Is there a case for optimism on the global battle against climate change? Just after the halfway point of Glasgow's COP26 jamboree, this thought occurs as delegations are still in the midst of anxious talks about the death of coal extraction, the tug-of-war over the rich compensating the poor for generations of industrial pollution, and the ongoing struggle to stop global warming in its tracks, or at least before it exceeds 1.5C.
It may seem perverse to say so, but even the continuing existence of COP could be construed as a sign of progress. Optimists among us might see the fact that climate change tops the international agenda as a signal that, finally, the world is ready to save itself. Even if so much rhetoric amounts to what Greta Thunberg famously dismissed as 'blah blah blah', should we not continue to give the politicians a chance? And if not them, then the investment bankers? (I know, I know…)
At ground level, it was not so easy to think positively 10 days ago, when most people's introduction to COP26 involved waiting for more than an hour, packed among thousands, just to get to the airport-style security queues at the SECC campus, and another 40 minutes to get through. The UN's arrangements seemed ludicrously ill thought-out: here in the pandemic age, where delegates, media and campaigners, thrown together into a disorderly queue that more resembled a rabble, pressed-up close as we shuffled along Congress Road, inching towards the marquee-style security entrance under the Finnieston Crane.
Above were police helicopters. In the distance, the blue lights of the Biden motorcade. Amidst strong November winds, a corner of the giant UN welcome banner broke free from the crane and threatened to drag the COP26 message into the Clyde. Amidst the queues, thickly-wrapped African delegates and chatty Spanish media people stamped to stay warm, each breathing into their masks and chatting endlessly into their mobile phones, keeping up-to-date with the news from Madrid, or Lagos, or perhaps their colleagues further back in line.
The first two days of world leaders' meetings set the tone for the real business of detailed talks within the SECC itself. Last week, deadlines were agreed on the phasing out of coal-burning power stations. There are concerns that the absence of significant leaders, such as those of China, Russia, Turkey and Brazil, mean that the global determination to tackle climate change cannot be fulfilled. Yet each of those nations, and those of other significant carbon-burners, have significant delegations. There are more than 300 among the Russian delegation for example. China is heavily represented too.
None of this has convinced critics, including the tens of thousands who participated in two marches last Friday and Saturday, the first addressed by Thunberg herself. They have loudly criticised politicians and corporations for 'green-washing', for making promises that have amounted to little or nothing, for treating the whole environmental question with cynicism rather than a sense of urgency and purpose.
'You can shove your climate crisis up your arse,' chanted Greta, somewhat weirdly, during her first COP26 appearance at Festival Park, just across the Clyde. She told supporters later that COP26 was a failure and would lead to nothing, a few days following the start of the two-week event. She left Glasgow at the weekend, keen perhaps that others should adopt the mantle of protest, but nevertheless leaving herself open to criticism that she was too ready to dismiss COP26 as a waste of time.
That argument is helped, of course, by the antics of some of the highest-profile politicians, not least UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Having opened the conference and taken every opportunity to be photographed glad-handing all those leaders last Monday, Johnson then used a private jet to return to London, apparently in order to attend a private dinner with old chums from the Daily Telegraph
at the Garrick Club; a dinner which led reportedly to the Tories' scandalous attempt to disrupt the suspension of Owen Paterson for an 'egregious' abuse of his position as an elected MP.
How can you take Johnson, or his government, or other politicians anywhere seriously on climate change when they are so willing to burn carbon in private jets, or massive automobile convoys, helicopters and so on? Is the adoption of 'green living', and the comparative sacrifices urged upon Western society in particular, something only the rest of us should do?
And here is the dilemma at the heart of the climate debate. Politicians are asking us to do what they say and not what they do (or don't do). Coming after the belligerence of Donald Trump, who pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement and therefore brought much of his country's environmental commitment to a shuddering halt, the arrival of President Biden and this week's contribution by Barrack Obama seemed like a welcome return of common sense in the White House. It is easy to forget that Obama and Biden ran the US for eight years, while its energy industry ramped up fracking and carried on burning coal in the last-chance saloon.
Throughout the West, big business is indeed taking climate change seriously. In some senses, the antics of Boris Johnson barely matter, if leading FTSE companies are effectively going 'green' in any case. They are being pushed that way by investors, consumers, and perhaps even by their own consciences.
The energy companies are open to criticism over the perceived pace of change. But realistically, are Shell or BP or Centrica going to shut down operations tomorrow and open wind farms a day later? Even at a local level, we have an SNP Government which not so long ago advocated greater oil exploration in the North Sea and west of Shetland. Now, the First Minister, who has fought a game battle to appear relevant while COP26 happens all around her this month, says we must try harder to reach 'net-zero' targets. This may not be a popular message in Aberdeen and the north-east – where important votes are to be fought for – at least until a credible alternative source of jobs can be found.
It is naïve and simplistic to expect change to happen instantly, as some protesters demand. Having said that, their scepticism is justified by a lot of the corporate 'green-washing' and politicians' posturing that has replaced real action for much of the period since climate change emerged as a global issue.
Change is taking place, but it was always going to be incremental. The real question is whether, by the time COP26 finishes this weekend, anything has actually been done to accelerate such positive change, and prevent real human and environmental catastrophe.
Maurice Smith is a journalist and documentary producer