Warming Trends: At COP26, a Rock Star Named Greta, and Threats to the Scottish Coast. Plus Carbon-Footprint Menus and Climate Art Galore

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

Climate activists Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate participate in a Friday for Future student strike on Oct. 1, 2021 in Milan, Italy. Credit: Francesco Prandoni/Getty Images

Climate activists Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate participate in a Friday for Future student strike on Oct. 1, 2021 in Milan, Italy. Credit: Francesco Prandoni/Getty Images

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CULTURE 

Eating Meat at COP Is Like Serving Cigarettes ‘at a Lung Cancer Conference’

What do three square meals a day look like in Glasgow this week? 

Perhaps in the morning, you begin with Scottish morning rolls with Ayrshire bacon. Then for lunch you order a smoked ham sandwich with mature cheddar cheese, and for dinner, you enjoy braised Scottish venison casserole. The climate impact of your food choices would total 2.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. 

You could opt for a more planet-friendly, plant-based diet and swap a vegetable and mushroom substitute for the bacon, select a grilled vegetable and kale pesto sandwich for lunch and enjoy a pearl barley and root vegetable hot pot with marinated cabbage for dinner. Your food would have produced just 0.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent.

The dozens of dishes on the menu at COP26 this week appear alongside their carbon dioxide equivalents, a metric calculated by the Swedish start-up company Klimato to encompass the food’s carbon footprint from farm to table. Plant-based and vegetarian dishes make up 59 percent of the COP26 menu, and 65 percent of menu items are considered “low impact,” according to these calculations, meaning their carbon dioxide equivalents are less than 0.5 kilograms.

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Nearly all the food served at COP26 is sourced from inside the United Kingdom, and 80 percent of it from within Scotland, organizers say, reducing emissions from transporting food. Dishes feature sustainable Scottish suppliers, like Grants of Speyside burger patties blended with plant-based proteins and seaweed flake seasoning from Mara’s Seaweed replacing salt. 

But COP26 organizers have been criticized for not eliminating meat and fish entirely from their offerings. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, the Center for Biological Diversity and several plant-based and animal rights advocacy groups tweeted this week against the decision to offer items with a high carbon footprint at all. 

One advocate likened it to “serving cigarettes at a lung cancer conference.”

CULTURE

Greta and Vanessa, a Study in Contrasts

Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate was infamously cropped out of a photo taken by the Associated Press at Davos in January 2020. The altered photo showed four white climate activists, including Greta Thunberg. Nakate was the only person of color in the picture and the only one who was cropped out. 

In a new book out this week called, “A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis,” Nakate, the 24-year-old founder of the Rise Up movement, details how the cropped image spurred her to bring a climate spotlight to Africa, a continent that faces some of the worst effects of climate change despite contributing little to the problem. 

“It seemed to me that too many leaders were in environments where they were sheltered from the effects of their decision-making,” Nakate writes in the book. “Those of us who had no ability to escape the climate crisis, because it was on our doorstep, had to haunt them: to force them to understand that the consequences of their decisions weren’t abstract or insignificant, but in real time and in real life were harming someone, somewhere.”

Yet coverage at COP26 has shown that Nakate continues to be disregarded by some media outlets. Despite her feature on the cover of TIME Magazine this week, her appearance on The Daily Show and coverage by the Financial Times, the BBC and Vogue, two British media outlets kept the focus on Greta Thunberg meeting with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, even when Nakate was also there.

In her new book, Nakate calls for the world to listen to activists from Africa and the Global South, and not just to rely on the voice of a single individual to speak for a movement on an issue as universal as climate change. 

“We need people of all ages and races,” Nakate writes, “with the widest possible range of skills, from every socioeconomic background, and from everywhere on Earth to become involved.”

CULTURE

Greta Goes Viral: Not ‘Net-Zero on Swearing’

COP26 is drawing a crowd of big names as the world gathers to tackle the climate crisis, including the heads of state who have made lofty pledges on methane limits, halting deforestation and cutting financing for fossil fuels. But rock star climate activist Greta Thunberg has repeatedly gone viral with her actions this week. Here are some headlines the Swedish activist made each day of COP26 so far.

Monday

The face of the climate movement was escorted into Glasgow by a huddle of police officers as hundreds mobbed her.

Tuesday

Thunberg passionately spoke to a crowd of supporters outside the COP26 venue, calling for climate justice and an end to exploitation of nature. “No more blah, blah, blah,” she said. “No more whatever the f—k they’re doing inside there.” 

She also led the group in song: “You can shove your climate crisis up your arse.”

Wednesday

Thunberg tweeted a promise to go “net-zero on swearing,” compensating for any inappropriate words by saying something nice.

Thursday

As she was walking out of a meeting on carbon offsets, Thunberg shouted “Stop greenwashing” to the room.

Friday

Thunberg marched on the streets of Glasgow with thousands of climate protesters in the 167th week of her Fridays for Future climate strike that made her famous. In a speech at the march, she called COP26 “exclusionary,” a “PR event” and a “Global North greenwash festival.”

SCIENCE

A Fixed Boundary Between Land and Sea? 

As thousands gather in Glasgow for the COP26 climate negotiations, rising sea levels and coastal erosion threaten Scotland’s picturesque shores and coastal landmarks, as well as more than $1 billion in property and infrastructure, Scottish researchers say.

Sites at risk include golf courses like St. Andrews, historical landmarks like the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae and iconic coastlines like Melvich Beach.

About 46 percent of the nation’s shorelines that are not protected by hard walls and artificial defenses currently experience erosion—up from 38 percent in 2017. This number could be as high as 75 percent by 2050, according to erosion data compiled by researchers at the University of Glasgow that considered low, medium and high carbon emissions scenarios. Even under low emissions scenarios, erosion will still increase because of global warming and sea level rise that is already guaranteed to happen because of past emissions.

“Our work has found that even if we achieve net-zero promptly, sea levels will continue to rise. There’s a time lag,” said Larissa Naylor, a professor of geomorphology and environmental geography at the University of Glasgow. “So we’re already committed to a certain level of sea level rise and therefore erosion. So, we need to become ‘sea level wise,’ improve short-term resilience while planning longer term adaptation.”

Stakeholders can see how coastal erosion will affect property or infrastructure near the coast that they depend on with a comprehensive interactive map that the researchers put together with the Scottish government to show projections at a local scale. This information can help authorities and landowners adapt to the changes that are coming or plan to move away from the sea.

“Do we choose to keep that fixed boundary between land and sea? Or does it need to be blurrier?” said Naylor. “Do we need to make space for [buildings, roads and other assets] to move landward as sea level rises and for coastal erosion to take place?”

CULTURE

The ‘Visceral and Often Empowering’ Case for Climate Art 

COP26 is not just an international gathering of decision makers to discuss science, policy and financing. It’s also a hub for artistic collaboration, showcasing music, poetry and theater. 

Art can be an avenue for understanding a complicated and terrifying issue like climate change. “Visual arts and music are visceral and often empowering modes of communication,” said Cressida Bowyer, a senior research fellow at the University of Portsmouth, who spent decades in the music industry. “Engaging with artistic output is less dependent on literacy, language or expertise and allows space for wider perspectives.”

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The National Youth Theater performance on Friday portrayed young adults grappling with eco-anxiety and solutions to the climate crisis on stage. Poets from around the world shared climate-inspired writings on Monday. And SOS From The Kids, the children’s choir that appeared on Britain’s Got Talent with a heartfelt song calling for adults to protect the planet, will perform on Saturday.

The scene around the Scottish Event Center in Glasgow is dotted with physical art illustrating climate change. The pavilion hosted by the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu features a statue of three polar bears wearing life jackets, Washington Post reporter Maxine Joselow tweeted. Behind them, a penguin hangs from a noose.
And a dramatic “climate canopy” shows climate warming stripes, a visualization that portrays increasing global average temperatures from a gradient of blue stripes to red stripes—hanging in the space where leaders are discussing how to slow this warming trend.