By Jeremy Williams
It’s been a popular refrain in the run-up to the Glasgow climate talks: this is the last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change. Boris Johnson told his audience it was “one minute to midnight”. John Kerry says it’s our “last best hope.” My personal favourite is Prince Charles, who said “literally, it is the last chance saloon” – though I went to Glasgow and can confidently report that COP26 is not literally a saloon of any kind.
It’s not just older white men using this language either. “Glasgow is our last chance,” said Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives. Lots of activists have used the phrase. It was front and centre on the banner leading our local march through Luton at the weekend.
I understand why we use the phrase. It injects urgency into a debate that has dragged on into its 26th conference. Science tells us that climate change is non-linear and subject to tipping points that we can’t reverse, so a sense of urgency is vital. It also emphasizes the importance of the decisions being made, though it matters who is speaking. When activists and indigenous leaders use this rhetoric, there’s often a tangible risk and a real fear – sometimes even desperation – behind that sense of urgency.
When the powerful make these statements, there’s another dynamic at work that I think we should acknowledge: the magnitude of the decisions buffs off onto the decision-makers. ‘Behold the big men in their suits, making decisions for all history and humanity. See how I stand among them.’
The main reason that I hesitate over last chance rhetoric is this: I remember identical rhetoric being deployed ahead of the Copenhagen talks in 2009, and before the Paris talks in 2015, and all the talks in between. I’m not going to name them, but I can think of a particular politician whose COP26 speech is more or less interchangeable with the one they made in 2009. I checked.
‘Last chance’ then, isn’t true. Or at least, it hasn’t been true the last twenty times we’ve said it, so there’s a good chance it isn’t true now.
On the other hand, it is too late for Damy, aged 16, who lives outside of Fort Dauphin in Madagascar. “My parents could not pay for my school, and decided to send me here to earn a bit of money,” he told Amnesty International for their investigation into the effects of drought in the region. “Our village is not a place we want to leave, but because of the drought, we had no choice.” With the climate-induced famine having forced him out of his home and his education, Damy is now literally breaking rocks for a living.
Climate agreements have come too late for Beira in Mozambique, which has been described as the first city to be completely destroyed by climate change. It has been too late for the US town of Paradise, which burned to the ground in 2018. The world missed the chance to save Vunidogoloa, the first of many coastal villages in Fiji to be relocated inland.
It was too late for the seven-month-old twins swept from their father’s arms during the record-breaking flash floods in Tennessee in the summer.
As the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin says, “It’s the end of the world every day, for someone.”
This is the paradox of the urgency rhetoric: “last chance” is both always true and never true. It just depends on whose story you tell.
The reality is that every year is the last chance for somebody, for some communities. Very often those communities are in the global south, and it is they that are sacrificed when global leaders miss those chances for action. It is the luxury of the climate privileged to be able to miss chances without suffering any effects, to be able to sneer ‘you said that last time’ when activists raise the urgency of the situation.
But if it is fair to say that it will always be the last chance for someone, somewhere, then we can also talk about the lives saved when we act now. We can look at this from a more positive angle.
As Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine Wilkinson write, “While it is too late to save everything – some ecological damage is irreparable, some species are already gone, ice has already melted, lives have already been lost – it is far too soon to give up on the rest.” It’s why they call their book All We Can Save, and it’s an important perspective.
In setting up the urgency of the current moment, we must be careful not to give ourselves a mental cliff edge. If the egos in the suits don’t live up to their fine words, the case for action cannot be allowed to evaporate because that was supposed to be the last chance. Instead, we can focus on what can still be saved, protected, and stewarded for future generations.
It is already too late, and it is never too late. Our task is to hold this paradox and keep our imaginations open to what is possible, what opportunities persist, what our compassion calls us to. These questions always endure, beyond the decisive moments and the opportunities missed or taken – what suffering can we prevent? What can we save?
First published in The Earthbound report.