The Green Zone. It ain’t Baghdad. It’s COP26!

Climate Economy, Travel

The Green Zone. It ain’t Baghdad. It’s COP26!

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Cold, crowded and chaotic: What it’s like to be in Glasgow. “Blah, blah, blah,” says Greta.

A global climate caravanserai pitched up in Glasgow — and like the climate, it was a turbulent week if you were actually there for the 26th annual U.N. climate change Conference of the Parties opened in Glasgow. Violent storms. Extreme cold. Long lines. Segregation and trepidation were everywhere. But that was nothing compared to the existential anxiety that subsumed Scotland’s largest city like a cold fog. In every mind was the same question: Can this greatest gathering ever on climate achieve anything?

With an additional 30,000 visitors attending the COP meeting and the related side events, the city is pushed to its limits. Glasgow’s Scottish Events Campus (SEC), the city’s largest exhibition center, became United Nations territory. The SEC is in what’s known as the “Blue Zone” for the U.N.-registered elite, The “Green Zone” at the Glasgow Science Centre is the site for the hoi polloi — ticketed public for every imaginable climate idea and event. 

“It has been a whirlwind,” said attendee Daphne Wysham, the CEO of the organization Methane Action based in the U.S. She’s giving talks and meeting with government officials. “Normally all of the activity takes place at the end of the two weeks, at the very end of the talks,” she said. “This time, the heads of state arrived at the beginning and made some major announcements on methane and deforestation.”  And left, letting staff sort out the details.

Exclusion and FOMO were rampant. “This COP is very restrictive in terms of who they allow in and, once you’re in after you’ve taken your daily COVID test, you can’t mix with the actual delegates or media, as we used to do in the past,” says Wysham.

Greta Thunberg was more blunt. The “most exclusive COP ever” and a “two-week celebration of business as usual and ‘blah blah blah.’” She is now 18, and a world-weariness is already setting in.

Excluded from any meaningful meetings with decision-makers, COP became more about being a place to see and be seen if you are a climate change expert, philanthropist, activist, lobbyist, corporate chieftain, campaigner, writer and, of course, journalist — lots of media in search of a fresh angle.

“This COP is very restrictive in terms of who they allow in and, once you’re in after you’ve taken your daily COVID test, you can’t mix with the actual delegates or media, as we used to do in the past.”

In addition to famous activists such as Thunberg, celebrity sightings at COP have included actor Leonardo DiCaprio who participated in a panel discussion on the importance of curbing methane emissions, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Wills and Kate) were seen at a distillery event in town and world-famous wildlife presenter Sir David Attenborough at a spry 95 gave a commanding opening event speech. Game of Thrones actress Maisie Wiliams, actors Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Blackrock’s Larry Fink … the list goes on. 

Barbados Q.C. and Prime Minister Mia Motley gave one of the most important opening speeches, calling on the world to recognize the existential threat that failure at COP poses to small island nations and the impending climate risks to regions such as Africa, Southeast Asia and low-lying countries everywhere. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a watch. 

And extreme weather impacted many traveling to Glasgow. Storms, a potential tornado and a fallen tree meant delays and challenges for all but the highest-ranking COP participants who were ushered in with security details. Ingmar Rentzhog, CEO and founder of our partner organization We Don’t Have Time, found his train canceled and, when he finally did arrive, his hotel closed due to a legionella outbreak. In a city with 30,000 guests and only 15,000 hotel rooms, accommodation was always going to be a major challenge.

“I have been amazed at how cold it is here in Scotland,” Wysham says. “People don’t heat their homes much in Scotland and everyone seems to be fine with the frigid temperatures inside and out. Old buildings with high ceilings and single-pane windows allow the cold air to come right into the rooms.” 

Activists were at COP in great numbers, despite the lack of access to the official summit. Even before it began, climate protesters were making their presence felt. During the closing ceremony of the U.N. Climate Change Conference of Youth or COY16, activists interrupted the U.K. COP President Alok Sharma’s speech demanding an end to the controversial Cambo oil project, west of Shetland. At the University of Glasgow, four activists chained themselves to a campus gate demanding support for a Green New Deal. The anti-poverty group, Jubilee Debt Campaign, held a protest with an inflatable Loch Ness Monster near the river Clyde to highlight the global climate debt burden on developing countries. This weekend, in between the two summit weeks, tens of thousands are expected to join events as part of a “Global Day of Action for Climate Justice,” not just in Glasgow but around the world. 

Protests mean police. In Glasgow, An estimated 10,000 law enforcement officers are working daily according to Police Scotland. And, since the Blue and Green Zones are separated by the River Clyde, police divers are part of the effort.  

As the weekend protests began, Eleanor Buckley, who works at the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute said from Glasgow, “It was really exciting to see so much energy and enthusiasm on the ground at the school strikes, but there was seemingly a strong sense of frustration and disappointment. I think everyone was feeling a bit helpless at the thought that our leaders were perched in a building not far away, negotiating deals and targets that are ludicrously inadequate.” 

In the Green Zone, more than 100 organizations and companies are providing public exhibitions on climate science and action as well as displays of art, innovation, technology, music, films and dance. Participants include Conservation Without Borders, Nexus Vision, The Royal Society, Bhumi Global Inc. and dozens more. Brian Eno is hosting an arts and Imagination event. Climate Visuals has provided an exhibit showcasing “impactful, diverse photography showing what climate change really looks like around the world.”

“We could all save greenhouse gases by staying home and engaging in these events remotely.”

Given the crisis at hand, Wysham reflected on the mass pilgrimage to Glasgow. “Many of the events are happening online, it makes me wonder why we are here,” she said. “We could all save greenhouse gases by staying home and engaging in these events remotely.” 

COP26 is an unsettling end to an unsettling year. A year where escalating climate violence makes a mockery of “business as usual.” In this dreary Scottish city, the ticketed climate masses rush around the Green and Blue zones in a state of high anxiety looking into the bottomless chasm of the spreading climate chaos.

Image credit: Zeta Panamá

Written by

Arielle Bader

Arielle Bader is a journalist and photographer whose work documenting the effects of climate change on communities has been published in The Washington Post, The New York Post, Washingtonian Magazine, CNN and The Tampa Bay Times. She has worked at AARP, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the Tampa Bay Times and the GW Hatchet. She is a recent graduate from the Corcoran School of The Arts and Design at George Washington University.