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In Glasgow, hope and hot air mix at conference to address climate change

Protesters dressed as Pikachu held signs urging Japan to stop funding coal during a protest outside the COP26 Summit on Thursday.Peter Summers/Getty

GLASGOW — In language both apocalyptic and hopeful about the fate of the planet, there have been grandiose promises from the many presidents and prime ministers attending yet another gathering of global leaders, scientists, and thousands of others to address the perils posed by climate change.

There’s no time to wait, they’ve said. Parts of the planet could soon become uninhabitable, they’ve noted. They’ve described how many people are likely to die without meaningful action.

And, as in the many previous climate conferences organized by the United Nations, they also pledged to act. They have promised to halt harmful emissions, end deforestation, and save coral reefs. Rich countries have promised billions of dollars to help less wealthy ones.


None of that mattered to Mariana Menezes, a weary environmental activist who had just arrived at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference from Brazil.

As she searched for one of the many protests in this old city, where great wealth from shipbuilding and other heavy industries was made possible with fossil fuels, Menezes said she had had enough of the hortatory speeches and rosy assurances about a better future.

“What we need is action — now,” Menezes said, trudging along the windy streets just outside the barricades around the conference center. “For me, the most important thing is what happens the day after this conference ends.”

With helicopters hovering overhead, an army of police patrolling nearby streets, and tall wire fences surrounding a giant conference center, the UN’s 26th annual Conference of the Parties — known as COP26 — has existed in something of a bubble. While the rhetoric in meeting rooms and on the streets is similar to previous conferences, there has been a palpable difference in Glasgow: growing impatience.

Among attendees are leaders from countries already experiencing the most dramatic impacts of climate change.


Earlier this week, Greenland’s new prime minister, Múte Bourup Egede, was attending one of the many side meetings held around the city. This one was about the future of the shipping industry, in which massive container ships would no longer spew heavy loads of carbon emissions from diesel fuel.

Egede, though, was more interested in hearing about immediate solutions, citing the very real effect climate change is having on Greenland right now. Temperatures in his country are warming at least twice the rate of the rest of the world, and its massive ice sheets are retreating at a rapid pace — nearly 4 trillion tons of ice have been lost since the early 1990s, according a study by NASA.

Attendees in the Blue Zone during the COP26 climate talked in Glasgow on Tuesday.Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg

“I don’t want to say I’m angry, but I’m frustrated that the big countries aren’t taking the action they have already promised,” said Egede, 34, one of the world’s youngest leaders, who told the Globe that climate change has already had a deep impact on his people’s long traditions of hunting whales. “Climate change is changing our way of life. We view this COP as the last best chance to make a difference.”

Inside the sprawling maze of the conference center, many countries created pavilions similar to commercial booths at conventions. One featured three mock polar bears wearing life vests, while another showed off hydrogen-powered cars. The Malaysians handed out doughy desserts, while Norway offered candy.

At the US pavilion, a quote from President Biden spanned one wall in capital letters: “We’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis, and we can’t wait any longer. We see it with our own eyes, we feel it, we know it in our bones, and it’s time to act.”


Meanwhile, France used its pavilion space to take a swipe at Biden’s predecessor, former president Donald Trump: On the wall of that display was this quote from French President Emmanuel Macron: “Make our planet great, again.”

In the pavilion for Bangladesh, Deputy Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam described how strengthening cyclones have had a devastating impact on low-lying lands and millions of impoverished residents who live there.

“I see people displaced every day as a result of climate change,” Alam said.

He said his government was “deeply frustrated” that the United States and other wealthy countries have so far failed to live up to prior pledges to provide Bangladesh and other developing countries $100 billion to address climate change. This week, the wealthy countries renewed their commitment to fulfilling that pledge.

John Kerry, United States climate envoy, left the stage at the United Nations’ COP26 summit in Glasgow, after speaking about the Global Methane Pledge.Erin Schaff/NYT

Alam’s message to Americans: “The huge amount of gas you consume, and the big cars you drive have a huge impact on us. And if you think climate change won’t impact you, it will. If our people don’t have anywhere to go, they might end up in your country.”

For their part, US officials attending the conference said they hear the concerns from developing countries and vowed to do more to help.

After a meeting with the president of the Pacific island nation of Palau and leaders of other highly vulnerable countries, John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate, said he had received pledges from US banks to invest more than $4 trillion in global projects to combat climate change.


“$100 billion doesn’t do it,” Kerry said. “The only way we’re going to get it done is if trillions of dollars are forthcoming, and they are.”

At Panama’s pavilion, Ligia Castro de Doens, director of climate change for the Ministry of Environment, said changing rain patterns are having a serious impact on her people. The rainy season is now significantly shorter, creating droughts. Yet there is also heavier rainfall other times of the year, creating deluges that are killing more and more people, destroying homes, wiping out crops, and causing major coastal erosion.

“The rain we used to get in one day, we now get in a half hour,” she said. “It’s a very serious problem.”

Nearby, at the Cryosphere Pavilion, which was devoted to the dangers of retreating glaciers at the North and South poles, professor Rob DeConto, a climate scientist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was telling a rapt audience about the particularly acute dangers melting glaciers in Antarctica pose to the planet, especially to Boston.

Cows gathered near the coal-fired power station in Niederaussem, Germany.Michael Probst/Associated Press

As ice melts at the South Pole, DeConto said, Boston and other nearby communities are likely to experience about a 25 percent higher increase in sea levels than other parts of the planet.

“The bullseye around North America is the karma effect,” he said, referring to how the United States has contributed more to climate change than any other nation, producing far more greenhouse gases since the start of the Industrial Revolution.


As diplomats from Argentina to Zambia shuttled among negotiations and briefings, Julia Horchos, 20, a junior majoring in environmental studies at Boston College, sat under a giant spinning globe in a lime-colored building shaped like a flying saucer.

Part of a delegation of four students and a dozen faculty members from BC attending the conference, she was feeling the burden imposed on her generation.

“It just makes me sad,” Horchos said, noting that most of the world leaders attending the conference were far older and wouldn’t live long enough to see the consequences of their actions, or inaction.

In the coming days of the two-week conference, there will be additional visitors from Massachusetts, including Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides; one of the primary authors of the state’s new climate law, Senator Michael Barrett, a Democrat from Lexington; and Boston’s environment chief, the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond.

Outside the gates, among the many protesters here in Glasgow to express their concern with the state of the planet, Veronica Hamilton was holding a silent vigil, praying that world leaders would see the wisdom of banning fossil fuels as soon as possible.

Next to an hourglass showing the quickly dissipating amount of time left to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, Hamilton said she was feeling a mix of grief and despair.

“There’s so much to lose without real action, so much life endangered,” said Hamilton, who traveled five hours from her home in England to sit silently by the gates of the conference. “I worry that the people in power aren’t up to the task of making the right decisions.”

Ocean Rebellion activists staged a protest against deep sea fishing near the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, venue of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images

David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.