From backstreets of Glasgow, our man in a car’s eye on COP26

A Man in a Car COP 26
Image collage by Grant Gibbins

Sir Maxwell MacLeod isn’t sitting around hurling bricks at the television as world leaders meeting at the climate summit in Glasgow fail to come up with a plan to save the planet. He is reporting the event onsite for MWM, his way.

You may wonder why an old story-teller is living in his car in a car park in Govan – one of the most deprived areas of Glasgow – with drunken, homeless people circling and making him worry whether they will steal his electric bicycle in the boot. 

The answer is simple. A a few hundred yards ahead of me the COP26 conference on Climate Change is taking place to discuss the unfolding catastrophe under the review of several hundred reporters from around the world. The conference, which is being billed as the world’s last chance to control climate change, is being attended by over a hundred world leaders, including President Biden, though significantly not the leaders of Russia, China or India.

Australia’s claytons Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, made a brief appearance, speaking to a largely empty auditorium on Tuesday. He is already on his way back to Australia to resume hostilities with President Macron of France.

I’m not a reporter. I’m a storyteller. And it is my intention this week to live here in my car and to cycle on my electric bicycle over the tiny bridge between the two communities, and report on their differences and commonalities.

There’s a joke in Scotland that the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow, is that in Edinburgh everything is so serious nothing is dreadful, while in Glasgow, everything is so dreadful that nothing is serious. Today, however, that joke isn’t funny as many say that this meeting is perhaps the most important ever to have taken place; if we don’t attend to the issue of global warming. The existence of our species and countless others, is under threat.

The cynic might say that on the conference side of the river we have the powerful elite of the Western world trying to resolve their own problems at the expense of the poor and needy of the Third World, or as my godson recently corrected me, the Exploited World.

Back in Govan in the pubs and clubs which I have visited, there seems to be a universal cynicism about the conference, a sense that few on the other side of the river would be prepared to take the radical action needed because it would threaten their wealth and stability. When I cycle my bike over to the conference, the politicians I speak to tell me off the record that they feel that if they do make the radical changes necessary the entire industrial economy of the world will collapse and so will the institutions they represent.

Some weeks ago I was lucky enough to have a one to one conversation with a very senior member of the Tory Government, and I asked him off the record what his response was for the crisis of global warming. And he replied that he puts all his faith in capitalism to deliver innovation to respond to the problem. This may sound absurd, but that position was reflected in last week’s budget in which we were told by the Chancellor that our only hope lay in growth and he allocated more money for roads to facilitate industrial expansion and a reduction in taxes on domestic flights.

The people in Govan were not amused; indeed that kind of policy is stoking the fires of Scottish nationalism.

An oasis of sanity among the madness

But how do we respond? Well this afternoon a unique event will take place in Govan to counter the COP26 talks, when a huge garage is being converted into a festival to launch a notional Govan Free State. This ridiculous state will offer party guests passports, citizenships and even cabinet member status. Of course, it’s all a silly joke, but the party is expected to be attended by hundreds, including senior professors and academics. This is not because they take their new state seriously, but they want to express their manifest frustration at what is happening on the other side of the river. They seem to think that everything is so dreadful at the conference that nothing is serious.

Before the party I went and asked the organiser, Gehan, if the party had any seriousness about it at all, and she replied:

I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life. Twenty-five years ago we were just a bunch of kids hanging out in the park trying to stop a motorway, now we have over 100 people working here learning skills and trying to build a new future for themselves. We don’t believe that enough imagination – political imagination – is being placed before the members of the conference, to enable them to rise to the challenges of climate change.

It is a sentiment echoed by the contingent of Australians who have descended on Glasgow, complaining about their government’s attitude to managing climate change.

On Monday, the first day of the conference, a full-page advertisement was taken out in Scotland’s leading quality newspaper, The Herald. It claims to be the oldest daily newspaper in the world and is mandatory reading for the political classes. The ad attacked Australian policy and is widely believed to reflect the views of many of the Australian campaigners who have flown over to lobby at the conference.

The advertisement, which is estimated to have cost upwards of ten thousand dollars Australian is paid for by the The Australian Institute and leads with the banner headline “Don’t let Australia ruin Glasgow” and goes on to assert “The Australian Government is not committed to climate action, it is committed to fossil fuels” under a picture of Scott Morrison handing Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce a lump of coal during question time in the House of Representatives in Canberra in February 2017.

I’m an Australian, but don’t blame me

The advertisement has received support from a number of Australian visitors to the conference who are claiming that it has widespread support both at the conference and back home. Among them is Dr Samantha Graham, President of the Voices of Bradfield who is currently living in Scotland. Dr Graham told us:

I wholeheartedly endorse the anger at the weakness of the Australian government’s position on global warming. It’s often embarrassing admitting you are an Australian when you are talking to the representatives of other countries and I suspect that that opinion is also held by many other other Australians at Cop, indeed to me its seems that much of the rest of the world is Cop in whilst Australia is Cop out.

Dr. Samantha Graham

Also at the conference is activist Jo Dodds a leading protester regarding lack of federal support following last summer’s bushfires, who has crowd-sourced her airline ticket and is known to stand beside Dr Graham in seeking more concerted action and to bring better representation of the need for climate action into Parliament.

The second day of the conference led to strong international support for initiatives regarding reduction in both logging and methane, both seen as being major instigators of global warming, but many have expressed concern that such good intentions will not deliver concrete action.

Over the next week I will be interviewing people on both sides of the river to find out where they stand. I will be sleeping in my car and no doubt sipping the odd whisky. Last year I attended  a conference in New Orleans where I met a professor of climate change who told me that the major task he had to face in his work was in stabilising the mental health of his students when they came to terms with the enormity of the problems that we’re facing regarding global warming.

During the last few days preparing for the conference here, I have finally understood his remarks and I believe him.

Maxwell MacLeod, Glasgow Conference. COP26
A man with an electric bike and a warm car. Sir Maxwell MacLeod covers COP26 for MWM

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