Day two inside COP26, and The Glasgow Guardian sees some famous faces.
Day 2: Monday 1 November
Told to meet at the “media meeting point” for 11.15am on the first proper day of the conference, turning up at 9am seemed like a good plan. What I hadn’t accounted for, however, was the sheer volume of people who had obviously thought along the same lines. When I walked around the corner, after having entered the area, I was staggered by the crowd that ballooned from the entrance doors. Trying to stay calm, I tried not to think about how a seven-person queue had taken three hours to move the evening before.
It only took thirty minutes until I was in, thankfully, and with the remaining time, I bought a coffee and croissant, and double checked the directions to the meeting point. They were vague, and referenced unofficial landmarks that apparently no one else bar my man Tim Davies seemed to recognise. I lost count of how many people I had asked for directions, and of them, no one seemed sure of where I was headed. Initially ahead of time, it was running away from me. With seven minutes to spare, I found one woman at a help desk who appeared to know where it was and, thank god, she was right.
"I lost count of how many people I had asked for directions, and of them, no one seemed sure of where I was headed."
Several other people with press passes were huddled in a group in the manic atrium, some with cameras. All looked slightly uncertain whether they were in the right place or not, resolving any doubt in my mind of whether we were. I recognised two people from the queue the previous day on my right. On the other side, an older man had just arrived. I squinted unsubtly at his badge which read: “The Daily Mail”. Another ten minutes of small talk amongst us all passed before Mr Davies arrived with a stash of pink and orange press cards in hand.
The High-Level Summit
We were led past another level of security, towards a large room marked “Plenary 1 - Glen Cairn”. Led in, we were suddenly engulfed in a cinematic blue-light semi-darkness. I had no idea where I was going, so kept my new friend from The Daily Mail in my sights. Everyone else seemed to be picking up translation headsets so I did the same. The Mail man had an orange pass, so was led off in a different group, whilst I stayed with the pinks. The room was massive, expanding on all sides of me, and there were dozens, if not hundreds, of people milling around. There were desks led out in long rows, each with black and white badges set on them. The group I was with started to move, being led towards the centre of the tables, in front of the main stage.
Where were they putting their bags? I wondered as people started opening up camera equipment, mine weighing heavily on my side. I looked around to ask one of the group members, reaching out to double check, and then Ursula von der Leyen walked past me. I blinked. And then a few more times.
It was as though the room suddenly came into focus. I’d be so busy worrying about making sure I was in the right place that I hadn’t realised who the people “milling around” actually were. All the presidents and prime ministers from around the world. As I turned slowly, a woman in a yellow blazer moved into my eyeline, standing at the desk just in front of me. She looked familiar. Angela Merkel. Turning to speak to a younger, good-looking man on her right, my eyes followed her gaze to land on Justin Trudeau.
I felt like I had been picked up and dropped into some immersive Madame Tussaud’s experience. Everywhere I looked, the political celebrities of the world seemed to pop up. Matching the names to faces was one thing, but matching their names to their power was another. Take Modi, India’s prime minister, who was visible from where I was standing. In charge of a population of one billion people, the man was only metres away.
When Boris Johnson, Prince Charles and Camilla entered, they passed only metres away from us. We were moved to the left of the main stage, in front of the whole room. People were still standing in groups, chatting away, and as I looked around at the crowd behind me, my eyes were drawn to a petite woman head-to-toe in fuschia pink in the front row. I pulled my camera up just as she made eye contact, and winked at me. Nicola Sturgeon - an alumni of Glasgow University herself - appeared laidback and relaxed as the political socialising started to die down around her.
Boris’s speech was better than I’d expected, but still characteristically full of dinner-table dad-joke comments, starting off on the topic of James Bond, with football analogies interspersed. He didn’t really commandeer the respect a world leader probably should, and watching him up on the podium was weird in that regard. I didn’t feel any awe: he just looked like another middle-aged, flustered man.
Prince Charles stumbled on his way up to the podium, and for a split second, I thought he was going to completely deck it. An expression of real anger flickered across his face, taking me aback. I thought he would reference it at the start of his own speech, it had been so obvious, but he perhaps agreed that Boris had filled the joke quota already.
Camilla angled herself towards the cameras, and kept looking over for prolonged periods, nudging Charles at one point when he was too interested in whatever speaker was talking. Sir David Attenborough’s voice was soothing and, true to form, his talk was accompanied by a video and soundtrack, too.
The prime minister of Barbados’s speech was by far the most moving. Sincere, heartfelt, but more angry than encouraging, she emphasised the need for larger nations to upturn their pockets. She brought home the human impact of the climate issue best: using less imagery and analogy than previous speakers, the desperation rang clear in her voice. 1.5 degrees would be devastating for her people, she told the audience fiercely, and for all the people in neighbouring areas and similar global positions. The urgency was palpable.
Despite searching for him throughout the morning, thanks to the alphabetic seating, I hadn’t managed to spot Biden. He was carrying out his “National Statement” in the afternoon, though, and this was the second event I had managed to get my name down for. I turned up to the Media Meeting Point to a far smaller group this time. Three photographers from AFP, Reuters and Getty Images stood in a circle by the desk, with telescopic camera lenses in tow. We were supposed to meet at 1.15pm, but the morning summit had run over significantly, much to their dissatisfaction.
“Royal events,” one said to me, “Not like this at all. Run straight to time. Olympics? They say come for 2.42pm and it starts at the 42nd minute.”
“The organisation of this…” another muttered. “The UN…”
Another half hour passed. Some more journalists joined us, but their names weren’t on the list. The Glasgow Guardian was on the list, though, probably to their confusion. “Didn’t realise The Guardian had a base up here,” one told me. “Oh, they don’t,” I replied. They gave me a look. “We’re different,” I admitted.
"“Didn’t realise The Guardian had a base up here,” one told me. “Oh, they don’t,” I replied. They gave me a look."
At long last, we were taken through to the Plenary rooms again. Talks were ongoing in both, so it would be luck of the draw if I got to see Biden, and I didn’t want to make it too obvious who I was there for in case my celeb-spotting gave away my amateurishness and I got kicked out.
“Two in one room, and two in the other,” Tim Davies told us. I followed the AFP photographer as Getty and Reuters went the opposite way. The door opened. Success! Biden was still speaking. We were late - UN timing - but not too late. Both of us hurried up to the bubble of cameras filling up the aisle in front of the stage. “Get down!” a woman, one of the organisers, whispered. We crouched; he set up his camera and I turned on mine.
He started taking pictures, so I did so, following his lead. He moved forward slightly, and said something to me, but I couldn’t hear it. “What?” I whispered. “Flash off. Off. You can’t use flash here,” he hissed, as he crept forward to get better shots. I felt like an idiot; we’ve all tried to take discreet photos and the flash reveals us, but it felt a bit different when your subject is the President of the United States.
So what had I learned from the first proper day of COP26? I had bundles photos of renowned world leaders to add to our COP photo bank, some of questionable quality but others surprisingly good action shots - sorry, Charles.
The UN was also apparently disorganised - according to any other press I’d spoken to. I wasn’t particularly fussed by this: it appeared to work in my favour, given I’d managed to gain entry to high level events that a student newspaper ordinarily wouldn’t.
And everyone - media-wise - had been really friendly so far. The imposter syndrome was slowly wearing off. Even when I revealed we were in fact a student paper, people didn't snub me as I’d warily expected; they seemed genuinely interested, and impressed that we’d got there, too.
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