A soft drizzle fell on a cluster of American climate activists as they set off smoke bombs in George Square in Glasgow’s city center.
The clouds of white smoke were symbolically aimed at the heads of state beginning to arrive in Scotland’s biggest city for COP26, the United Nations climate change conference which starts on Sunday.
The demonstration on Thursday night was one of the first in an expected multitude of protests and publicity stunts planned as tens of thousands of delegates pour into the city during the next fortnight.
Home to around 635,000 people and still grappling with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, locals appear divided in their feelings towards the event.
“I am very proud that COP is being held in Scotland,” said Isabelle Barkley, a Glasgow resident who strolled over to join the activists.
Barkley added she has previously seen Nelson Mandela speak here, as well as countless Scottish independence rallies and Black Lives Matter protests in recent years.
In the coming two weeks the square, named after the 18th century British King George III, is set to be one of the main gathering areas for climate activists.
On November 5, up to 100,000 protesters will rally in the square after marching through the city, according to organizers.
“There is so much negativity in the world today,” said Barkley.
“We need to be positive, to remember that we can all do our bit for this. Eat less meat. Buy less plastic.”
‘Increase in cases’
Heavy rainfall has lashed Glasgow as it prepares for the conference, which will be attended by more than 100 world leaders including US President Joe Biden.
Although the city is famous for its rainy climate, the extent of the recent downpours has left some roads flooded, causing delays to public transport.
As a security measure, police have blocked off the streets surrounding the summit venue — the Scottish Event Campus, known as the SEC Centre — beside the River Clyde, further inconveniencing locals.
But for many, the overriding concern is that the huge global event, due to be attended by up to 25,000 delegates from 200 countries, could cause a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Scottish government’s COVID advisory group, warns it is happening at the worst possible time.
“A mass event (with major movement of people in & out) with an infectious virus will cause an increase in cases,” she said on Twitter last week.
If the predicted increasing infections “put stress on limited health services” then they could prompt the “need for further restrictions,” Sridhar added.
‘Failure and cop-out’
Shaun Clerkin, a 60-year-old Glasgow resident watching the smoke bomb scenes in George Square, is pessimistic about the attendees reaching an agreement.
“To be quite frank: I believe COP26 will be a failure and a cop-out,” he told AFP.
He also accused the event organizers of “infringing on the rights of everyday Glaswegians” and shielding visitors from the city’s very real social problems.
“We’ve got homeless people on our streets,” Clerkin said.
“We’ve got lots of people living in temporary accommodation: in hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. They are living in very substandard accommodation.
“But at the end of day, the city council wants to hide the homeless and the poor from the delegates at the conference.”
But for the climate activists in the square, the summit cannot be allowed to fail.
“The outcome of COP26 here in Glasgow is nothing less than life or death for people around the world,” says Andrew Nazdin, the protest’s 33-year-old organizer.
“We need world leaders to step up to the plate, build on the ambitious commitments they made in Paris and make sure we stay below 1.5 degrees of warming.”
Leaders including Biden have a golden opportunity to take action, Nazdin added, and the activists were there to make sure they hear that message “loud and clear.”