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With Climate Discontent Rising, Scientists Warn Of Social ‘Tipping Point’

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Climate change “is really an issue that is very closely related to the wellbeing of societies … and you can understand that it is very likely to create social unrest,” says UN climate chief

Madrid, Spain – With young climate activists taking to the streets of Madrid on Friday, the U.N. 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 U.N. 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.

Speaking to journalists on Friday in Madrid, Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg said the global movement she inspired, of students skipping school on Fridays to demand their governments tackle climate change, had raised public awareness over the past 18 months.

“But basically nothing has happened. The climate crisis is still being ignored by those in power,” she said, pointing to still-rising planet-warming emissions.

She said she hoped the Madrid conference would “lead to something concrete”.

“We cannot afford any more days going by without real action,” she said, adding that people were already “suffering and dying from the climate and ecological emergency”.


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.

In September, at the time of a U.N. climate action summit in New York, more than 7 million people turned out in cities worldwide to call for renewed political efforts to limit global warming to a lower agreed goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

U.N. 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.


At the U.N. conference, young climate activists staged a “Fridays for Future” sit-in to show their unhappiness with the slow pace of political action. They were joined by their figurehead Thunberg, who was mobbed by the media.

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.

“If you start seeing an uprising … there will be an enormous pressure for the political leadership to step up and start acting,” he said – though he noted it “can also be quite challenging along the way”.

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.

On Friday morning, 8-year-old Indian climate striker Licypriya Kangujam, of New Delhi, headed to her country’s pavilion at the talks, clutching a hand-written poster calling on India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pass a flagship climate change law in the current parliament session.

She said she had been protesting in front of the parliament building regularly on Fridays to press for the legislation.

She told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she had come to the climate talks with her father to tell politicians and others, “you must change your way of thinking”.

“I am fighting for my future. I am here to speak for my generation and all the generations to come,” she said before skipping off excitedly to catch a glimpse of her hero, Thunberg.

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