Increasingly dysfunctional society and climate catastrophe leading humanity to ‘cliff edge’

‘Extraordinary action to redistribute wealth’ required to avert cascading series of disasters, Harry Cockburn writes

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Tuesday 30 August 2022 17:25 BST
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<p>An oil drilling rig in Russia. Wealthy ‘oligarchs’ are symptomatic of inequality after the privatisation of oil firms following the collapse of the Soviet Union </p>

An oil drilling rig in Russia. Wealthy ‘oligarchs’ are symptomatic of inequality after the privatisation of oil firms following the collapse of the Soviet Union

Spiralling wealth inequality is leading to dysfunctional societies unable to cope with existential threats such as the climate crisis, experts have warned.

A two-year research project examining different future scenarios indicates that at present, societies around the world are at growing risk of "extreme political destabilisation", with declines in public trust, while the climate crisis intensifies.

According to a book published by six eminent academics representing world-leading organisations, it could still be theoretically possible to stabilise global temperatures below 2C of warming since the pre-industrial era.

But that would require our species to put us on course to an end to poverty by 2050 with several ‘extraordinary turnarounds’ that break with current trends.

The book, Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity, is launched by the group Earth4All – convened by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Norwegian Business School, and the Club of Rome – an informal organisation dedicated to tackling critical world issues.

The authors said the research sets out what major economic systems change would mean for civilisation and proposes the necessary steps which they say could provide a framework for a fair, just, and affordable economic transformation.

“We are standing on a cliff edge,” said Jorgen Randers, one of the six authors of Earth for All and co-author of The Limits to Growth – a 1972 book widely credited with influencing modern environmental action.

“In the next 50 years, the current economic system will drive up social tensions and drive down wellbeing. We can already see how inequality is destabilising people and the planet.”

“Unless there is truly extraordinary action to redistribute wealth, things will get significantly worse. We are already sowing the seeds for regional collapse.

"Societies are creating vicious cycles where rising social tensions, that are exacerbated by climate breakdown, will continue to lead to a decline in trust.

"This risks an explosive combination of extreme political destabilisation and economic stagnation at a time when we must do everything we can to avoid climate catastrophes.”

The authors said the timing of the book’s release is important, with just over two months to go until the UN’s Cop27 climate summit in Egypt, where climate finance will be one of the key subjects global leaders will grapple with.

"Do we want to create the first trillionaire or do we want to create functional, fair democratic societies?" asked Sandrine Dixson-Declève, one of the authors and co-president of the Club of Rome.

“Our economic and financial systems are broken, and we are reaching dangerous levels of inequality.

"Ultimately, Earth for All is about building societies that value prosperity for all rather than profit for the few on a finite planet fit for the 21st century. Let’s be clear, a more equal society benefits everyone, even the very rich.”

To highlight what is at stake, the book explores two scenarios – both beginning in 1980 and ending in 2100.

These scenarios are entitled "Too Little, Too Late" and "The Giant Leap", and explore how population, economies, resource use, pollution, wellbeing and social tensions might change over what is left of this century, based on decisions made this decade.

In the "Too Little, Too Late" scenario the world continues with the economic policies from the last forty years.

While GDP continues to grow, the rich get richer while the poor fall farther behind, creating extreme inequalities and growing social tensions within and between countries. Political division and lack of trust make it increasingly difficult to address climate and ecological risks.

In this scenario the planet’s global average temperatures significantly exceed the targets set out in the Paris Agreement. The poorest economies face the most extreme conditions and struggle to adapt to climate impacts.

Later in the century around two billion people will be living in areas that are close to the limits of human habitability. All societies will be reeling from rolling shocks of extreme heat, drought, crop failure and floods.

Per Espen Stoknes, co-author and director of the Centre for Sustainability at Norwegian Business School said: “In this scenario, the model indicates that regional societal collapse, driven by rising social tensions, food insecurity and environmental degradation, is more likely than today.

"Regional and global crises are often not caused by a single event like one crop failure, but cascading failures made worse by climate change, chronically dysfunctional governments and system failures.”

He added: "We have known shocks were coming our way since 1972, and yet the response has been denial, it is now time to hold governments accountable for the future and push for strong governance models flexible enough to deal with today’s complex challenges.”

"The Giant Leap" scenario sets out how we can avoid ending up in the nightmare of "Too Little, Too Late".

The authors conclude that it is still possible to stabilise temperatures below 2C above pre-industrial levels, stabilise the global population well below nine billion people, reduce material use and approach an end to extreme poverty globally by 2050.

In this scenario, social tension falls, and wellbeing rises throughout the century because of greater income equality.

The research team said that to achieve "The Giant Leap", societies would need to adopt unprecedented and immediate action across five interconnected policy turnarounds.

These are:

  1. Ending poverty through reform of the international financial system, lifting 3-4 billion people out of poverty
  2. Addressing gross inequality by ensuring that the wealthiest 10% take no more than 40% of national incomes
  3. Empowering women to achieve full gender equity by 2050
  4. Transforming the food system to provide healthy diets for people and planet
  5. Transitioning to clean energy to reach net zero emissions by 2050

“Out of hundreds of potential solutions, we have found five interconnected turnarounds that represent the simplest and most effective solutions that we must start implementing this decade to build economies operating within planetary boundaries by around 2050,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Dr Dixson-Declève added: “Citizens across the globe recognise we need a new paradigm. And we estimate the investment needed for this shift is small, just 2-4 per cent of GDP annually. That’s less than our current annual subsidies to fossil fuel industries. This is easily affordable, and it will create millions of jobs. What is missing is coalitions of politicians willing to make it happen.”

Owen Gaffney, author and global sustainability analyst at the Stockholm Resilience Centre said: “The wealthiest 10 per cent currently have 50 per cent of global incomes. Effective progressive taxation, including wealth taxes, can easily provide the funds needed for The Giant Leap.

These solutions will also help redistribute wealth which will go a long way towards reducing polarisation and building the trust and legitimacy governments need to take giant leaps.”

The book is published as a report to The Club of Rome and will be published in paperback and as an e-book in September 2022 in English and German.

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