Glasgow Begins, Damply
But Patti Smith, Mohamed Nasheed, and Vanessa Nakate Bring the Fire
I’ll plan on doing short updates from Glasgow this week—I’m here for the first half of COP 26, acutely conscious of just how many of these gatherings there have been. They blend together in the mind, especially since they’re always this time of year, and often in northern Europe—which means lots of raw rainy days like today. They also all feature vast spaceship-like convention centers, filled with people—30,000 in this case—moving intently back and forth doing something, but what isn’t totally clear: to the extent that there are actual negotiations going on, they usually involve a few dozen players from key countries in well-guarded back rooms. There’s a ton of information exchanged, but there’s something a little grim and tiring about the whole enterprise—a shoe convention, except for saving the world. And the fact that all 30,000 have to swab their nostrils each morning and mail the results to the UN is probably wise, and definitely adds to the charmlessness.
Which was why it was particularly wonderful to end the day with a huge concert in a jewelbox of a theater in downtown Glasgow. This gathering wasn’t part of the official lineup; instead, it was the indefatigable activist-musicians from Pathway to Paris, who once again pulled off what will be the most memorable couple of hours of the whole fortnight. Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon started these concerts to raise awareness and money in the runup to Paris, and they’ve never stopped: the lineup has featured, at various times, everyone from Thom Yorke to Flea to Tony Hawk to Joan Baez. Last night’s was particularly intimate—the Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal and the Scottish band King Creosote joined Patti Smith for set after set of remarkable music. And the speaking was just as powerful: Mohamed Nasheed, former president and current Speaker of the House in the Maldives, gave a rousing talk about, among other things, the chance that developing countries might demand debt restructuring as one form of climate finance. And Vanessa Nakate, the Ugandan youth activist currently on the cover of Time magazine and whose very fine book is published this week, brought the house down with her clear denunciation of climate colonialism. By evening’s end everyone was back on stage to join in a singalong of Smth’s most apropos hit, “People Have the Power.”
And that title’s worth remember. People don’t have much power at the COP—it’s all experts and diplomats and lobbyists. But people, by building movements, have set the bar high enough to matter. Movements are why we’re talking about 1.5 degrees as a target; movements are why politicians feel they can’t come home from Glasgow with nothing, as they did a decade ago at Copenhagen. At the concert, attendees took the time to write thousands of letters to Chase Bank CEO Jamie Dimon; they know that when Glasgow ends, the work continues, with the emphasis shifting for a season from the world of politics to the world of finance.
We’ll be in the weeds of the talks tomorrow, as world leaders arrive to give their speeches. I think it may be a little underwhelming. More rain is forecast too. So for the moment listen to the darned song.