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For the fight against climate change, we may already be at five past midnight

Deep down we know it’s been five minutes to midnight for climate change for years, say Marc Lopatin and Ben Robinson.

Pollution cuts across the early morning sun

Pollution cuts across the early morning sun. Is any agreement from COP26 just too late?. Image: Eric Schmuttenmaer/Flickr

If COP26 has delivered the game changing agreement the world needed, why does it feel like Boris Johnson just found the snooze button on the ticking time bomb that is climate change?

In a staggering show of reputation management, the prime minister and COP president Alok Sharma, spent yesterday telling journalists that pledges on ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’ had not only brought restricting temperature rise of two degrees Celsius into view, but also kept the more ambitious goal of 1.5C alive.

Cue angry tweets and press releases from scientists and protestors saying the world’s poor and the most vulnerable island states are being sacrificed in order to buy richer countries more time

But for many of us in the UK, the hot air traded between politicians not doing enough and protestors demanding more, leaves us feeling cold. We instinctively reject the invitations and reassurances bookended by corporate greenwash at one end, and activists blocking motorways at the other. But why? Could these growing feelings of muted resistance be down to being repeatedly fed the same old story? A story where there is always time to fix the environment, without the need for rich countries to change their ways?

Such resistance comes from knowing that the clocks have been stuck at five to midnight for climate change for years, long before Boris at the start of COP26 moved the minute hand forward to within 60-seconds of zero hour.

It was however the last minute track changes to the summit’s closing agreement that tells us all we need to know about the direction of travel. While the belief that there’s still time to carry on holds sway over stopping all together, world leaders will spend the rest of the 2020s safeguarding a narrative where tomorrow never comes. This is despite population displacement experts warning almost 200 million people will become homeless over the same period as a direct result of climate change and weather related events.

Even the most staunch defenders of the status quo are speaking out. Leading consultants to big business, McKinsey & Co, now say half the world’s population, more than four billion people, will experience the effects of climate hazards as a result of global warming.

Future COP meetings, saddled with explaining away overshooting emissions and temperature targets, will nevertheless double down on as yet non-existent whiz-bang technologies that will capture the massive amounts of CO2 from out of thin air. And if that tech fails to materialise on time, the conversation will turn towards the final frontier that is geo-engineering, before this decade is out.

The last minutes left before midnight are clearly floodlit by imagined salvation and the cruel optimism of business as usual. So if the glib gladhanding coming out of Glasgow doesn’t sit right, it’s because you know what time it really is; you know it’s Five Past Midnight.

At Five Past Midnight, it is too late to restrict global temperature rise to 1.5C. Mourning this loss, and the losses it will bring, is the first step in calling time on the dominant narrative that got us here.

But acknowledging this across the Global North is a hard thing to do. Beyond the blinding light of imagined salvation, it’s pitch black. At Five Past Midnight we are alone, wandering around in the dark, grasping for something, or someone else to hold onto.

It won’t be easy to accept that there aren’t any “oven ready” solutions, that no one knows what the dawn will bring. This is the opposite of nihilism because at Five Past Midnight, we let the story in. And on becoming part of the story, it ceases to be one about renewables, electric cars and heat pumps, and starts to be about the entitlement that got us here.

Of course, it won’t feel good to sit with this ecological entitlement, nor accept that the same thread of entitlement underpins sexism, racism and ableism, and a society built on power over one another. But this is all part of letting your resistance take form. For the two of us writing this article, it means compassionately calling out five to midnight stories from across the spectrum.

For you, it will no doubt mean something entirely different. What matters is that together – at Five Past Midnight – we call time on today, freeing ourselves to imagine a different tomorrow.

*Marc Lopatin is a former communications adviser to Royal Dutch Shell, the Labour Party and Extinction Rebellion. Ben Robinson is a father of two teenage children, recently returned from COP26. He has been working in the Global Advertising industry for over 20 years.

www.FivePastMidnight.org is for anyone who no longer wants to be alone in their resistance to the cruel optimism of yesterday. It is a liminal space for the honest contemplation of an unknown future, a place where we hope in time entitlement can be collectively unpicked and our sense of planetary privilege subverted.

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