How Glasgow’s Grassroots Put COP26 to Shame

While world leaders dithered over a toothless declaration at COP26, workers in Glasgow were fighting for a better future – a reminder that real change comes from below.

Refuse collectors were out on strike throughout the conference, condemning a failure of long-term investment by the council. Credit: GMB Branch 40

COP26 was hosted in Glasgow—a fact that merited a line in most reporting on the conference, but that rarely went beyond a passing mention. Two images captured the bizarre atmosphere that lingered across the city as the conference raged on. The first was the amusingly surreal photo doing the rounds online of Joe Biden’s fortified motorcade barreling past the Greggs on Argyle Street; the other, a fleet of Devon and Cornwall police vans, 500 miles from home, patrolling my neighbourhood in the Southside, proved the conference’s more sinister undertone.

The arrival of the 26th UN Conference of the Parties—what some hoped might have been a pivotal moment in tackling climate change—was spun by Glasgow City Council as an opportunity to showcase the city’s rich heritage and green credentials to the international community. But the everyday experience for most local residents felt far removed. Across the city, the conference and its impact have been widely discussed, and it’s rare to hear this assessed in positive terms.

Closing vital cycle paths across the river Clyde for a climate conference is ironic, for example. Giving delegates a free travel pass across all public transport is downright insulting, considering local government has for years ignored demands for a more integrated transportation system. By a generous assessment, COP26 was a major but ultimately temporary inconvenience to local life, highlighting the cracks in local infrastructure and the ease with which they could be filled.

It was supposed to be worth it: a necessary sacrifice for the immeasurably urgent cause of preventing ecological collapse. As many observers feared, however, COP26 failed to provide solutions commensurate with the scale of the crisis. This was predictable—that a conference which had more representatives from fossil fuels industries than any single nation would fail to make demands for systemic change seems a foregone conclusion.

But to conclude an analysis of COP26 at this, the borders of the official programme, would be shortsighted, failing to consider how developments at the conference were shaped by its Glaswegian setting. Beyond the fences of the Scottish Events Campus, actions that unfolded across the city elucidated an alternative to the piecemeal negotiations within.

Community organisations and trade unions supported the global climate justice movement by mobilising alongside international activists. Actions by Glasgow’s local networks demonstrated a commitment to the urgency of addressing the crisis within the framework of a just transition and reiterated the interconnected nature of their respective struggles—struggles across which the climate crisis cuts.

Media coverage of COP26 protests has centred on the Global Day of Action march, or various protests by Extinction Rebellion, but the organised responses to COP26 by both local and international activists were numerous. First among these was the local response to the accommodation crisis that the conference wrought on the city, with reports of indigenous elders forced to sleep in parks.

Through the Human Hotel network of homestays, Glaswegians opened their doors to house activists from across the globe who would otherwise have been shut out of participation by skyrocketing prices. ‘Baile Hoose’, a former homeless services unit in Tradeston, was reopened by squatters as both temporary accommodation and a space for informal discussions. Their statements called to attention the effects of the SNP-controlled council’s programme of cuts and emphasised the vital need for renewed public services in the city.

Local organisers worked with visitors to develop and debate alternative political programmes, with anti-capitalist spaces, community centres, and churches alike offering venues. The People’s Summit offered an engaging and wide-ranging series of panels and workshops, organised by the COP26 Coalition, a broad collection of campaigners, charities, policymakers, and rights groups, who recognise the climate crisis as a shared concern. Existing networks of organisers within Glasgow provided vital support and a platform to marginalised communities.

With events by grassroots organisations such as MORE (Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment), the Summit incorporated diverse perspectives from across the many frontiers of the climate emergency, highlighting how ecological breakdown will further exacerbate existing inequalities. Meanwhile, the launch of the Govan Free State a few streets away from the conference encouraged the community to ‘reclaim responsibility for the contested territories of our collective futures’.

The conference took place against a backdrop of worker organising that made explicit the ties between the working-class struggle and the climate justice movement. Refuse collectors, part of the GMB union, were out on strike throughout the conference against low pay, dangerous working conditions, and deteriorating facilities, condemning a failure of long-term investment by the council. Chris Mitchell, a GMB organiser whose rallying speeches at refuse depots have garnered viral support, highlighted the importance of refuse workers to enacting climate strategy on the local level and building sustainable communities. City leadership only narrowly avoided a strike by rail workers after a last-minute deal for a 2.5 percent pay rise was agreed, while the final days of the summit saw a strike by workers on the Caledonian Sleeper train.

From workers’ rights to housing and racial justice, organisers across Glasgow have highlighted how the climate emergency offers opportunity for joint action. As Rory Scothorne suggests, displays of support between campaigns have the potential to forge a powerful alliance whose strength will continue even now that COP has ended. Solidarity was out in full force as Scottish renters union Living Rent and residents from Govanhill joined striking GMB members on the picket line at refuse centres. Even Greta Thunberg offered her support to the refuse workers’ cause.

The much-celebrated anti-deportation action on Kenmure Street earlier this year thrust Glasgow’s powerful community organising briefly into the national spotlight, but media focus on specific flashpoints often overlooks the longer-standing networks that underpin communities and catalyse their success. It is these very networks that provided the foundations for the wave of powerful actions that took the streets of Glasgow this November.

At the margins of COP26, a vast collaboration of individuals and communities have shown the city is ready to hold leaders to account for their empty promises. Locating COP26 against the radical backdrop of Glasgow shattered the facade of productive debate that the official conference sought to conjure, instead revealing a pitiful display of lip-service and capitalist greenwashing—but the strength of Glasgow’s residents and workers proved that this moment of establishment failure might also be a moment for hope.