poster showed a burned over jungle with the words “CLIMATE ACTION NOW.” Inside the conference, a banner read simply “NOW.” over a photo of a construction worker scaling a wind turbine. Never have I seen a greater concentration of the word now. And I don’t think I ever want to again. Certainly, we need action now, today, but in Glasgow, that imperative was a blinding glare from the present that darkened the past.
It also precluded any talk of responsibility. Without history, you needn’t consider that 24.6 percent of all industrial carbon ever emitted has come from the United States, the largest historical emitter by far. Or that only twenty-three rich, overdeveloped nations have taken the world halfway to the 1.2ºC of warming we’ve already experienced. Or that about half of our current warming took place before 1990, before China became an industrial powerhouse.
A smaller contingent stressed the importance of history, which they said held the key to the future. Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu, released a short video in which he gives a speech at a podium against a blue background. “In Tuvalu,” he begins, “we are living the realities of climate change.” As he speaks, the camera zooms out to reveal that he’s waist-deep in water. (Tuvalu’s presence at COP26 was everywhere bold and dramatic. Their pavilion featured a sculpture of five, life-size polar bears wearing life vests huddled on an ice floe while, behind them, a penguin choked on a noose.) The Tuvalu delegation stressed one point repeatedly: their contribution to climate change has been negligible and yet it threatened to consign the country to history, which was being scrubbed from the convention.
COP26 had made clear how leaders of the wealthy world planned to keep avoiding the crisis.
Nowhere was this amnesia more pervasive than at the negotiating table. In 2009, at COP15 in Copenhagen, rich nations had agreed to contribute $100 billion annually—mostly in the form of loans—by 2020 to help poorer nations transition to zero-emissions infrastructure. Many smaller economies still rely on energy from coal and gas; for them, the leap to renewables without assistance would be devastating. The result could mean no energy at all. But 2020 came and went, and the annual contributions fell short of the promise—just how short remains a point of contention, as rich nations can’t agree on an accurate accounting method. At COP26, partly because of the impact of the pandemic, poor nations demanded that wealthy nations increase the annual fund by 2025. Further, a coalition of forty-six Least Developed Countries—among them Gambia, Togo, Tuvalu, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal—wanted the agreement to include hundreds of billions of dollars from rich nations for what they called “Loss and Damage.” Outside of official jargon, the word used was reparations. Though the final agreement urged “developed country Parties . . . to provide enhanced and additional support for activities addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change,” it fell short of committing the developed world to actually paying the developing world.
The Interpretation of Schemes
The fringe events outside the conference were everything the inside was not: inclusive, transparent, informative, rallying. Every evening, after leaving the Blue Zone, I made my way to Adelaide Place Baptist Church, a stone structure dating from 1877, where the COP26 Coalition organized nightly Movement Assemblies. Their purpose was to “translate” what was happening inside to those outside and to give a platform to those working for actual change. A stage with a microphone stood at the front. On the ground floor, round tables rested on patterned rugs, and, above, a wooden balcony wrapped three-quarters of the way around. Hanging from the upper level were hand-painted signs reading “SCHOOL STRIKE,” “AFRICA IS NOT A DUMPSTER,” and “MI TIERRA NO SE VENDE.” Here, they referred to the official COP as the Conference of Polluters. In opposition, the Coalition insisted it was the real COP: the Conference of the People.
Indigenous leaders around the globe spoke at the first assembly I attended. Half spoke in English, the other in Spanish; through an app, you could listen to a live translation on your phone. Yanda Inayu told us the history of the Sápara Nation, who live within the forests of Ecuador. Before the arrival of the Europeans, they’d numbered twenty thousand. Now, they are five hundred. Inayu had come to recount a dream. “We know how to interpret our dreams in relation to the planet,” Inayu said, speaking of it like a technology. “I’ve always wondered what’s going to happen to all the leaders and people of the earth in the future, if we’re going to manage to stop climate change or destroy everything.” A pause. Then:
In this dream, I wake up in a place that’s like a stadium, with a very big lake, and it’s dark. In the big stadium, all the spokespeople were there. But they were in a hole in the ground, and there were spaces like caves where they lived. There was nowhere outside to live anymore because everything had been polluted by acid rain. I ask myself, What are we going to build now?
Inayu paused again, looking down, then back up with frustration. “I’m listening to the COP negotiations,”—and now louder—“but you can’t negotiate with Mother Earth.” We sat with this in silence.
It was all but certain that the parties wouldn’t reach an agreement by the last scheduled day of the conference. As an incentive, Mexico offered a bottle of tequila to the UK’s lead negotiator if they wrapped things up by six o’clock. Russia matched the offer with vodka.
In the Blue Zone, I joined the “People’s Plenary,” organized by the COP26 Coalition in coordination with Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future. Hundreds of members from youth, indigenous, feminist, trade union, and disability movements had shown up to “hold them accountable”—“them” being those on the inside. One by one, youth activists took the stage and read aloud paragraphs from the IPCC’s latest scientific assessment. Each finished by leaning into the microphone and stating, “The science has spoken. Now it’s your turn.”
But those in power seemed unable even to name the problem. An early draft of the agreement called on nations to “accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuel.” In the context of UN agreements, this is revolutionary. Explicit mention of fossil fuels—“the F-word,” as some call it—appear in only two international agreements: as “oil and natural gas” in the UN’s Kyoto Protocol, which the United States rejected; and in a 2009 finance agreement at the Pittsburgh G20 Leaders’ Summit. “Fossil fuel,” “coal,” “oil,” and “natural gas” are not mentioned in the Paris Agreement.
By Friday, however, that phrase had been moderated to “accelerating efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” At the last minute, India pushed to change “phase-out” to “phasedown,” a tragic shift that gathered all the media attention. But even before that, the language was troubling. What is “unabated” coal power, and who gets to decide? What are “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies, and who would claim them as such? Even more than “phasedown,” the qualifiers unabated and inefficient dulled the entire blade of the sentence. The agreement had not yet been finalized, but it already rang hollow.
The planetary violence inflicted by leaders of the powerful nations is dull and indirect, bureaucratic and unspectacular—which makes it all the more difficult to organize against it.
At the People’s Plenary, Mohamed Adow, the Kenyan founding director of Power Shift Africa, a climate action think tank, grasped the podium. “We the people demand that Global North countries pay their debts,” he said. “They must also deliver a global goal on adaptation. They must also pay for loss and damages. No trade-off of human lives, no trade-off of human rights.” Ta’Kaiya Blaney, an activist from the Tla’amin Nation, followed. “COP26 is a performance,” she said. “It’s an illusion constructed to salvage capitalist economies, ruinous resource extraction, and colonialism. I didn’t come here to fix the agenda. I came here to disrupt it.” The room applauded. She continued: “We will outlive this. We will outlive these empires that were built on our genocide. Our ancestors have survived many apocalypses.” Then, the speeches ended.
The hundreds of us in the plenary lined up to exit the hall. At the doors, organizers held a giant rope of scarlet fabric, several hundred yards long, rolled into one ball. As we passed, they told us to grab onto the rope. We began forming a long line that snaked through the buildings of the convention center, dividing the campus in two for at least a quarter mile. Anxious aides scurried underneath the rope, trying not to scuff their shoes, as dozens of cameras filmed the red divide that was now headed for the exit.
The line threaded outside to the gates of the Blue Zone, where several hundred people held another red rope on the street. Representing civil society, they’d wound through the city of Glasgow as we staged our disruption inside. One of the organizers took both red ropes and tied them, connecting, for the first time all week, those who could access the conference to those who couldn’t.
Here Lies Hope
The Glasgow Necropolis rests on the top of an enormous hill, one of the highest points in the city, which spreads below a statue of John Knox. At the base, the Glasgow Cathedral serves as the entrance. On the Saturday morning after the conference, I stood there, admiring the Gothic symmetry. A flurry of indigo to the left caught my eye. Four figures in deep blue robes walked slowly, their faces painted white. They were led by a figure in black, who wore a sign: COP26.
I followed them as they made for the cemetery entrance. They passed through the gates and set off on the long walk down the stone-arch Bridge of Sighs, an elevated walkway that spans the width of a wide two-lane street. Then, I heard what I’d managed to avoid my whole time in Scotland: bagpipes. A man in a tartan kilt of lime and cobalt—the sickening shades of COP—his beard dyed green, his hair deep blue, played, leading the procession.
From their graves on high, Scotland’s once and past watched as we stepped across the stone bridge. Scurrying ahead to get a better view, I turned and nearly backed into another shrouded figure. Then another. A long line of figures draped in black. They wound around the path to the necropolis, each wearing a sign: COP1, COP2, COP3, COP4. Heading the entire procession of past COPs were four figures in red. The whole supernatural train trudged up the hill to the sound of bagpipes.
At the top, twenty-seven empty gravesites lay open. Cardboard tombstones stood in front of black garbage bags on the dewy grass. Coming up from behind, I saw the tombstones from the back. They were cut from neon liquidation signs, reading “HALF PRICE” and “CLOSING DOWN SALE.” From the front, the black headstones for past COPs read “FAILED.” In the front row, a headstone for COP26 stood on the left. To its right, COP27, which read “FUTILE.”
Minutes later, the procession arrived. The shades of twenty-six COPs lay down gently in their graves. I stared at COP27’s, thinking, at first, how bleak it seemed. But I couldn’t agree that COP26 was futile—or at least not my attending it. On the contrary, the conference had made clear how leaders of the wealthy world planned to keep avoiding the crisis. No one lied: the stated goal of poor nations was to survive; the goal of rich nations was “to win the economic competition,” the exact phrase Biden had used when spelling out the aim of U.S. climate policy. A year after Covid had closed theaters, the greatest show on Earth arrived in Glasgow, and I’d been witness to failure that should never be forgotten. The week also condensed an idea: the planetary violence inflicted by leaders of the powerful nations is dull and indirect, bureaucratic and unspectacular—which makes it all the more difficult to organize against it.
Later in the day, stuffing damp clothes into my bag for the return trip, I listened to the BBC Global News Podcast and caught two stories on Egypt. The first said that torrential rains, augmented by climate change, caused flash flooding that flushed thousands of the mountainous deathstalker scorpions into the city of Aswan. Hundreds of people were stung, and several died from the flooding. The second story, which seemed to follow ominously from the first, was that Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort town on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, would host next year’s COP27.