Marylanders, Home From Glasgow Climate Confab, Reflect on the Work Ahead

A security officer approaches a protestor outside the plenary halls at the close of COP26 earlier this month in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images.

The latest international conference on climate change, which was held earlier this month in Glasgow, Scotland, drew tens of thousands of world leaders, business executives, nonprofit organizations, and grass-roots activists, and produced a mixed record of results.

Government leaders from around the world signed agreements designed to slow the ineffable march of global warming, including targeted goals to reduce carbon emissions in a variety of sectors and to phase out coal production. Wealthier nations like the United States also agreed to provide funding to poorer and more vulnerable countries to help them adapt to climate change.

Are the reductions bold enough, and will they be enacted fast enough, to save the planet? Are the financial commitments sufficient? On both points, opinions differ.

Click here to read more from our Climate Calling series.

But many participants at the conference, known as “the Conference of the Parties,” or COP26, observed a new sense of urgency, heightened by the debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on public health, the international economy and the public psyche. And they left with a resolve to act globally, nationally and locally.

“I’m trying to mourn what did not happen at COP26 and keep up the energy to continue to do the vital work that needs to be done,” said Rebecca Boyd, a Bethesda resident and longtime Sierra Club leader who was at the conference as part of a delegation of observers sent by the League of Women Voters.

Like any big convention or conference, COP26 had several layers — from the official proceedings and negotiations, to the speeches and panel discussions, to scheduled and impromptu news conferences, to the exhibition halls and companies peddling their wares, to hushed conversations in corners, to the protests in the streets.

Maryland Matters talked recently to three Marylanders who were in Glasgow — Boyd, state Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles, and state Del. Patrick G. Young Jr. (D-Baltimore County) — to hear about their experiences and to get their impressions of the conference’s accomplishments and shortfalls, and their sense of what needs to be done next. All described long security lines necessitated by the conference’s COVID-19 protocols, which they said added to the stress and sheer exhaustion associated with attending such a large and consequential gathering.

Here are more of their impressions:

Ben Grumbles

This was Grumbles’ fourth COP representing the State of Maryland, and he spent four days in Glasgow. He was part of a delegation of government officials from 12 U.S. states, a group that included four governors.

“It was quite an experience,” Grumbles said. “There’s a lot to see and do.”

Grumbles spoke with other state leaders and relevant stakeholders on three panels: One on adaptation and resiliency programs, another on coastal health and ocean acidification, and a third on offshore wind energy and the burgeoning industry around it.

Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles in front of a mural at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Ben Grumbles.

For years, world leaders have strived to keep the level of global warming from pre-industrial levels below 1.5 degrees Celsius, but that may be unrealistic, and many climate watchers suggest that a 2-degree rise by the end of the 21st Century, while devastating but possibly not catastrophic, may be more likely (the current increase is about 1.1 degrees). Grumbles said he was struck by how, at this COP, conference participants “focused even more in implementation and execution” to reach those goals, which he said both made him feel good about Maryland’s efforts at combating climate change and also provided a road map for further action.

“I’m eager to focus on expectations moving forward in Maryland,” he said. “I’m inspired by what I heard. But it’s daunting what has to happen.”

Grumbles said he was also heartened by how much conversation was focused on reducing methane emissions, which are a byproduct of oil and gas development, agriculture and landfills. Discussions at the COP about big industrial nations providing compensation to developing countries for the climate damage they’ve experienced reminded him, he said, about conversations and debates on environmental justice in Maryland.

With the prominence of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, Grumbles was in demand for conversations on the health of the estuary and what it might mean for the health of bays and oceans around the world. And as a leader in the multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which looks to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, Grumbles found himself talking about carbon trading and similar concepts.

“That is a carbon market that brings additional resources to bear in the fight against climate change,” he said.

Grumbles also was networking and connecting with old friends: He met with U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who had been Grumbles’ counterpart in North Carolina, and with Jane T. Nishida, the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs — who was Maryland’s Environment secretary under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D).

Grumbles said he took in some of the demonstrations outside the convention hall and was impressed by the youthful energy — and also the anger. But he observed that some of the same anger was evident inside the conference facilities.

“I definitely sensed an appropriately increased degree of rage and outrage and an appropriate loss of patience,” he said.

But after conferring with leaders from around the world, Grumbles came away confident that Maryland is doing a good job confronting climate change under the circumstances.

“More than ever before, I am proud of what Maryland is doing,” he said. “We’re well positioned. We’re on the right course. But it’s also clear we have so far to go. The science and the real-world experiences of how climate change is here and now, it’s daunting.”

Rebecca Boyd

Glasgow was also the fourth COP for Boyd, who spent 13 days there as an observer with the League of Women Voters.

In that capacity, she said, her job was to attend negotiating sessions and panel discussions, take notes, and “ensure transparency and to make sure that the people negotiating the deal were hearing the voices of the people.” Even though some of the negotiations and panels are now livestreamed, these observers still play a critical role.

“Unless there’s a lot of conversation among the NGO’s, you don’t really know what’s happening,” Boyd said.

Observers were also present at the public announcements about governments’ climate change commitments, which occasionally involved an element of celebrity-watching.

“These are really fun and interesting to attend,” Boyd said, “because it’s John Kerry, it’s Gina McCarthy — huge people who are really leading our country’s climate efforts…In a way I’m like a kid in a candy shop because there are so many interesting events to attend and people are sharing information about what’s happening and what the solutions are.”

Like Grumbles, Boyd also sensed anger among the conference attendees — at all levels of the discussion.

“I feel like people were angrier this year,” she said. “This was such a critical COP — there was a lot of anger at the progress not being made. There’s so much urgency.”

Boyd had mixed feelings about the end product.

“The Glasgow climate pact in my view does not keep us on the path to avoid 1.5 degrees climate warning,” she said. “It does get us closer. But it’s not enough. It’s an extraordinary timeframe. It’s practically tomorrow.”

Now that she’s home, Boyd said she plans to speak to several groups in her local community about what she learned, what was accomplished — and what everyday citizens can do to protect the planet.

“What people do in their daily lives — at the local level, at the state level and in their daily lives, is really impactful,” she said. “I want people to know that they are critical components of reducing climate change. I don’t want them to give up.”

Pat Young

This was the first COP for the 38-year-old lawmaker, who is leaving the legislature after two terms to seek a seat on the Baltimore County Council.

He was in Glasgow for a week in his capacity as a member of an organization called Elected Officials to Protect America — a group of elected officials who are military veterans and who work environmental issues. The group had four press events over the course of the two-week COP (Young attended two of them). One of their jobs, he said, was to promote the environmental benefits of the Build Back Better legislation that is under consideration in Congress.

Young said he was struck by how many conference attendees wanted to talk to him just because he was an American — and how many were especially interested in the fact that he was an elected official.

“People hear you’re an American and they want to talk,” he said. “People hear you’re in the government and they want to talk some more. People are still looking at [the U.S.]. We’re a big example. We’re one of the big polluters. But people want to see what we’re up to.”

Young said that while he followed some of the top-tier negotiations during the conference, he was more engaged with talking to counterparts from around the world.

“There’s emphasis on what’s going on at the top level. But there’s still conversations at the lower level that are also important,” he said. Young said he came away with a sense, that he couldn’t quite pinpoint, that “Maryland is missing out” when it comes to building a clean energy economy, which is already a trillion-dollar industry worldwide.

Still, Young said he left Glasgow feeling hopeful about the future of the movement to fight climate change — “more hopeful than before I went.”

At the same time, the notion that the fight to save the planet will be a constant battle is also daunting, he said.

“We’re pushing towards reaching all these goals by 2050. Then we just have to keep going.”

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.