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Guest Blog: #COP26

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Our Sage Gateshead colleague Scott Morrison attended #COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month. Scott is part of our Environmental Responsibility Working Group here at Sage Gateshead. He attended #COP26 as part of the 2050 Climate Group Youth delegation and you can read his blog here…

Arriving at COP26 felt very familiar and very unfamiliar.

I’ve lived in Glasgow for most of my life, so knew by heart the sites and landmarks I had started to see increasingly, with odd pangs of recognition, on smartphone screens, televisions, and newspaper pages from all around the world.

As I queued to get through the second of three security checkpoints, in a line which stretched down a street flanked by hotels, a little girl in a nearby window was holding up a carboard sign that read: ‘Please save my future’.

She was shaking it, slowly, looking out at the delegates. The intensity of that kind of experience on what is usually an empty street was unfamiliar. The very grey, very wet rain that lashed the line was, unfortunately, rather more familiar.

As I stood dripping on the floor of the arrival hall, things again felt both familiar and unfamiliar. I remembered that, six months before, the spaces now being used for one of the largest political gatherings on the planet had been one of the biggest Covid vaccination centres in the city. Six months before that, it was one of the largest temporary hospitals in the country. A little over six months before that, it was where I had seen my last gig before lockdown – The 1975, who opened with a track sampling Greta Thunberg – and well over a decade before that, where I had seen my first ever live gig (McFly, if you must know, and, yes, it was great).

Though the spaces were familiar, I quickly realised I didn’t really know where I was. It was all different. The buzz of business and busyness was overwhelming. Miles of temporary carpets, huddles of armed security, labyrinthine pavilions. Weirdly overpriced fish and chips. A programme of events you couldn’t make it to the half of. And yet, quite quickly, the hubbub and furore fell away and raw, moving experiences took their place. One after the other, I attended events that I will remember for many years to come.

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Here’s one that will stay with me. I heard a panel of Indigenous tribal leaders from the Amazon basin, speaking passionately, in ceremonial headdresses and feathers, their words simultaneously translated through a small headset I had been given. With two languages humming in my ears and tears buzzing in my eyes, I heard painfully and powerfully of the destruction of their ancestral homes and ways of life. Suddenly, links that, from the viewpoint of a ‘developed’ country in the global north, can feel abstract or distant – ideas about what difference my travel choices make, about what I eat, what I buy, who I vote for – became unforgettably clear. I was able to connect my own choices and actions with the wider web of life on earth.

An hour later, I heard from a panel of teenagers from island nations how the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees of warming was the difference between savings their lives and the destruction of their islands forever. A young girl from the Philippines tearfully and angrily told a room full of grown-ups that she was sick of going to sleep every night wondering if she was going to drown in her childhood bed because of how much the seas were rising. Silence followed. I will not forget how that felt.

On the surface, arts and culture was nowhere to be found in the agendas or business of the Blue Zone. The Presidency themes for each day – things like Finance, Energy, Transport – made no mention of the arts. And yet, because it is how we express our humanity, arts and culture began to appear everywhere between the cracks.

Those Amazonian leaders had described, in answer to a question about how they teach their young people about the forest, an intergenerational gathering space at the heart of their community, where people come to learn, sing songs, and listen to stories.

That kind of place sounded familiar to me. In another session, we heard that a clean cookstove project in Kenya was so successful not just because of its environmental, technological and health benefits, but because it brought people together to share their love of cooking, their local ingredients, their family recipes. That too I could understand.

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Many of the moments that left the greatest impact on me, I have realised since, were resonant in exactly the ways that cultural experiences can be resonant: powerful stories, affectingly told. Sudden moments of radical empathy. Space and time to reflect and process. These kinds of events were only taking place in Glasgow for two weeks over COP26, and sadly most of the world didn’t get to experience them. But creating that kind of environment is something the arts can do every day.

Art, to me, is about an exchange of ideas and sensations: shifting how we see the world – unpacking the past and imagining new futures.

As COP26 ends, the arts – like every other area of our lives – have their part to play in making the necessary changes to stop the earth exceeding 1.5 degrees of warming, and keeping those Pacific islands (and so many other billions of lifeforms) intact. Like everything else, we must significantly shift how we work – how we heat and power our buildings, what we eat and drink in our cafes, what type of work we make on our stages and with whom, how and where we present that work.

Unlike so many other sectors, the arts have an opportunity to have an impact far beyond themselves, through their audiences. Though the arts may not have been on the formal agendas at COP26, whenever I told scientists or diplomats or engineers about what I did and where I worked, they told me that they longed for the opportunity to be able to reach people’s hearts and minds in the way that the arts can.

Let’s use that opportunity.