Robin Toogood travelled 12 hours by train from his home in Devon to Glasgow to join what he thought would be lively protests at the COP26 summit. But when he got to the city’s downtown on Monday, he was surprised by the muted response.
“It’s kind of weird,” Mr. Toogood said as he stood on Buchanan Street in the heart of Glasgow’s busy shopping district. “Walking around the central area, the main station, the main shopping areas, you wouldn’t guess that one of the world’s most important events was happening just a stone’s throw down the road from here. It’s like a separate, parallel universe.”
Despite playing host to a once-in-a lifetime global conference and sharing space with more than 120 leaders, Glaswegians seem largely unmoved by the climate summit. Aside from a few banners on light posts, there was little in central Glasgow to indicate the conference was under way on Monday and almost no buzz that everyone from U.S. President Joe Biden to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Prince Charles and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had flown into town.
Mr. Toogood, 65, and a small group of fellow environmental crusaders from Extinction Rebellion tried to drum up some interest by staging a mock funeral for the planet complete with a black casket and drab outfits. But their sombre display outside a Victoria’s Secret store on Buchanan Street drew only a few puzzled glances from curious onlookers.
Over in George Square, Bamber Hawes cut a lonely figure standing next to a giant polar bear he’d made as a metaphor for climate change. Mr. Hawes had carried the creature to Glasgow on foot from his home in Bishop’s Castle, a 480-kilometre trek that took him more than three weeks.
“I thought this was like the Trafalgar Square of Glasgow, but it’s a quiet day,” Mr. Hawes said as a handful of people, mainly journalists, examined the bear, named Clarion. “We were hoping there were going to be other events,” he said as he cast a look around the empty square.
Kaya McInnes came to George Square on Monday hoping to find some protests to cover for his student newspaper. “I thought there would be a lot more activism and protesting going on today,” said Mr. McInnes, 20, who is a student at the City of Glasgow College. “I thought people would want to be out showing their faces.”
As Mr. McInnes spoke, Shay O’Donnell rushed through the square on his way to catch a train home from work. Most of the people he knew didn’t have much interest in the conference and they were fed up with the traffic hassle. A lot of his friends had also steered away from downtown because of the many road closings. “People just want it over,” Mr. O’Donnell, 19, said before heading off.
City officials had hoped COP26 would bolster Glasgow’s international image and build enthusiasm at home for all things green. But a last-minute strike by garbage collectors and some embarrassing tweets from U.S. journalists, who committed the faux pas of confusing the city with Edinburgh, haven’t helped to foster enthusiasm.
I’m now reporting from Edinburgh in Scotland where 20,000 world leaders and delegates have gathered for the COP26 Climate Summit. COP, by the way, stands for “Conference of the Parties.” It’s the 26th time they have gathered to discuss and take action on this critical issue. pic.twitter.com/BGTAeU5cBy— Wolf Blitzer (@wolfblitzer) November 1, 2021
Officials thought the garbage strike had been averted last Friday when union leaders suspended all job action in order to consider a new wage offer. But on Sunday the GMB, which represents Glasgow’s sanitation employees, went ahead with the strike after accusing city officials of goading staff into accepting the offer. Now, the city faces the ugly prospect of piles of garbage lining the streets just as the world’s attention is trained on Glasgow.
Nonetheless, Susan Aitken, the lead city councillor, gave COP26 delegates a hearty welcome on Monday and urged them to seek inspiration from the city. “This is a city that has been through some very tough times,” she told the conference. “But we have survived and thrived against the odds.”
There were still a few passionate campaigners outside the summit gates at the glimmering Scottish Event Campus, or SEC, located along the banks of the River Clyde on the edge of the city centre.
Anna Morris took a six-hour train trip from Shrewsbury outside Birmingham with her two children, 9 and 8, so she could wave a placard at delegates as they filed into the SEC. “We think not enough is being done and a lot more action is needed,” she said.
Despite her enthusiasm, Ms. Morris didn’t hold out much hope that the conference would result in any concrete action that would significantly cut carbon emissions. “There is so much that could have been done that hasn’t been done already,” she said. Nodding toward the delegates she added: “They are choosing not to make some of the changes that have to be made.”
Swedish activist Greta Thunberg also led a protest on Monday in a park near the SEC. “Change is not going to come from inside there,” she told the crowd, which consisted mainly of delegates. “That is not leadership.” Gesturing to the crowd she added: “This is leadership.”
Many more protests have been planned for later in the week and there is a sense among campaigners that momentum, and local interest, will build over the next few days.
That could happen, but for now Glaswegians like Jodi McLean have yet to feel any sense of excitement about COP26. Ms. McLean, 18, said she’s seen too many of these summits fail to deliver much progress and she hasn’t tuned into COP26 yet. “They just keep talking and talking,” she said.
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