Guest blog: COP 26 – overwhelming, alienating, inspiring and moving
A sign surrounded by greenery reads "Welcome to COP26." Photo Credit Catriona Patterson
In this guest blog, Anna Hodgart of the Tayside Climate Beacon, part of Climate Beacons for COP26, our Scotland-wide collaborative project connecting arts and sustainability, describes her experiences at what was for many of us in Scotland the biggest event of 2021: COP 26.
With big thanks to the determined perseverance of Lewis Coenen-Rowe at Creative Carbon Scotland in navigating the complex registration process, I was lucky enough to attend the first week of COP26 on behalf of the Tayside Climate Beacon. I found COP – the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties held in Glasgow on 31 October to 13 November – an overwhelming, alienating, inspiring and moving experience.
My time at COP started with a lot of queuing to get accredited and issued with my pass. It was a strange transition from the streets of Glasgow, the protestors congregating at the security gates shouting, singing, handing out flyers – to showing lateral flow test, passport, and invitation letter to the security team, with the metropolitan police force monitoring nearby. It was surreal too to see Glasgow transformed into UN territory, the familiar made unfamiliar – like when big blockbuster movies shoot in the city and George Square becomes New York. And to be allowed access – to be ‘on the inside’.
This unreal feeling persisted as I made my way through security and into the Hydro arena. It was a little like navigating an airport – easy to lose sense of time, location in a conference centre with little natural light; thrilling and disorientating to be surrounded by people from all over the world, to hear different languages, see different clothing and customs. I tried to orientate myself by consulting the programme and the map and found myself in the Action Hub – an Instagrammable globe floating suspended from the Hydro ceiling, news reporters dotted around the edges grabbing politicians, activists, and diplomats for interviews and soundbites. I sat down in a corner and watched the World Leaders Summit opening speeches. It was a strange experience to be inside the conference itself but watching from a screen. Inside but still outside. It was also strange to hear people speak powerfully and movingly about the climate, nature, their country, and people, about the ticking clock and growing emergency in this heightened conference centre context – so removed from the natural world and civic society – muttering translators, strip lighting, and air conditioning.
I don’t want to make it seem like a wholly negative experience. At COP I heard some incredible speeches. I had some epiphanies. I was fired up by a panel discussion on just transition led by trade unionists and considered the trade unions’ rich history of organising and struggle and what that could offer if mobilised towards green jobs, just transition, and climate justice. I was inspired by a panel discussion about digital storytelling led by the Climate Storytellers Collective, that the traditions and tools of storytelling could be mobilised towards climate action. I felt privileged to hear the Indigenous People Council speak about the knowledge they hold, their particular relationship to the earth, and was deeply moved by the vision of a future where this type of knowing and relationship could lead our way out of this mess. I found myself returning to the Resilience Lab in the pavilions several times, to hear engaging conversations about stewardship versus ownership, about transforming humanity’s relationship to nature, about the Imaginal cell and the possibility for system change coded inside our DNA.
I took away some key learnings from COP and have been considering since how we might weave some of this learning into the next steps the Tayside Beacon takes. (In a nutshell, Climate Beacons brings together shared resources and knowledge from cultural and climate organisations, providing a welcoming physical and virtual space for the public, artists and cultural sector professionals, environmental NGOs, scientists and policymakers to discuss and debate COP26 themes and climate action specific to each local area that constitutes a Beacon hub, of which Tayside is one of seven. Learn more about the Climate Beacons for COP26 initiative led by Creative Carbon Scotland.)
I’ve been reminded of the crucial importance of asking who is in the room. At an early morning press conference, I slipped into, a young activist woke up the room by pointing out that she was the only young person in the space, it was her first COP, that everyone else had been coming to COP for years – what had they achieved? Our course of action, she implied, is being set by older, white people – mainly men – from the ‘global north’, who are statistically those less affected and less likely to see the worst effects of climate change. We need the voices of those who are already experiencing the reality of climate change, we need indigenous leaders who can offer different ways of thinking about and addressing what has gone wrong, we need young people who are going to be living with the consequences of these decisions.
I learnt about the strength that exists at the intersections. The struggle for the survival of our planet intersects with many other struggles – race and gender equality, the trade union movement, the fight against poverty and socio-economic inequality, disability rights, the land back movement, and many others. Our best chance comes from acting in solidarity, gathering around the places those struggles intersect and learning best practice from each other to inform our respective movements.
It’s not the politicians that create system change, it’s civic society. There are many inspiring politicians doing great work. It was incredible to hear the Prime Minister of Barbados and the President of the Seychelles speak at COP for example. However, the real energy was definitely outside the official COP26 site. The ideas, solutions and path forward will come from people organising, not the politicians.
We need to reconnect to nature. It’s no coincidence that countries and cultures who hold the majority of economic and political power often live at a disconnect from nature. Our rituals and celebrations no longer centre around it, our lifestyles keep nature at arm’s length – a visit away. The natural world can feel other and abstract. We need to tap into the truth of our interconnectedness and re-remember that we are a part of nature too, that our survival and wellbeing and the earth’s are intimately connected at every level.
My biggest takeaway from COP was that art can do more and be more in this conversation. Art can speak in a way that statistics, presentations, and political rhetoric can’t. Art can create momentum and fun around something – can elevate and transform. Art can be ritual and connection, a place for us to understand ourselves and nature. And art can be a space to really feel something. And from feeling – to act. The arts industry is navigating a lot right now as we deal with the consequences of COVID-19 and the pandemic on our sector. However, we can’t lose sight of the crucial role we can and must have in climate action. We need more initiatives like the Climate Beacons project to create the space and means for artists and arts organisations to engage in and shape the discourse and action.
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This blog was written by Anna Hodgart of the Tayside Climate Beacon. Creative Carbon Scotland is committed to being a resource for the arts & sustainability community and we invite you to submit news, blogs, opportunities and your upcoming events.