At global climate summit, world leaders cajole while a tattered sign signals doom

November 1, 2021, 11:32 PM UTC

It was the symbolic anecdote that journalists covering the COP26 climate change conference couldn’t resist. Midway through the hours-long wait to enter the Glasgow, Scotland conference center hosting the event on Monday, the mammoth flag outside—hanging from a crane—began to fall.

“It’s a sign!” one Colombian delegate yelled. There were groans. Hundreds of delegates and journalists, wrapped in parkas in the cold and clutching briefcases, backpacks, and camera equipment, raised their phones to record the banner trumpeting the United Nations conference starting to shred in the wind.

It was difficult to see the moment—coming as world leaders were arriving at the conference—as anything but foreboding. Framed by U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry as “the last best chance” for the world to limit the damage of climate change, the stakes in Glasgow could not be higher. Meanwhile, the sign, with its impressionistic globe logo, was left with one corner furiously flapping off the 175-foot crane, once used to load steam trains onto ships for export worldwide. Within an hour, the sign had essentially ripped in half.

The sign’s demise, and the disorganization that surrounded attendees arrival at the venue on Monday, seemed to speak directly to anxieties about whether the two-week conference will ultimately be a success or a failure. Though the answer is not as black and white as in previous meetings—when it was a matter of either securing a deal, or not—certain themes have come up among attendees, and in speeches by heads of government and U.N. officials, alike.

Those include the phase out of coal, the strengthening of the commitment to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees by 2050, and concrete measures to ensure that lower-income countries receive financial support to adapt to rising temperatures. As major leaders including Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil declined to attend the event, cynicism has already reared its head.

In hours of speeches, pledges of solidarity and shared action from the world’s leaders were voiced repeatedly, including by U.S. President Joe Biden, who noted in a speech that countries that contributed to climate change had an “overwhelming obligation” to help those that largely did not. There was at least one major announcement: a pledge by India to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. But there was also plenty of grandstanding, blustering, and frustrated, exhausted pleading—including by the President of the Maldives, who noted wearily that he was repeating himself.

But if there was one person in the crowd of luminaries who could truly cut through the politics and drive home the sheer moral magnitude of the decisions facing the world’s leaders—and its impact on future generations—it had to be a familiar and beloved face: David Attenborough. As footage and music from his BBC series Planet Earth series played behind him, the famed British naturalist asked whether the history of climate change would be one of “the smartest species, doomed by that all-too-human characteristic: failing to see the bigger picture, in pursuit of short term goals.”

For living and future generations, the success of COP26 would come down to one fact, he said: did the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, after the world met in Glasgow, go down.

“In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could, and should, witness a wonderful recovery. That desperate hope,” he said, “is why the world is looking to you, and why you are here.”

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