With young climate activists taking to the streets of Madrid, the UN climate chief and a leading scientist warned of a growing risk of social unrest as the effects of a warming world worsen inequality and poverty worldwide.
Speaking on the sidelines of a UN climate summit in the Spanish capital, they said governments were so far failing to meet growing public demands for urgent action to halt rising global temperatures and curb the damage as extreme weather intensifies and melting ice pushes up sea-levels.
“It’s clear - and this is very painful to recognise - that the political leadership in the world is lagging behind the sentiments among youth (as well as) the state of science and even what business leadership thinks,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Rockström, as part of an international team of scientists, highlighted how the world may be nearing a “social tipping point” on climate change that could bring about rapid and exponential changes in behaviour, lifestyles and technologies.
An analysis published on Friday, entitled “10 New Insights in Climate Science 2019”, noted that public opinion polls indicate an increasing number of citizens in a range of countries are seriously concerned about climate change.
Meanwhile, recent large-scale civil protests are getting close to a size where social scientists predict governments could be forced into action, according to the analysis put together by several climate research organisations.
Rockström noted that, according to social scientists, when roughly 3.5% of a nation’s population joins “civil and non-violent uprisings” it can be enough to force change, even in a dictatorship. In Germany, numbers at the climate demonstrations on Sept. 20 were estimated at nearly 2% of the population, and in New Zealand at 3.5%, he said.
UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa acknowledged on Friday that the world is “not where we need to be”, with global average temperatures currently on track for a rise of 3 degrees or more above pre-industrial times.
The new analysis warned that failure to address and adapt to climate change would have disastrous consequences for hundreds of millions of people, mainly the very poorest, who are most vulnerable to climate-related disasters like floods and drought.
Espinosa, a former diplomat for Mexico, warned that climate change, as a “threat multiplier” would deepen problems of social inequality and poverty around the world.
“It is really an issue that is very closely related to the wellbeing of societies, and in that regard you can understand that it is very likely to create social unrest,” she said in response to a question from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Globally, there is widespread dissatisfaction with institutions and systems, she noted.
Protests - sometimes violent - have erupted from France to Chile in the past year, often provoked by a perceived political insensitivity to ordinary people’s struggles for a decent life.
That struggle is also hampered by environmental degradation, analysts said. Addressing climate change is “one way” to work on those problems, Espinosa said.
He questioned whether, at some point, it would start to become morally unacceptable to cause people’s deaths with car exhaust, as happened with cigarette smoking.
In New Delhi, at some times of the year, young people are inhaling toxic pollution equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes a day, killing over 7,000 people a year in the city, he noted.