Letter from Dublin / Timothy Kirk
COP26 in Glasgow was a disappointment for environmental activists, but history will record it as a key milestone in the fight against climate collapse. Joe Biden, Micheal Martin and Boris Johnson were among hundreds of world leaders, thousands of government negotiators and tens of thousands of protesters who made the pilgrimage to Scotland to tackle critical details like ‘the phasing out of coal or phasing out coal down ‘and make their voices heard.
My trip to the UK, the first since the start of Covid and Brexit, was more complicated than previous trips. The UK requires fully vaccinated travelers to show proof that they have scheduled and paid for a ‘day 2 lateral flow PCR test’ (a new Covid-era phrase like ‘flatten the curve’ that I hope to forget) before recording. This unique UK requirement has resulted in entirely new tests, kits, processes, procedures and infrastructure.
I scheduled the test online from Dublin and it was sent to my Airbnb address in Glasgow. When I received it, I used my laptop’s camera to verify my identity, self-administered the test, put the barcode tube in an addressed cardboard box, and I dropped it off in a red Royal Mail postbox in the neighborhood. The negative results were emailed back to me from the lab that received the package, all within a few hours. It is just astonishing that the test, procedure, kits, technology, and processes have all been developed over the past few months and that everything has worked. Human beings are even more inventive and resourceful when they focus on a project of existential importance. Imagine if we put the same objective on the eradication of homelessness or, more precisely on this journey: the fight against climate change.
There is no existential project more important to our world, but as Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has pointed out, the only entities that behave as if climate collapse is existential are the fossil fuel companies. . They know that if they lose this argument, they will cease to exist. Therefore, they did all they could to survive, but the point of the conference is that the template is in place on fossil fuels. Most of the rest of the world knows that man-made climate collapse is real, but has had other priorities like putting food on the table. The emergency disparity between the fossil fuel companies fighting for their lives and the rest of the world not seeing the debate as directly affecting them in the present has extended the use of fossil fuels for decades. The emergency gap is narrowing as the effects of climate change are felt here and now.
The ancient Celts had names of colors that are no longer part of our lexicon. An example is the word “Glas” sometimes spelled “Glass”. Britons, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Cornwall and Mannese all use this word to describe a specific color: “Blue-Green-Gray”. In the lands inhabited by the Celts, where the sea meets the sky, it’s easy to see why they developed a specific word for it. Ireland is known to be the land of ‘a thousand shades of green’, but there are a similar number of shades of gray. The color “Glas” is everywhere, especially at dawn or dusk in the city of Glasgow which takes its name from the color.
Glasgow was once home to 25 major shipyards. By the early 1900s, 20% of all ships afloat had been built in Glasgow and launched into the deep waters of the Clyde. Proximity to steel and coal as well as the competence of shipbuilding, refined over the centuries, and access to both capital and cheap labor in the form of Scottish immigrants and local Irish people have made Glasgow the world’s most important shipbuilding city.
More than 300,000 Irish people, fleeing the great famine, came to Glasgow. Tens of thousands of them worked in shipyards. The Irish founded Celtic Football Club in 1887 and still proudly and defiantly display their green jerseys and shamrocks against formidable rivals, the Rangers (founded in 1872, who are draped in red, white and blue. Irish Labor was welcomed by shipbuilders and capitalists who stoked sectarian divisions between Catholic and Protestant workers to keep wages low. The divisions remain. The Orange Order marches through the Catholic neighborhoods in Glasgow and when the Celtic is playing against Rangers, fans must enter the stadium on fully separate sides with zero shuffling between fan groups. High fences and columns of uniformed policemen separate the sides. Side note: my airbnb wifi password was: “Rangers1” Ugh!
In a grim recognition of Glasgow’s strategic importance, the German Luftwaffe bombed Glasgow heavily in 1941. The city recovered and the warships built in the yards were essential to winning the war. In the years after the war, bitter compensation to Glasgow for its role in defeating fascism was the sharp decline and disappearance of most manufacturing jobs in shipyards as manufacturers sought even higher wages. down to Asia.
The COP26 conference was split into two campuses or “zones” on either side of the River Clyde on acres that were once shipyards: blue and green. (the ‘Glas’ colors again!). The blue zone was devoted to negotiators, bureaucrats and experts from countries around the world. The green zone was reserved for NGOs, tribes, think tanks, business consortia, private companies and the public. Protesters tended to congregate closer to policymakers in the Blue Zone, but larger-scale protests were staged in the city center. Protesters have come from all over the world to promote messages ranging from heartbreak and rage to hope and optimism. Protesters were sometimes organized in circles of grizzled hippie drummers, kilt-clad musicians playing Irish or Scottish jigs and reels or leading chants. Legions of very young people inspired by teenage Greta Thunberg marched through the elegant city center.
Glasgow became wealthy and even opulent for the privileged few during the expansion of maritime commerce when Brittannia ruled the waves as the world’s first economic superpower. It doesn’t take a lot of research to find that much of the foundational wealth came from the slave trade. Speaking with a 50 year old Glasgowian named Sue who has lived here her entire life, she described her shock and embarrassment to learn that recently the massive profits from slavery underpin the importance of Glasgow.
I attended a COP26 event at Merchants House, a guild founded in the 1600s as a meeting place for leading Glasgow businessmen and as a charity to help widows and orphans of sailors lost at sea. It still operates as a respected philanthropic organization. The majestic building in George Square was rebuilt in the 19th century during Glasgow’s heyday. Plaques on the walls of the club honor the generous benefactors who built the club, endowed its charity and made Glasgow great. But since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, Glasgow has been studying its own history during the time of George Floyd. To their credit, Merchants House added a new plaque just six months ago.
The towns and villages of Europe and America which became extremely wealthy during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are linked by the euphemistic name of “Atlantic Trade”. I sympathize with Sue because I had only recently learned of the depth of my beloved Boston’s bond with slavery that lurked in plain sight. The first American slave ship Desire was built at Marblehead. The fortune of Ward Nicholas Boylston, whom I had believed to be a philanthropist and benefactor of Harvard University, was built on the slave trade. The University Hall at Brown University was physically built by slaves with money also derived from the slave trade. The list could, and should, grow. Most of the endowments of educational, cultural, artistic and philanthropic organizations in Glasgow and Boston come from slavery. Recognizing that slavery created fundamental wealth is essential in attempting to correct these historic wrongs.
Slavery, fascism and climate
Like abolishing slavery or defeating fascism, reversing the trend of climate degradation is a moral obligation. The collapse of the climate will cause disproportionate damage to people in countries that have done little to create the problem. Everyone on earth will be affected by a deteriorating climate, as evidenced by fires in California or flooded subway stations in Manhattan, but it is the south of the planet that will be catastrophically affected the most.
The pessimist might say that there is still forced servitude in the world, so we never really eradicated slavery, or that there are still strong men like Victor Orban, Vladimir Poutin, Jair Bolsinaro ( and, unfortunately, even the former occupant of the White House), so we never fully defeated fascism. The complaint could continue that we may already have warmed the planet too much to make a difference and that an accelerated rise in temperature is inevitable. But in 2021, human beings from all fields of activity are finally focused on this issue and one should never bet against the genius or the resilience of human beings.
On the banks of the River Clyde stands a monument to the fallen Glaswegians who were volunteer members of the International Brigade which fought against fascism in Spain from 1936 to 1939. Volunteers from Scotland, Ireland, the States – United, England and elsewhere went to Spain to try to stem the rise of fascism. The fact that the fascists won and that it took a world war to defeat Hitler and Mussolini does not diminish their sacrifice. The real value of the International Brigade is the example it sets for other movements like the campaign for climate justice.
The inscription says:
Better to die on your feet than to live forever on your knees.
A twelve-day meeting cannot reverse the damage done to our environment overnight, but history will eventually see COP26 in Glasgow as neither a disappointment nor a turning point, but a step forward to unleash human genius. and cooperation to meet the defining challenge of our time. .