The Highs and Lows of COP26 - Mountains and Beyond Article

© Mountain Equipment/Dark Sky Media

An exploration of the highs and lows of COP26 following two weeks in Glasgow covering mountain environments, outdoor industry issues, youth activism, climate justice and how you can help...

Inside a plenary room named 'Cairn Gorm', delegates taking part in the COP26 climate summit eventually came to an agreement — dubbed 'a fragile win' by some and a 'COP-out' or compromise by others — to end deforestation, cut methane emissions, phase-down coal, increase adaptation finance and commit to limit warming to 1.5 degrees by 2030. The meeting rooms named after iconic British peaks weren't the only mention of mountains at COP26; the issues faced by mountain environments and peoples were also addressed in detail at the conference and at a range of side events.

Welcome sign at the Green Zone.  © Natalie Berry
Welcome sign at the Green Zone.
© Natalie Berry

Two official Blue Zone events were held within the framework of the UN Mountain Partnership, plus two mountain-themed events in the public Green Zone, in addition to a series of talks in the Cryosphere Pavilion.

In August, the IPCC's 6th Assessment Report featured a chapter on the impact of climate change in mountains for the first time, which highlighted the issues these environments face, including elevation-dependent warming, shrinking glaciers, reduced snow cover and changing precipitation patterns, causing knock-on effects for water supply, energy production, ecosystem integrity, agricultural and forestry production and disaster preparedness — all while contributing to rising sea levels.

Mountain glaciers across the world are thinning at an average rate of half a metre per year. "The last two decades have double the amount of thinning than the preceding decades," Professor Regine Hock explained at the Cryosphere Pavilion. "Around 70% of the retreat and thinning and mass loss of glaciers can be attributed to human impacts."

Glaciers and snow cover are thinning across the globe.  © Mountain Equipment/Dark Sky Media
Glaciers and snow cover are thinning across the globe.
© Mountain Equipment/Dark Sky Media

A window of opportunity to rethink mountain management

In a UN Mountain Partnership presentation, Professor Julia Klein of Colorado State University and the sustainability network Mountain Sentinels, said: "What happens in mountains has a direct impact on the entire planet, on all of us. That's why we need investments in mountain regions. To help fight the battle against climate change and to increase the resilience of mountain communities so that they don't lag behind."

Mountain Sentinels developed a conceptual model of mountains in collaboration with people from twelve mountain regions. "One of the big findings was that the paradox that was most ubiquitous across all of the diverse 57 sites was that policies affecting mountains are made by those living outside of the mountains and that's a big challenge for people living within them," Professor Klein said. The COVID-19 pandemic paused mountain tourism, enabling time to rethink its management. "We have a window of opportunity to really co-create the future together, requiring science working with and for society and really learning across our mountain systems and elevating marginalised and vital local mountain voices."

This month, ahead of COP26, the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples made a declaration asserting their right to food sovereignty and biocultural heritage, calling upon UNFCCC groups to protect indigenous food systems as a key solution to the climate crisis. In parallel with COP26, the UN Mountain Partnership hosted a Children's Call to Action to global governments to protect mountain areas, signed by children in mountain communities across the world and open to signatures from others who wish to add their voice to the cause. 

Why Mountains Matter.  © Mountain Partnership
Why Mountains Matter.
© Mountain Partnership

Hindu Kush Himalaya - a barometer for the planet

In low latitude areas such as Scandinavia or the European Alps, a near-complete de-glaciation is projected by the end of the century, and for tropical regions, the timescale for disappearance is a matter of years. Yet the ongoing and future crises in high mountain Asia, where warming and melting is accelerated and their impacts more pronounced, were the main focus of mountain-related talks in Glasgow. 

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) — encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh — was described in Blue Zone talks as "the pulse of the planet" and "a barometer for the planet's health crises."


In response to the HKH's plight, the most promising governmental announcement with regard to protecting High Mountain Asia's peaks and peoples — and arguably one of the most assertive of the whole conference — came from Nepal. The Government of Nepal has pledged to:

1) Remain cumulatively NetZero carbon 2022-45 and thereafter carbon negative

2) Halt deforestation and increase cover to 45% by 2030

3) Protect all vulnerable people from climate change by 2030.

High-profile Nepalese mountaineer Nimsdai Purja has played a role in highlighting the impact of climate change in the Himalaya and welcomed the country's announcement. He wrote on Instagram: "The Hindu Kush Himalaya glaciers are melting at an alarming speed - at this rate, they will be gone by 2100, so the time to act is now. I am proud to have played my part at Sustainable Summits as an ambassador for the Mountains and Climate Change at the British Embassy in Kathmandu and lent my voice to affect change at the event through my message to world leaders. Nepal's response at COP26 is leading the way with the commitments announced."

Ken O'Flaherty, the UK government's COP26 Regional Ambassador to Asia-Pacific and South Asia, commented: "I think this sends a really strong signal to the world on the urgency of climate action. And it's certainly an example which I will be quoting with other countries, in my discussions with them here in Glasgow." 

Nepal is the fourth most vulnerable country to climate change in the world. 650 people are killed in floods per year, and 200 people were killed in monsoon season floods this October alone. Mr. Pem Narayan Kandel, secretary of the Nepalese Ministry of Forestry and Environment, said: "Mountain people are not emitting the greenhouse gases. They are not the reason of the climate change. They are living in and with nature, they have very nature-based livelihoods. The question I would like to raise here is why mountain issues have not been rightly included in the agenda of climate change and the process of negotiation. We are trying to include this issue in the process of negotiation, but not many are listening."

The Hindu Kush range from the Chitral Valley.  © By Mansari007 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
The Hindu Kush range from the Chitral Valley.
© By Mansari007 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Mr Narayan Kandel also emphasised the importance of working with local people in an effort to counter the effects of climate change in their community. "Let us use their capacity as a capital to sustain mountain ecosystems," he continued. "Let us utilise their strong social capital for climate change mitigation and adaptation. We have to utilise the capacity, knowledge and experience of local people who are living around the mountains."

Mr. Kewal Prasad Bhandari, Secretary of Nepal's National Planning Commission, lamented the loss of Nepal's centuries-old culture of living in harmony with the mountains. "Our indigenous way of life was very close to nature," he said. "With the modern aspirants to development, we could not maintain our traditional sustainable way of life."

Hydropower and hydro electricity are key clean energy solutions in this region, although dams are not without their dangers or controversy. Alongside flooding, in the past year Nepal has experienced one of the longest periods of drought followed by thousands of cases of forest fires, which has had a huge impact beyond the forest ecosystem, affecting local agriculture.

In his opening address on 31 October, COP26 President Alok Sharma mentioned the impact of climate change in Nepal, which he witnessed first-hand in February this year.

"On a visit to Jomsom in Nepal, in the Hindu-Kush region, I spoke to communities literally displaced from their homes from a combination of droughts and floods," he said. 

Ice loss on Everest

At a Green Zone event 'Climate Science at the Top of the World' hosted by National Geographic, climber and climate scientist Dr Tom Matthews spoke about building the world's highest weather station on Everest's balcony with a team of Sherpas, following a film screening outlining all experiments conducted during the expedition, including digital scanning and taking ice cores and lake sediment cores. 

Since 2000, warming has doubled in the Himalayas, leading to the loss of eight billion tonnes of ice per year. Reflecting on data from the station, which measures temperature, air speed and pressure, wind and humidity, Dr Matthews explained to the audience: "From a meteorological perspective, conditions on Everest are as extreme if not more extreme than we expected." Winds are reaching up to 150km/h, posing a risk to climbers while sublimating (removing) crucial top layers of snow and ice from the highest ice mass in the world, the South Col glacier. As the climate warms, the lower atmosphere thickens, which has increased pressure and therefore oxygen levels higher up — good news for oxygen-depleted climbers, but it's nonetheless an indicator of extreme climate conditions. "The biosphere [living organisms] is also rising to occupy that space," Dr Matthews said.

The data is showing unexpected temperature differences near Everest's summit: although the air temperature reaches -10°C at its warmest, the temperature of the snow and ice is measuring around 0°C — the melting point, suggesting that the ice is more sensitive to warming than predicted. Everest's South Col, Dr Matthews explained, is probably one of the sunniest spots on Earth: sunlight bounces off the snow, then is reflected back down by clouds and concentrated on the upper slopes —making the light stronger on the surface of the mountain than at the top of Earth's atmosphere. "The future of the glacier is dependent on more than just current weather conditions, but how sensitive it has been to past warming," Dr Matthews said.

Dr Tom Matthews speaking about his Everest expedition.  © Natalie Berry
Dr Tom Matthews speaking about his Everest expedition.
© Natalie Berry

In high mountain Asia, for every 0.1 of a degree of warming, an additional 1% of ice is lost. "If melted, the water would be enough to fill a 1km wide lake stretching from Glasgow to Edinburgh," Dr Matthews explained. "Even with no more warming, we'd still expect to see 15% of the ice here lost by the end of the century. We'd be left with 2/3 under a 1.5°C scenario by the end of century."

Data from the weather station can provide early warnings about rainfall, floods, heavy snow and debris flows to local communities. Understanding these impacts feeds into policies implemented on the ground by governments. "The people living under the Himalayan water towers have done little to contribute to the problem, but are dealing with the impacts," Dr Matthews said. "There's no justice in that. It's long overdue and we need to be very ambitious through mitigation and financing for adaptation."

The loss of snow and ice is also a cultural loss. "The Sherpas have seen mountains change "from white to black" following the retreat of snow and glaciers revealing the bedrock underneath," Dr Matthews explained. Sherpas have played a key role in maintaining the weather station since its installation.

Dr Matthews expressed the need for similar stations on other peaks across the globe. "The high altitude data void needs to be filled to find consequences of warming on upper reaches of our planet. The high profile bytes of the data void have been taken, but now we need to get into and climb high in other mountain ranges." Other stations have been implemented on Mt. Tubengatu in Chile and Mt. Logan in Canada. 

"We need to come out of this COP with a stronger commitment to warming as close as possible to 1.5°C. Limiting warming as much as possible is really important," Dr Matthews concluded.

National Geographic's weather station archive is open access. Watch the replay of this event.

Mountains of Opportunity - investing in ambitious climate action in the HKH

Intergovernmental organisation ICIMOD outlined their 'Mountains of Opportunity' investment framework on behalf of their eight regional member countries whose borders fall within the Hindu Kush Himalaya. This framework was developed as part of the 'HKH2Glasgow' campaign launched in December 2019. 

The campaign aimed to promote mountain voices at COP26 with the input of governments, experts and mountain communities to form a collective voice promoting three messages: the importance of the HKH as biodiverse and life-sustaining water towers and the climate-related dangers its people face; the importance of the investment framework and lastly, how cooperation between these eight countries can leverage ambitious climate action for the region. 

Mr. Pema Gyamtsho, director general of ICIMOD, said: "The causes and impacts of climate change are transboundary in nature, which requires a regional approach, while actions are taken at local and national levels."

Ms. Nanki Kaur of ICIMOD said: "All eight countries are focused on nature-based solutions like forestation and resilient mountain infrastructure for our region that focuses a lot on renewable energy." The framework has focused on building resilient enterprises and developing innovation in green businesses, as well as forming a climate-responsive financial landscape. "I think our countries are leaders when it comes to more climate-smart finance, whether that's climate budgets, or more green bonds," Ms. Kaur added.

In addition to the announcements made by Nepal's ministers, representatives from a further five HKH countries also spoke in the Blue Zone. Common themes were the importance of mobilising private sector investments and implementing nature-based solutions.


Mr. Malik Amin Aslam of Pakistan's Ministry of Climate Change, argued passionately for loss and damage funds for the HKH region, and condemned the empty promises made by developed countries in recent years:

"It is absolutely imperative that we focus the funds for loss and damage and adaptation in this region, right now. We are in the middle of negotiations which are really hung up on this question of climate finance. I call [the last ten years] the decade of disappointment because it has not come through with the promises pledged. We have been over promised and under delivered on climate finance, and I think this is the time to get together and raise our voice for at least the $100 billion we were promised, which is now looking small, if it even comes through.

"70% of adaptation in a country like Pakistan is loss and damage. We have to face a huge deluge of water coming from melting glaciers. We have to face cyclones and we have to face horrendous heat waves which are occurring in our country. We cannot run away from climate change. And I think the least the countries which are responsible for this whole problem can do is have what they promised on the table."

Some funds from the UK will be making their way to the Hindu Kush. UK Government representative Mr O'Flaherty mentioned a £274 million pledge for the Climate Action for a Resilient Asia (CARA) program, announced during COP26. "The CARA program takes a regional approach to addressing shared environmental challenges and will directly support ICIMOD in continuing its work to protect the unique ecology of the HKH region and take forward the Mountains of Opportunity investment framework," he said.

The US, with the help of NASA, has assisted the HKH region with satellite data and geospatial technology to address challenges related to climate change, food security, water resources and air quality. The US government has also provided funds towards green energy production, transport and industry. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry was present at the ICIMOD talks and will be speaking at the Sixth Mountain Partnership Global Meeting in September 2022 in Aspen, Colorado.

Basin populations of the Hindu Kush Himalaya  © The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment
Basin populations of the Hindu Kush Himalaya
© The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment


The Eastern Himalayan country of Bhutan has shown that meeting ambitious climate targets is possible. Mr. Yeshey Penjor, Minister of Agriculture and Forests, said: "Today we are not only carbon neutral, we are carbon negative and have already realised the goal of the Paris Agreement, which the rest of the world intends to achieve by 2050 or beyond. Our main source of energy is renewable hydro power."


India's National Environment Policy details strategies for the conservation of mountains. Mr. Rameshwar Prasad Gupta, secretary from India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, said: "Many of the steps suggested are based on the principle of community involvement, creation of livelihood opportunities, particularly green jobs, reducing environmental risk and improving resilience of the system. An investment framework for mountains should essentially focus on sustainable use of Himalayan bioresources, energy conservation within the existing infrastructure and integration of resource efficiency and new commercial constructions. There are also opportunities to cultivate crops at higher altitudes, building tourist destinations in the mountains which are environmentally friendly and gel with the natural ecosystem alongside good farming practices for fostering climate adaptations."


Mr Sun Zhen, Deputy Director General of China's Climate Change Department, reiterated the need for scientific data and cross-border collaboration. "Good scientific observations from the region should feed into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in order to help in global understanding and efforts to tackle climate change," he said. "We cannot help ourselves without helping each other – we need global solidarity."

Melting glaciers and drought in Tropical mountains

In the tropical mountains of the Peruvian Andes, climate change has led to less rainfall and longer periods of drought that contribute to the melting of glaciers and threaten the livelihoods of around 4 million people. Settlers are located at altitudes between 2500 metres and 4500 metres and rely on family farming and ancestral knowledge of the land to manage water, soil and biodiversity. 

Climate change solutions born out of local knowledge have increased both their safety and agency as marginalised people. In Blue Zone talks, Mr Jorge Recharte, president of the Instituto de Montaña in Peru, said: "Nature-based solutions over the last few years have created interesting opportunities for these communities to become visible to the national state, the regional governments and therefore to leverage additional money for their projects."

Andes, Ollantaytambo, Peru.  © Rod Waddington//CC BY-SA 2.0
Andes, Ollantaytambo, Peru.
© Rod Waddington//CC BY-SA 2.0

Colombia's 70 glaciated areas atop low-altitude mountains (around 5000 metres) have already lost around 90% of their ice. Dr Heidi Sevestre described asking for the blessing of local elders in order to study their snow and ice. "We had a fantastic conversation about climate change and the changes they were observing in the mountains," she said. "They were dressed in white, because for them, the glaciers and the snow are sacred. This is the origin of life. This is the beginning of everything. So they really attach a huge importance to these glaciers and snowy peaks. They want to preserve them for as long as possible, but they are really aware of the fact that they are currently disappearing." Dr Sevestre spoke of the Cumbres Blancas, a citizen-run group devoted to documenting the disappearing glaciers.

Disappearing snow patches in the Cairngorms

Closer to home, Britain's very own climate indicators are melting away. Research shows that snowfall has decreased by 3cm on average per winter in the Cairngorms since the 1980s, in addition to a clear increasing warming trend in observed maximum and minimum temperatures between 1960 and 2019.

On the eve of COP26, snow patch expert Iain Cameron found that 'The Sphinx' snow patch on Braeriach — historically the UK's most durable — was "no larger than a sheet of paper, and due to melt the next day," marking its eighth disappearance in 300 years.

In a Blue Zone talk, CEO of Cairngorms National Park, Grant Moir, spoke of the Park's plans to align with the Scottish Governments 2045 Net-Zero carbon emissions plans. "We're doing about 500 hectares of peatland restoration a year at the moment, but we've got to increase that significantly," he said. "We've also got a target to restore 35,000 hectares of woodland by 2045 as a minimum, and that work is underway both using public funding and also bringing in private finance." Mr. Moir described plans to re-naturalise 75% of the river systems within the Cairngorms over the next 25 years, in an attempt to solve flooding and water storage issues. The Park is currently undertaking a carbon audit, which will be published soon.

Young activists bringing passion and drive

It was a COP of two halves fraught with division, between the global North and global South, and between young and old. The summit was declared 'one of the whitest and most privileged' climate conferences in years by environmentalists, despite climate disasters disproportionately affecting developing countries whose citizens have contributed the least to the global crisis.

Nonetheless, passionate young activists of diverse ethnicities and nationalities travelled to Glasgow. Speaking in conversation with US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry at The New York Times Climate Hub, columnist Thomas Friedman said: "This is the first COP I've been to where the delegates are more afraid of the kids than the press." 

Stories shared at The New York Times Climate Hub added colour and context to oft-repeated statistics. In one on-stage discussion, former US Vice President Al Gore, author or pioneering 2006 climate science book An Inconvenient Truth, critiqued capitalistic focus on monetary gains and suggested putting a price on people and place as an alternative: "Too frequently, we look through a very narrow aperture and we see short term profits for one kind of stakeholder, owners of companies. But what about the value of the air? And the water, the mountains, the ocean? What about the families of that company?"

A highlight was a surprise panel featuring eight young female activists from across the globe, including Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Vanessa Nakate, chaired by Emma Watson. The crowd applauded the women in a standing ovation.

A surprise youth activist panel chaired by Emma Watson.  © Craig Gibson/NYTimes
A surprise youth activist panel chaired by Emma Watson.
© Craig Gibson/NYTimes

Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate shared a personal story of climate change intersecting with women and girls' rights. "When I was growing up, girls were never allowed to climb trees," she said. "One of the first responses to surviving a flood is to climb a tree and in a scenario where many women and girls are unable to climb trees, many women and girls face a challenge or risk dying in a flood."

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai joined the panel virtually. "There are many marginalised communities where girls are disproportionately affected by climate change," Yousafzai said. "On one hand, climate change is acting as a barrier to girls' education, but on the other hand, when we invest in more education and find better solutions we can, at the same time, be investing in climate solutions."

Nakate also highlighted the hidden cost of some carbon offsetting projects. "In the process these tree planting campaigns, many indigenous people are losing their lands. So I think that that is a climate solution coming in the form of colonisation and grabbing the lands of indigenous communities." 

US intersectional environmentalist Leah Thomas further connected the dots between climate issues and social justice. "The exploitation of the planet is deeply connected to the exploitation of people," she said. "So marginalised communities can understand the extractive nature of the climate crisis, as the same systems are at play that allow the planet to be exploited and our most marginalised communities to speak or not."

Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg, also on stage, was direct in her frequent assertion that COP26 was a "greenwashing" exercise and would amount to "Blah, Blah, Blah." She commented: "I think what would be a success is if people realise what a failure this COP is."

In a separate panel discussion with historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari and activist Vanessa Nakate, the moderator asked: "Are we doomed?" to which Harari spoke of the power of optimism in shifting mindsets and leading to political change. Nakate interpreted the question differently. "When people ask the question of doom, I think some people ask it from a place of privilege because they haven't seen the impact, they still feel like we have more time to protect the planet," she said.

While Harari had focused on the 'doomed', Nakate had focused on the 'we'. Who is 'we'? "We may be facing the same storm, but we are in different boats," she explained. "Communities may be in boats that are much weaker, communities may be in boats that are sinking, or boats that are already on fire, while other communities are in way stronger boats and are fortunate. So the question of doom, it really depends, because there are communities that are being destroyed right now because of the climate crisis. We are not going to reach a specific point whereby it's going to be a stripping away of the whole world, for us to say that we are finally doomed."

Listening to Nakate, one might wonder whether calls to 'save the planet' shift focus away from the people who will die while the planet can adapt to extreme weather events.

The Climate Hub closed with a spectacular visit from Little Amal, the 3.5 metre puppet whose 8,000 km walk from Syria to the UK highlighted the plight of refugee children, many of whom have been — and will continue to be — displaced by climate catastrophes. 

Little Amal at The New York Times Climate Hub.  © Natalie Berry
Little Amal at The New York Times Climate Hub.
© Natalie Berry

Watch NYT Climate Hub replays here.

The outdoor industry has a role to play

The pertinent subject of outdoor clothing brands and their impact on the environment was touched on by CEO of Patagonia, Ryan Gellert, who joined a New York Times Climate Hub discussion on 'Truth-Testing Corporate Climate Promises' virtually. 

The outdoor brand, known for its eco-conscious business and marketing decisions, is widely viewed as a sustainability pioneer in launching schemes such as 1% for the Planet, Action Works and the Worn Wear clothing repair programme, in addition to suing former President Trump. "We acknowledge that 93.5% of our carbon footprint is in the products we make," Gellert said. "People think it's down to transportation, but it's largely down to the mills and their energy source and efficiency." Gellert is funding work in partnership with mills to improve their efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

Gellert acknowledged that his company makes clothing that people don't necessarily need to survive. In response, prolonging the life of clothing has become a core element of their production. "When you take responsibility for how you make things, the materials that make them, the footprint of that product, the relationship that you have with your customers and servicing, so that that product is truly an investment for decades, not something that you use three times then ditch, I think you start putting a different cost structure on it," he said.

But this quality comes at a price. "The classic stereotype of people who are left-leaning and progressive is they drive Teslas and wear Patagonia, and I don't think either us or Tesla should be impressed with that. I think we've got to figure out how all of these products become pervasive across all price points, and we move away from an environment where you have to make tough decisions between price and affordability and the quality of something," Gellert added.

Where companies choose to invest their money at all levels of the supply chain was also addressed. "We've moved away from some historical long-term banking partners towards those that are more ambitious and more aligned with our values, which is consistent with why we also stepped away from paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram," Gellert said.

On the question of greenwashing — a hot topic at COP26 — Gellert spoke candidly. "How do we know all this stuff's not bullshit? People are absolutely right to be cynical of every claim they hear from a business, including ours," he said. "To see the signal within the static, look at our body of work and draw your conclusion. I'm not here to say that we are this, we're not that — I just want people to engage in the dialogue. But that suspicion, that cynicism is foundationally important."

In a session sponsored by Nike, 'How to Protect our Planet and our Playing Fields', professional footballer Ada Hegerberg spoke about athlete climate activism. "Climate change is such a scary topic for a lot of us, because if you don't have all the info, you don't feel like an expert and so don't have the confidence to talk about it," she said. "But we put ourselves in comfort zones, which is why we're hurting the planet. We need to get out of that comfort zone again." Hegerberg thinks athletes can influence fans on climate issues. "I think we are in an extremely important position to raise awareness. The next generation won't always listen to political leaders, but if we manage to motivate them to have a part in this, I think we can have an incredible, impactful position in climate change politics."

Claire Poole, C.E.O. and Founder, Sport Positive — a UK organisation supporting sports organisations to increase action on climate change — has worked with top athletes. "We see a higher ratio of retired athletes engaging with climate change as they have more room to take on a purpose," she said. "But I think engaging athletes during their professional career when they've got this huge reach is so important and there's a lot of work happening around training and education."

Climbers and walkers can help drive change

Climbers, walkers and adventure sports enthusiasts flocked to Glasgow — some on foot or by bicycle — either to observe or participate in talks, march (or climb, as some did at Dumbarton Rock) in protest or meet with fellow climate-conscious people from across the world. One delegate, a climate change policy advisor for the Governor of North Carolina, visited the local climbing walls between meetings.

Speaking on a panel at the Extreme Hangout side event, Lauren McCallum, general manager of Protect Our Winters (POW), an NGO helping outdoor people to engage with climate issues, emphasised the role that outdoor enthusiasts can play in affecting change. "You can't empathise with what you've never experienced. So I think we as mountain bikers, climbers, snowboarders, skiers, as people who enjoy walking the dog every day, wherever that connection to the outdoors is, we see the changes firsthand, and relaying those back to people in positions of power, who can do something about that is really, really important."

McCallum is calling upon people to lobby local councils to 'Divest the Dirt'. "Despite 75% of councils declaring a climate emergency, their pensions alone invest £10 billion in fossil fuels," she explained during the panel. "How do we leverage the outdoor community to care about something that is so boring, like pensions?"

Climate science educator, outdoor adventurer and co-founder of the Athlete Climate Academy, Huw James, attended COP26. "It was a mixed bag of good and bad," he said. "The good mostly being progressive activists of all ages, cultures and backgrounds fighting for a more equitable and cooler future. The bad being larger interest groups and fossil fuel industries being invited to lobby against the reduction in fossil fuels."

One positive remarked upon by many attendees and journalists in Glasgow was that people were no longer arguing whether this is a climate crisis or not; the facts weren't up for debate, but possible solutions to the crisis were discussed in depth. Climate change deniers were neither seen nor heard throughout the event, despite murmurings of concurrent events.

"What struck me is that we are past debating the science on this," James added. "That's a great step forward and shouldn't be overlooked. The fight now is how much damage we can still do, and how we limit it. It's never been more obvious to me that fossil fuel industries have to go. I'd love to see the outdoor manufacturers and athletes of the world put a pledge together to never let oil and gas companies launder their tainted morals through our love for adventure and the natural world."

Thousands travelled by train through Glasgow Central.  © Natalie Berry
Thousands travelled by train through Glasgow Central.
© Natalie Berry

Edinburgh-based climber and writer Anna Fleming immersed herself in the fringe activity alongside artists, activists and indigenous people. "For me that was where the heart of COP was," she said. "Meeting the Minga Indigina and hearing their perspective was transformative. They view the world in profoundly different ways. I spent a lot of time with Chilean people from Patagonia and also a number of folk from across the Amazon. Their message was consistently one of collaboration and the power of the collective. Of resisting colonialism and extractivism. Of fighting to defend Earth, whom they refer to as the mother who sustains all of us. In a panel discussion on national parks, one commented: 'Why would someone want to own everything, when we are everything? We are taught to share in the Andes.'"

Outdoor enthusiast Katy Forrester travelled to the Global Day of Action march from the Lakes. "Living in Cumbria, the result of climate change is clear," she said. "From 'once in a lifetime' flash floods which happen ever other year to forest fires, dried up lakes and rivers, the issues caused by global warming are here and now. I went to Glasgow because I have to do something. As a climber, a runner and more so as a parent the natural world is important to me."

Forrester met up with Penrith Extinction Rebellion and helped carry an Ark bearing the message 'Water is Rising.' "100,000 people chanting and singing over three miles! The energy was incredible," she said. "I left feeling elated, but listening to the results of COP26 and what India and China have asked for, I don't feel much hope. I'm terrified for my daughter's future. I think about the life she will miss out on due to climate change. I will keep fighting and demonstrating. I'm hoping that finally someone will listen and the world will start to work towards solutions for climate change."

There are more mountains to climb (while they're still standing...)

The prevailing scientific opinion of COP26's outcomes suggests that while some progress has been made, the pledges within the Glasgow Climate Pact are not sufficient to 'keep 1.5 alive' by 2030. India and China's last-minute watering-down of the pledge to end coal, the postponement of a loss and damage fund, a failure to move away from petrol and diesel cars and vague clauses creating loopholes have all been criticised by scientists and environmentalists.

Systemic change by governments and fossil fuel stakeholders is our best hope, but these decisions and processes advance at a glacial pace (and glaciers aren't advancing much at all these days, except for those in the Karakoram). Responsibility for reducing carbon emissions would seem at times to fall on the shoulders of the individual, and it's true that we each have a role to play in minimising our carbon footprint. But, as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands who marched in Glasgow, and as Lauren McCallum of Protect Our Winters stated in one talk, 'showing up' and speaking out can influence social and political change and have an even greater impact:

"It's really easy for politicians to ignore scientists, to ignore the traditional environmentalist, because it's easy to silo them. But when artists start showing up, when growing groups start showing up, faith groups start showing up, snowboarders from Aviemore start showing up, that's when we start to see the diversity in civil society and that is what ministers will listen to because that's what gets them votes."

At the Climate Hub, Yuval Noah Harari was confident that non-violent citizen action could pave the way for ecological progress. "When people look back at history, they sometimes think that in order to make big revolutions - social, cultural, political - you need to shake things up with violence," he said. "There is this saying that to make an omelette, you need to break eggs. But this is not true. If you look at the Feminist Revolution, it's been one of the most of the biggest social revolutions ever shaking the foundations of society. And it was completely peaceful. They didn't start wars, they didn't assassinate any leaders, and yet, they changed the world and quite quickly, so I think this is inspiration that we can do it again on the ecological front."

Harari criticised the annual $500 billion subsidies paid by global governments to the fossil fuel industry, and outlined the need for a shift in priorities. "There is money, the question is always the choices that people make - politicians and voters. In addition to the emphasis on 1.5 degrees or two degrees, you should also emphasise other numbers," he said. "If we invest just 2% of global GDP in developing the right technologies and infrastructures, this is enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. Now, that's a lot of money, it's $1.7 trillion, but we spend more on our militaries - $2 trillion every year - and we spend about the same on wasted food and tax evasion by corporations and billionaires accounts for about 10% of GDP. So we don't need more taxes, we just need to collect existing taxes and there is enough money in the world if it's invested in the right places to prevent the catastrophe."

As John Roome, South Asia's Regional Director for sustainable development at the World Bank, commented in a Blue Zone talk: "First, it always seems impossible until it's done. Number two, when climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."

Watch all COP26 Cryosphere Pavilion talk replays here.

Watch all Green Zone talk replays here.

How can you help?

  • Divest the Dirt - lobby your local council to divest their pension funds from fossil fuel companies.
  • Rethink travel - Last year, the Alpine Club's Environment Panel announced recommendations on travel with regard to its impact on climate change. Led by journalist Ed Douglas, the panel discussed and wrote up guidelines relating to adventure travel, the carbon footprint of globetrotting climbers and explored how to mitigate the effects of trips to far flung places. 

The Alpine Club's recommendations - complete with tips and tricks for reducing our impact - are summed up as follows:

1. Reflect on how you travel: the means and frequency.

2. Reduce the amount you fly.

3. Offset when you travel.

  • Donate to Moors for the Future, founded in 2003 to tackle the issue of moorland degradation. So far, they've transformed over nearly 8,000 acres of peat moors across the Peak District and South Pennines by planting a highly carbon-absorbing plant called sphagnum moss, which can remove carbon from the atmosphere in volumes comparable to those absorbed by healthy tropical rainforests. 

You can sponsor a square of sphagnum, or donate directly to either campaign.

Healthy moorlands will:

  • Actively fight the climate crisis
  • Reduce wildfire risk
  • Reduce flooding risk
  • Protect endangered wildlife
  • Donate to Mossy Earth, an offsetting and rewilding initiative.

Links to mountain climate organisations and initiatives:

Mountain Research Initiative

UN Mountain Partnership


IPCC report on High Mountain Areas

CREA Mont Blanc

International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples

Protect our Winters

Mountain Sentinels

Mountain Genius

Read our UKC/UKH articles on issues relating to climate change and the environment:

18 Nov, 2021

Great article Natalie. I wonder the mentality of climbers will change, will we stop celebrating Himalayan ascents or is it the end for Leo Houlding’s far flung adventures? I wonder how we will deal with the conflict of interests. It does not bode well to see the two biggest coal polluters not giving much of a damn.

18 Nov, 2021

It maybe an end of an era for widespread international mountaineering. I know many in the climbing community look towards off-setting trips/expeditions, but I understand there isn't enough suitable land globally to offset all projected emissions. So given the scarcity, not sure expeditions should be high up on the list. Also listening to indigenous people at the COP describe how their land has been violently grabbed for conservation, it's clearly not the answer. There is nothing to say this injustice will not happen in places like Scotland, where increasingly large companies are buying up swathes of land to plant trees which bring little direct benefit to the communities living there. I also think it's worth looking closer to home, ie. UK, EU, US governments for not giving much of damn, especially for people in the global south already experiencing the effects of the climate crisis. All 3 blocked climate finance and money to make up for existing loss and damage caused by the historical emissions of richer countries. But India got the blame, and our media ran with it, and people have bought into it. India was just asking for equity. Instead of singling out coal for phase out, they called for all fossil fuels, including oil and gas to be phased out - which is what's needed. But again US, EU, UK, Aus and Canada heavily dependant on oil and gas, all blocked this, setting India and China up as the fall guys. While this COP may have been seen by the 'great and good' in the west as a diplomatic success, tragically I think history will show it as huge failure by the richer nations to make any meaningful action, and increase the likelihood of catastrophic climate breakdown. So it's up to us, the people to get organised and demand more radical action of our government's that's fair, or support/defend those who are demanding radical action. If it's not forthcoming, then governments need to be swept away and replaced.

19 Nov, 2021

.....and this is the problem, much of the UK media is hand in hand with the useless government. It's difficult to sweep away a government when the media tell everyone its great.

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