Mind out for the rats and the Nats! As Glasgow prepares to host the world (and help save the planet), one sceptical local warns a few problems nearer home will have delegates dropping their lattes
The reality of global warming is already being felt in numerous cities around the world. But a warning to U.S. President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and all the other thousands of delegates, plutocrats and activists who are about to swamp Scotland’s largest city next week for COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference: Glasgow in November is not one of them.
As Billy Connolly, the city’s favourite son, once put it, there are only two seasons here: winter and June. It is somehow entirely in keeping with Boris Johnson’s style of government that he is preparing to focus world attention on our overheating planet in Britain’s chilliest nation.
At the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) on the banks of the Clyde, where this vast COP shindig is to be hosted, a customary force 8 gale is sweeping down the river. A lone worker hangs by a rope from the side of the Finnieston crane, grappling with a giant UN banner that, like a faulty mainsail, is flapping wildly in the wind.
The place is deserted. Yet come Sunday it will all feel rather different. After a year and a half in which Glaswegians, like everyone else, have spent most of their time locked indoors, the city is coming to terms with the fact that the world is about to barge its way through the front door.
With up to 30,000 delegates, 10,000 police and as many as 200,000 protesters, COP26 — the letters stand for ‘Conference of the Parties’ — is to be held in a vast tented village, kept apart from the grubby masses by a ring of security steel. It is Davos on the Clyde. Glasgow loves a party as much as anyone, but are we quite ready for this?
Activists in Glasgow symbolically set George Square “on fire” with an art installation of faux flames, smoke, and banners, showcasing the climate emergency
A mile or so away from the COP HQ is Govan Road, childhood home to Sir Alex Ferguson. Amid a public backlash about the dishevelled state of the city, council workers are busily removing rubbish from a small patch of grass there. ‘I don’t know why we have to wait for someone special to turn up to get it sorted,’ mutters a litter-picker.
Outside the nearby Jobcentre, locals have mixed feelings about the event: a sense of civic pride in Glasgow’s sudden elevation in status and a Clyde-built scepticism about the exact point of it all.
‘I hope something comes of it, but I can’t help thinking they’d be better off giving the money to parts of the city like this,’ says unemployed Frankie McDermott.
Bob McBride, also unemployed, says nobody knows what the event is for. ‘But I bet they don’t have to use vaccine passports when they arrive,’ he grumbles.
A feisty pensioner who refuses to be named has a warning for any climate activists: ‘I don’t know how things are done in London, but if they try to block the roads here, they’re going to get a Glasgow kiss,’ she says, smiling menacingly through her dentures. (Note to XR and Insulate Britain campaigners unfamiliar with the local patter: that’s Glaswegian for a head-butt.)
Or we may just set the rats on them. For the talk on the Glasgow omnibus these past few weeks has not been about whether President Xi of China will take part in negotiations, or whether the $100 billion target to support developing nations will be met, but about whether somebody from the b****y council could deal with our escalating rodent problem.
My house, about a mile from the COP site, has been overrun with the creatures lately. After a summer of gorging on the overflowing bins in our back lane, rats the size of four Big Macs began invading our basement and, at one stage, reached my daughter’s bedroom.
The city is suffering from a wide infestation of rats as it prepares to welcome world leaders to COP26
Nor are we unusual: so widespread was the plague that a rat hotline was set up by the GMB union. The public’s anger was only heightened by the nothing-to-see-here attitude of our city leaders. On Tuesday, SNP council leader Susan Aitken bizarrely blamed Margaret Thatcher for the problem, sniffed blithely that ‘all cities have rats’ anyway and declared that Edinburgh was even worse.
Rats and Scot Nats — we’ve had our fill of them up here.
Thankfully, the rodents now seem to be in retreat. But the matter has fed into a wider concern among Glaswegians that, as they open up to the world, the city may appear a little under-dressed.
Uncollected rubbish on the streets has been an issue for months, hence the last-minute clear-up in Govan this week. But the council didn’t help matters when it unveiled ‘Bonnie the Seal’ as the official COP26 mascot; a lifesize puppet which not only looks uncannily like (you guessed it) a huge rat, but is a recycled cast-off from the last big event the city held, the multi-sport European Championships in 2018.
All this is only half the picture, however, and opportunity is in the air as well as cynicism. The economic benefit to Glasgow from the event may end up being as much as £100 million. And many residents have made it clear they want as much of that multi-million-pound cake as possible.
This is a city that has never had much problem squaring its socialist self-image with an eye for a fast buck. Stories are now emerging of the exorbitant sums being charged by amateur landlords renting out their homes to delegates desperate for a place to stay.
The city’s rubbish issue is likely to get worse as a strike for refuse workers looms ahead of the highly-anticipated climate summit
American climate activist Tan Copsey was informed by his Airbnb host in the West End of the city that, because prices in the area had risen by 400 per cent, his rental would be increased by £1,500. ‘I had already paid. We had an agreement,’ Mr Copsey noted — and promptly told his greedy host where to go.
A gym near the SEC site has been leased out for a reputed £500,000. Add in the oceans of organic white wine and thousands of cruelty-free canapes delegates will swallow, and it all helps locals keep the wolf from the door.
So will the hosts — the British Government — recoup a political dividend from this? Will Glasgow, which in the 2014 referendum voted to leave the UK, learn to appreciate the benefits of the Union as a result? The jury is out.
Two years ago, Boris Johnson declared that COP26 would be used as a battering-ram for Unionism. ‘I don’t mind seeing a Saltire or two but I want to see the Union flag and I don’t want to see Nicola Sturgeon anywhere near it,’ he told cheering Tory activists.
Funnily enough, in Scotland, this didn’t go down well. Mr Johnson has now seen sense — he and Ms Sturgeon will co-host a reception of world leaders here next week, and the Union flag and Saltire will fly side by side.
For her part, Ms Sturgeon appears determined to flog the event for all it’s worth to burnish her international credentials and the case for independence (in that order). As regards the impact on the Union, the best the Government is hoping for is that no great harm is done.
Those of us keen to keep the Union are left to pray Mr Johnson does not commit any crimes against Scotland such as wearing a kilt, or joking about what Scotsmen wear under one.
Boris Johnson is hoping that the delayed climate conference in Glasgow can be used to help strengthen Scotland’s ties with the UK
But saving the Union aside, what about saving the planet?
With neither Presidents Xi nor Putin deigning to come, expectations of a breakthrough deal in the manner of the 2015 Paris summit are low. And there is always the danger at COP that any advantage of getting together is offset by the apparent hypocrisy of the whole carbon-spewing enterprise.
Case study number one is the fleet of electric Jaguars that will be used to ferry VIPs from their hotels. Alas, because of a lack of power points, diesel-powered generators have had to be brought in to charge them.
Doggedly, the party host, COP president and Conservative MP Alok Sharma, has continued to hit the phones in the hope of reaching a meaningful deal.
Whether or not he is successful, it seems unlikely that his efforts will satisfy the thousands of protesters who are preparing to head here — including everyone from genuine climate activists and NGOs to Scottish independence supporters and Black Lives Matter campaigners.
The Queen, sadly, is not coming but the princess of climate change, Greta Thunberg, is. This week she said: ‘We invite everyone, especially the workers striking in Glasgow, to join us.’
The climate summit comes at a time where Cumbria is suffering from life-threatening floods
The numbers could be huge. Glasgow’s burgeoning business district, only a Molotov cocktail’s throw away from the COP site, is bracing itself for action. Many others predict, meanwhile, that the next Covid variant may well be cooked up here.
One feels it will require American muscle to push matters along — so all eyes will be on President Biden (who is opting to stay in Edinburgh). White House briefings insist he will deliver on his promise to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030.
But as one green activist friend of mine notes, if this event was going to work, why are we now on conference number 26? Shouldn’t all this have been sorted out at COP1?
Glaswegians, for all their scepticism, will hope it does work. In Govan, passer-by Anne Beamish remarks: ‘We can put up with a bit of disruption if it means the weans [young] have a future.’
Despite everything, including the rats, that would make it worth the hassle.