GLASGOW — Moritz Tapp spent this past week — including his 21st birthday — at the COP26 climate conference, watching arcane negotiating sessions and doubting that the graying adults in business attire who have poured into this city are really going to save the planet.
So on Saturday, the German college student swapped his conference wear for a penguin costume, painted the word “Listen” on a piece of cardboard, and joined tens of thousands of protesters who descended on Glasgow in a burst of anger that laid bare a deep generational divide over a crisis that young activists like Tapp believe their elders are failing to contain.
“I can actually watch the people in power just sitting there having a nice day, having a cup of wine,” he said. “I’m furious, of course. It’s about our future.”
The United Nations conference here, where representatives from almost 200 countries are meeting over two weeks to hash out agreements aimed at curbing emissions, has been widely depicted as the last chance to stave off catastrophic global warming. In its first week, world leaders like President Biden delivered lofty speeches, while diplomats made a series of pledges to cut methane emissions, coal usage, and deforestation that scientists say have the potential to make a real impact if they are carried out.
But there has been an electric current of discontent among young activists who believe what is happening here amounts to little more than window dressing. They fear that the world’s top government officials and business leaders are coming up with convoluted solutions, like carbon offsets, that don’t fundamentally alter the dynamics fueling the crisis that younger generations are going to inherit.
“They are actively creating loopholes and shaping frameworks to benefit themselves and to continue profiting from this destructive system,” Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old Swedish activist who has led youth climate protests all over the world, said in a speech to young protesters on Friday, declaring that the conference already was a failure.
“This is now a global north greenwash festival,” she said, as the crowd cheered and clapped, “a two-week-long celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah.”
She spoke in Glasgow on what was supposed to be a day devoted to youth activism inside COP. But while Friday’s official programming highlighted the work of some young activists, to many young people, the conference here has reeked of exclusion. Entrance has been sharply limited because of concerns over COVID-19, meaning the voices of protesters are almost never heard inside the warren of tents and cavernous venues where the negotiations are playing out.
“Civil society groups are not allowed into the negotiations, and by extension, most youth organizations,” said Babatunde Osho, 33, a delegate with a youth climate group who is originally from Nigeria, as he stood near a computerized globe inside the conference. “If you actually judge it by that, you can say they are not given sufficient space to express themselves.”
On Saturday, protesters claimed the winding streets of Glasgow to do just that. Some wrote “Blah blah blah,” on their cardboard signs, turning Thunberg’s words into a rallying cry, while others banged spoons on drums and danced — anything to make the grown-ups listen. They marched by the thousands through a whipping wind that turned sheets of rain horizontal, unabashedly rotten weather that one protester paid tribute to with a sign that said “Keep Glasgow cold, wet and grey.”
Maja Huebers, 22, traveled three hours by bus from Aberdeen, Scotland, with her friends and a stark sign that said “Terrified of my future.”
She said she carries worries that older generations never did, asking herself whether it will be a good idea to have children in a world where climate disaster seems all but certain.
“I want to have a family, but if it’s not safe for my children, it doesn’t make sense,” she said, as people leaned out of Victorian windows three stories above her to wave down at the crowd.
A survey by the United Nations Development Programme and Oxford found that 69 percent of people under the age of 18 worldwide believe climate change to be an emergency. For adults 60 and older, the percentage drops to 58 percent.
Some of those older people joined the protesters on Saturday, apologizing for the destruction they believe their generation is leaving behind. And some young protesters brought their parents — including Manu Silverton, 14, who carried a sign his 9-year-old brother had made that read simply, “No litter.”
“Even though it’s probably a small thing, just one person out of this million people here, I just want to do my part and help this world,” Silverton said.
Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who strode through the conference facilities on Saturday after arriving on a military jet with several other senators, praised the protesters even though he could not hear or see them.
“I’m so glad there are protesters outside — I think of them all as international Green New Deal climate strikers,” Markey said, crediting the protesters for “shaping what is happening in the back rooms of Glasgow and every capital city in the world now.”
Alice Barwa, 23, a member of an indigenous tribe in India, said that voices like hers — young, female, and indigenous — are being left out of decisions that will shape her life and those of generations to come. She spoke virtually at a COP meeting on Friday, she said, but she couldn’t help feeling that if decision-makers really cared what she had to say, they would have asked her to do so in person.
“The real voices are out here,” she said, as wind carried the cries of the crowd over this old industrial city’s brick chimneys. “And if they want us, we are here.”