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Presidents, prime ministers, activists and royals: Who's going to COP26, Glasgow's climate change conference

·Senior Climate Editor
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What do President Biden, Prince Charles, teenage activist Greta Thunberg and even some Republican members of Congress have in common? They’re all expected to visit Glasgow, Scotland, during the U.N. Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, beginning next Monday.

As he has made combating climate change one of his administration’s top priorities, it’s no surprise that Biden will be among those to speak during the opening session. His hope is to restore American leadership when it comes to curbing global warming.

“I’m presenting a commitment to the world that we will, in fact, get to net-zero emissions on electric power by 2035 and net-zero emissions across the board by 2050 or before,” he said last week. “But we have to do so much between now and 2030 to demonstrate what we’re going to ... do.”

President Biden delivers remarks during the annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit via video link in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday in Washington, DC.
President Biden delivers remarks during the annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In total, 120 heads of state will be appearing at the two-week conference. But even compared to other countries, the U.S. is sending quite a crew, including former Secretary of State John Kerry, who currently serves as special presidential envoy for climate, and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, who is the first White House national climate adviser.

“Glasgow will be extremely important,” Kerry said in an interview last week with the BBC. “In fact, I would say that in my judgment it is the last best chance the world has to come together in order to do the things we need to do to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.”

Biden is also bringing almost half of his Cabinet, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, as well as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan. Former President Barack Obama is also going to Glasgow, where he will meet with youth activists.

Other U.S. elected officials will be there too, including Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and four Republican members of Congress who belong to the Conservative Climate Caucus: Reps. John Curtis of Utah, Garret Graves of Louisiana, David McKinley of West Virginia and Dan Crenshaw of Texas.

“I think it is very important to see that Republicans do care deeply about the earth and the environment and we have a plan,” Curtis told Deseret News, adding, “I want to meet everybody, talk to everybody and hear everything I can.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street as he heads to the weekly PMQ session in the House of Commons on Wednesday in London.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing St., London, on Wednesday. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The United Kingdom is the official host this year, and its dignitaries are coming out in force: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Prince Charles and Prince William. Queen Elizabeth II was planning to attend but pulled out on Tuesday for health reasons. 

Last week members of the royal family, including the queen, voiced frustration about the lack of action on climate change from world leaders.

“We only know about people who are not coming,” the queen was heard remarking. “It’s really irritating when they talk but they don’t do.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and a number of European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron will attend. From developing countries, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, current chair of the African Union, are among the most significant attendees.

Sir David Attenborough, the British broadcaster beloved for his nature documentaries, will attend in his capacity as COP26 people’s advocate, a position he was appointed to by the British government for the U.K.’s presidency of the U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow.

“We caused it — our kind of industrialisation is one of the major factors in producing this change in climate. So we have a moral responsibility,” Attenborough told the BBC of climate change.

The heads of major international organizations will be there too, including U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, World Bank President David Malpass and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva.

From left: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani enter the hall during the SCO Summit in 2019 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
From left: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the SCO Summit in 2019 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Corporations are also trying to burnish their green credentials by supporting the event. One group, called Glasgow Is Our Business, includes executives from Amazon, McDonald’s, Mars, Starbucks, LinkedIn, Microsoft and United Airlines. Politico speculated that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and film star Leonardo DiCaprio will also travel to Glasgow for the conference. (Alas, DiCaprio’s plans cannot be confirmed.)

Just as significant is who isn’t attending: Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are not going to Glasgow.

In some cases, such as with Xi, López Obrador and the pope, this appears to be out of concern that they may be exposed to COVID-19 while traveling and doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of support for the conference and its goals. Xi, who has not left China since the pandemic began, is likely to make a video appearance, as is Pope Francis, who has previously called for strong action to address climate change.

Some leaders are not going because of scheduling conflicts, such as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has local elections in his country on Nov. 1.

Buildings on the Scottish Event Campus alongside the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland.
The Scottish Event Campus along the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland, which will host the U.N. Climate Change Conference. (Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

Last week Reuters reported that “Iran’s President Ebraham Raisi will not attend COP26 after reports in the British press that local politicians were calling for a criminal investigation if he set foot in Scotland,” because of his role in the massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners in Iran in 1988.

There is speculation that a few of the other non-attendees, including Putin and Bolsonaro, are skipping the summit because they are unsupportive of climate action.

That’s certainly not the case for environmental activists who won’t be there. The global Climate Action Network, which includes more than 150 civil society organizations, called for COP26 to be canceled because of lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines and travel restrictions that will likely limit participation from developing countries. Although the British government promised to provide vaccines to all registered attendees, some activists may still refuse to go or be unable to attend.

Earlier this year Thunberg, the Swedish activist who started a global series of school strikes in 2018, when she was only 15, said she would not attend because inequitable access to vaccination keeps representatives and activists from developing countries from going. But more recently she announced that she would participate in protests in Glasgow calling for a stronger and more equitable global climate change agreement during the first week of the conference.

Vanessa Nakate, Thunberg’s colleague at their group Fridays for Future, is also planning to attend from her native Uganda. Nakate is the founder of the Rise Up Climate Movement, which amplifies the voices of activists from Africa, and she spoke at COP25 in Madrid.

Meanwhile, a group of young climate activists called Listening to the Land is currently walking 500 miles from London to Glasgow to raise awareness about climate change.

Others are simply flying there, including activists from the communities most affected by climate change and fossil fuel extraction. The Climate Justice Alliance will be there coordinating protests against what it considers “false solutions” to climate change, which is basically anything that allows for continued fossil fuel consumption and claims to offset the climate damage from it, such as a system of tradable carbon credits, buying offsets like planting trees, or geoengineering to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Also attending will be several members of a CJA member group, the Indigenous Environmental Network, which fights against the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure such as oil pipelines in their communities.

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