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30,000 people gather for a climate summit in a pandemic. What could go wrong?

Activists symbolically set Glasgow's George Square “on fire” on Oct. 28, showcasing the climate emergency, ahead of the COP26 climate summit. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

LONDON — Starting on Sunday, world leaders, negotiators from 190 countries, British royals, official observers, journalists, activists, celebrities — and as many as 100,000 demonstrators — will descend on Glasgow, Scotland, to try to save the planet from runaway warming.

What could go wrong? A lot. Even apart from a possible failure of the talks.

The COP26 climate summit, postponed last year because of the pandemic, is going forward despite a soaring spike of the coronavirus in Britain, where case levels now rival last winter’s peak.

The British and Scottish governments, serving as hosts, are expecting up to 30,000 official attendees — who will be meeting indoors, huddling in tense talks, for hours and hours a day, from Sunday to Nov. 12 and potentially longer. It will be the largest summit ever hosted in Britain. Organizers are scrambling to make sure the conference does not morph into a superspreader event.

The good news: They appear to have averted a strike by rail workers that would have brought Scotland’s trains to a standstill. The bad news: Trash collectors are still threatening to strike — reviving images of mountains of rubbish during a 13-week strike in the 1970s. Not quite the Earth-friendly image Scotland is going for.

The most startling images from this week, though, were of Glasgow underwater — hit by torrential rain and floods that forced road closures and the postponement of a light show at the botanic gardens. Trains from London to Glasgow were canceled Thursday. Instead, travelers were offered “replacement bus service,” some of the most dreaded words in the English language.

Flooding in Glasgow isn’t new. The site of the climate conference was severely damaged, and two people died, when the city was submerged in 1994. That was considered Glasgow’s worst flood in the previous 106 years. And, as everyone attending the climate conference knows too well, those 100-year events are becoming more frequent as the world warms.

But to deal with extreme weather requires getting people to the conference. The logistics have been formidable, especially for delegates from countries with vaccines in short supply.

Poor, unvaccinated countries fear getting to U.N. climate summit may be ‘almost insurmountable’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to provide vaccine doses to all attendees who could not get them in their home nations. A spokesman from the Cabinet Office said Wednesday that doses went out to recipients in 70 nations, but he declined to say how many people had received them.

“We are working tirelessly with all our partners, including the Scottish Government and the U.N., to ensure an inclusive, accessible and safe summit in Glasgow,” said a COP26 spokesman, who who is not named in keeping with British protocol.

The British government has been criticized for being slow and disorganized, only getting the first doses out to delegations six weeks ago, in an accelerated schedule that would barely allow for four weeks between rounds.

“We’ve heard from a lot of delegates who complain to us that they found the whole process very cumbersome. It’s not clear at all how many people took advantage of the U.K. offer for vaccines,” said Harjeet Singh, a senior adviser for Climate Action Network, in New Delhi.

“A lot of attendees are concerned, you could say, even anxious, about covid at the conference,” Singh said.

Voices from around the world on what’s at stake at COP26

Quamrul Chowdhury, a climate negotiator from Bangladesh, said: “A lot of delegations have yet to be fully vaccinated. Maybe they have gotten one jab, but not two. The delays were a challenge.”

Chowdhury said he is vaccinated but still waiting for his visa to enter Britain and travel to Glasgow.

“Maybe I will see you on Sunday,” he said. “Or Monday.”

While vaccination is strongly advised, it isn’t actually mandatory to attend COP26. The Scottish government is requiring delegates to wear face masks indoors, to maintain social distancing and to have daily coronavirus testing before they enter the official “Blue Zone,” where the summit will be staged. Anyone who tests positive will be told to isolate.

But if home testing kits have a false negative rate of about 15 percent, as some studies suggest, that could mean quite a few infected individuals could walk into the summit each day.

And the strict protocols against the coronavirus in the Blue Zone may not extend to the large demonstrations that are planned just outside.

World leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 for the 26th annual United Nations conference on climate change. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

“There is no public health expert in the world who would say there is no risk in the midst of a global pandemic to have tens of thousand of people descending” on Glasgow, Scotland’s health minister, Humza Yousaf, told the BBC.

“There is absolutely a risk of covid cases rising thereafter,” he said, adding that it was worth the risk.

“We will do everything we possibly can to make the event safe, because we recognize the climate emergency itself is the biggest public health emergency and crisis that we face globally,” Yousaf said.

Until recently, Britain required mandatory quarantines for all arrivals flying into England from “red list” countries. The government slashed the list from 60 countries to seven this month, leaving only Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Panama, Peru and Venezuela on it.

At the same time, some countries are discouraging their citizens from traveling to Britain, given current coronavirus levels here. Morocco, which has had one of the largest COP delegations, has imposed a ban on flights to and from the United Kingdom. The U.S. State Department has a “do not travel” warning in place for the U.K.

For those who can get to Glasgow, many will be shelling out quite a lot. Hotel rates quadrupled before rooms sold out. Modest one-bedroom Airbnbs were listed at more than $1,000 a night. Vacancies are virtually nonexistent.

“It is critical that Glasgow is ready for the influx of world leaders and others. We have heard reports of difficulties finding accommodation, concerned local businesses and reports of train strikes potentially disrupting travel,” said lawmaker Pete Wishart, chair of the British Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee, members of which traveled to Glasgow on Monday to have a look for themselves.

Wishart said Scotland must deliver “to the world-class standard that the circumstances demand. The eyes of the world will be on Glasgow.”

Scottish leaders have been looking forward to that attention. But strikes by the public workers who collect recyclables and trash could be an embarrassment.

The city’s move to pick up trash just three times a month has created overflowing cans and dumpsters, which is alleged to have fortified the city’s already sizable rodent population.

The Herald newspaper in Scotland reported that refuse workers have deployed a giant inflatable rat in demonstrations against work conditions and wage cuts. At least four rubbish collectors have reportedly been bitten.

The leader of the Glasgow City Council, Susan Aitken, downplayed the rats, saying all big cities have their rodents.

Aitken told the lawmakers visiting from the British Parliament that Glasgow has struggled with services because of the pandemic. But she said city workers had spent 12,000 hours tidying up Glasgow for COP26.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon remarked: “I think there are challenges in Glasgow and challenges in cities across Scotland, the U.K., the world — some of them related to covid, some of them more fundamental than that. I’m not going to stand here and say they don’t exist in Glasgow.”

She said the city would be ready.

Karla Adam contributed to this report.

More on climate change

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What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.