What It’s Like Covering the Most Anticipated Climate Conference in Years
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The United Nations climate change conference known as COP26 officially comes to an end on Friday, as nearly 200 nations try to finalize an agreement to tackle global warming. World leaders, climate experts and activists gathered in Glasgow to galvanize countries into preventing the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. COP26 is the 10th climate conference Lisa Friedman, a reporter on our Climate desk, has covered. It is the first for Lyndsey Layton, the desk’s deputy editor.
In separate interviews, they discussed lost luggage, The Times’s approach to coverage, and why, despite some criticism, summits such as COP26 are important for making change. Their answers have been edited and condensed.
When did you arrive at the conference?
LISA FRIEDMAN I arrived on Saturday, Oct. 30. My luggage arrived the next night — my flight was delayed, and while we all made our connecting flight to Glasgow, none of our luggage did. I leave on Nov. 14, the Sunday after the conference is supposed to officially close. After 10 times covering this, I know that it sometimes goes into many, many hours of overtime, so I wanted to give myself a little breathing room to do stories and tell readers what it all came to and meant.
Is the conference different from what you were expecting?
LYNDSEY LAYTON I didn’t really quite know what to expect. This may sound obvious, but it’s one thing to have edited so many stories about the global nature of climate change. It’s another to come to a place like this and hear all these languages. People have come from all over the planet, concerned about this problem and are working on it and trying to find a way forward.
What is different about COP26 compared with conferences that you’ve covered in the past?
FRIEDMAN The most important one to compare this to is in 2015, when countries signed the Paris Agreement. There, you had the head of the United Nations climate body and lawmakers marching with activists down the streets of Paris and New York ahead of the conference, promising to work together to form an agreement. Since then, we have seen countries not really live up to what they promised. There’s a lot more anger and frustration from developing countries and from environmental activists that the moment is not being met. I’d say that there’s a lot more pressure on countries to not just make promises, but to show that they’re really acting.
What’s the energy like at the conference?
LAYTON I’ve had some really interesting conversations. To give you a sense of the variety of issues: I spoke with a Scottish member of Parliament who comes from an old coal mining town, and the coal mine is shut down. His people are struggling. I asked, “What do they think of climate change?” And he said, “They don’t care.” He said, “Climate change is a middle-class issue. My people are worried about food on the table, a roof over their heads and a way to make a living.” That dilemma is something that is in West Virginia, too. If this country transitions to green energy, there will be displacement. There will be people and communities that are going to suffer. The question is, how do you prop those up? How do you bring in new employment, new activity? It’s so interesting to be able to meet people here who are experiencing the challenges and the impacts of climate change in different ways.
What kinds of precautions did you take against Covid-19?
FRIEDMAN Our team had a number of calls on safety protocol before we came. We all came armed with masks and hand sanitizer. Once here, the protocol is supposed to be that you take a rapid test and you register your results with the National Health Service and you can only get in once you show negative results. That adds a logistical layer getting in. Inside, everything is pretty distant and spaced and people are wearing masks in the hallway, but it’s also a conference of more than 30,000 people doing work, so masks come off and there are scrums.
There are still risks. There have been reports of people testing positive. Both the United Nations climate body and the British presidency of the conference had been really not transparent at all about cases. As journalists, we all find it really troubling, the lack of transparency about the numbers. That’s been an issue here.
How does the collective focus on shared goals make you feel?
LAYTON There are so many issues; it’s such a complex problem. And every nation that comes has its own set of particular issues and concerns and its own internal politics. Like the United States — we’re very divided over climate policy, as are so many other nations. There’s so much to discuss and these little conversations are happening between negotiators in rooms that we can’t access. You don’t really have eyes into the real meat of the discussions; you’re just trying to follow the bouncing ball and trying to pick up intel here and there. It’s very hard to get the overall view of what’s really happening. That’s the challenge that our reporters have.
How do you create coverage that really stands out?
LAYTON We started planning for this way in advance, months and months and months ago, to figure out what would be the emerging themes. We started thinking about this a long time ago and Hannah Fairfield, the Climate editor, has been super organized. We had a game plan coming into COP26. We had a number of stories that we published before we even got to Scotland. Then we had a plan going in for stories we wanted to do here in addition to whatever news we could break.
There’s a question circulating online on whether the summit is effective. Is that refrain hitting the summit?
FRIEDMAN I have seen some of that. But, no summit, no conference, can solve everything. These conferences are forcing moments. Countries and leaders are put on the spot and they have to commit to things. And then they are on the record committing to these things and we can see whether they make good on their pledges or not. As problematic as some of the charges are, without these big summits, without the eyes of the world on leaders, you wouldn’t get new commitments.