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GLASGOW, Scotland — A pair of large protests outside the U.N. Climate Change Conference on Friday and Saturday featured thousands of young people holding signs, persistent chanting, infectious samba drums, but a somewhat muddled message about how the world should go about avoiding catastrophic climate change. While a sense of frustration, even disgust, with the government officials inside the Scottish Event Campus was clear, many protesters struggled to identify what specific policy proposals they hoped would emerge from COP26.
At Friday’s youth strike, which was organized by Fridays for Future, the climate activism organization founded by Greta Thunberg, there was a widespread sense among the more than 10,000 attendees that the conference and the governments participating in it are failing to act with sufficient haste to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
“Time to stop Capitalism Over Planet,” read one sign in reference to the acronym used for Conference of the Parties. Several signs made reference to Thunberg’s now-famous line that the latest climate change negotiations have amounted to little more than “blah, blah, blah” from politicians.
On Saturday, despite strong winds and rain, over 100,000 protesters joined the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march, which the BBC called “one the city’s largest protests in living memory.”
But on both days, when asked what specific policies they would like to see enacted to combat climate change, most protesters struggled to give examples. Instead, they tended to speak in broad strokes. Answers included “actually do something,” “actually pay attention,” and “not just say ‘We’re doing something’ and then doing nothing.”
When they did offer specific suggestions, the ideas tended to all come down to a belief that market-based solutions and plans for gradual transitioning to clean energy should be replaced with immediate and comprehensive restriction of fossil fuel development and industrial activities.
“In Belgium, specifically, maybe everywhere, now there is the emission trading system, and I think that’s not at all a way to save the climate, to reduce emissions, it doesn’t work,” said Lola Lanen, 25, a student at the University of Antwerp and the spokesperson for COMAC, the student movement of the Workers’ Party of Belgium. “I think it’s better to put regulations on those big polluters, so that they have to make their production greener.”
That same message was prevalent at both weekend protests, including a sign on Friday that read, “Be braver, think bigger, no more fossil fuels.”
“Students just want to see more of a change than we’re seeing,” said Sophie Henderson, a 17-year-old high school student in Glasgow. “We are being let down by our politicians.”
When asked for an example of what the British government should do, she initially stuck with broad comments, saying, “They should listen to young people, and they need to be a lot more radical with the change that needs to be made.” But when pressed further, she added that “they should stop Cambo,” referring to a large new oil field in Scotland that the U.K. government is currently considering approving for further exploration.
The maligned politicians hammering out an agreement inside the conference tend to disagree with the idea of an immediate halt to fossil fuel development.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who represents a state that produces coal and natural gas, told Yahoo News that he opposes a ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is supported by some in his party.
“I don’t support the idea that tomorrow you can turn fossil fuels off,” he said. “We’re going through a very modest [oil and gas] price increase right now, which is creating a lot of difficulty in terms of being able to get to a durable climate solution. We need to understand that.
“Unless somebody can come up with a plan where turning it all off tomorrow doesn’t create some dramatic price shock,” he said, “I think a much more beneficial view in terms of climate itself, in order to get to a real solution, which is what we need to do, is to have an orderly transition.”
Bennet was in Glasgow with a Senate delegation to promote a successful outcome to the climate change negotiations. At a press conference on Saturday, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that the protesters’ overarching message on climate justice is welcome — though he did not specifically refer to their stance on immediately ending fossil fuel extraction.
“It’s a good thing somebody is protesting outside because we need to listen to the voices of young people,” Markey said.
The activists’ message was also made less clear by the fact that many groups with an array of only loosely related viewpoints came to both rallies, especially the larger one on Saturday.
For example, the River Almond Action Group, which is focused exclusively on conventional pollution in Scottish waterways, was there with signs deploying Scottish slang to call for cleaning up local rivers. (Apparently, “bogin’” or “bogging,” means disgusting, and that’s what the group thinks of the current state of the nation’s rivers.)
There were also Palestinian flags, signs calling for a “Free Palestine,” as well as flags featuring logos for the band the Grateful Dead.
Among the more directly relevant but potentially controversial groups present was the Animal Welfare Party, a minor British political party that promotes animal rights. Its signs read, “Less Meat, Less Heat.”
Steven Wooten, who came from Edinburgh, Scotland, on Saturday with the group, both pointed out that raising animals for meat and dairy is a large source of greenhouse gas emissions. “I came here to show that animal agriculture should be discussed at COP26, and it’s been overlooked, and it needs to be considered,” Wooten said. “And the welfare of animals is a massive part of stopping climate change.”
There were also, for example, a number of different socialist and other far-left groups present, handing out pamphlets, hawking newsletters and arguing that only an end to capitalism could stop climate change. Some of the young people present seemed to agree, even if they weren’t marching specifically with such a group.
By contrast, one of the lowest profile and least crowded areas on Saturday was the one promoting the Zero Hour, a nonpartisan effort to pass a bill that would actually require the British government to set in law an emissions-reduction trajectory that would do its part to avert catastrophic climate change.
“[We’re] calling on the U.K. government to pass new legislation to reduce emissions in line with a fair share allocation of 1.5 [degrees Celsius of warming], to restore nature and to involve citizens in that just transition to a zero carbon society,” explained Oliver Sidorczuk, a coordinator of the campaign.
It’s the strongest possible standard one could set, but it’s a new campaign, and it’s less fun than inveighing against corporations.
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