Soaring wealth inequality is leading to dysfunctional societies unable to deal with existential threats such as the climate crisis, experts have warned.
A two-year research project looking at different future scenarios says societies around the world are currently at increasing risk of ‘extreme political destabilization’, with declining public trust, as the climate crisis intensifies.
According to a book published by six leading scholars representing world-renowned organizations, it may still be theoretically possible to stabilize global temperatures below 2°C of warming since pre-industrial times.
But that would require our species to put us on a path to ending poverty by 2050 with several “extraordinary reversals” that break current trends.
The book, Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanityis launched by the Earth4All group – convened by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Norwegian Business School and the Club of Rome – an informal organization dedicated to solving critical global issues.
The authors said the research lays out what a major shift in economic systems would mean for civilization and offers necessary steps that they believe could provide a framework for just, equitable and affordable economic transformation.
“We are on the edge of a cliff,” said Jorgen Randers, one of the six authors of land for all and co-author of The limits of growth – a 1972 book widely credited with influencing modern environmental action.
“Over the next 50 years, the current economic system will increase social tensions and reduce well-being. We can already see how inequality destabilizes people and the planet.
“Unless there is some truly extraordinary action to redistribute wealth, things are going to get significantly worse. We are already sowing the seeds of regional collapse.
“Societies are creating vicious circles where rising social tensions, exacerbated by a worsening climate, will continue to lead to a decline in trust.
“It risks an explosive combination of extreme political destabilization and economic stagnation at a time when we must do everything we can to avoid climate disasters.”
The authors said the timing of the book’s release is important, with just over two months until the UN COP27 climate summit in Egypt, where climate finance will be one of the main topics world leaders will be talking about. confronted.
“Do we want to create the first billionaire or do we want to create functional and just 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.
“At the end of the day, land for all aims to build 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 wealthy.
To highlight what’s at stake, the book explores two scenarios – both beginning in 1980 and ending in 2100.
These scenarios are titled “Too Little, Too Late” and “The Giant Leap”, and explore how population, economies, resource use, pollution, well-being and social tensions could change during this that remains of this century, based on the decisions made this decade.
In the “Too Little, Too Late” scenario, the world continues with the economic policies of the past forty years.
As GDP continues to grow, the rich get richer while the poor fall behind, creating extreme inequality and growing social tensions within and between countries. Political divisions and lack of trust make it increasingly difficult to manage climate and ecological risks.
In this scenario, the planet’s global average temperatures greatly exceed the targets set in the Paris Agreement. The poorest economies face the most extreme conditions and struggle to adapt to climate impacts.
Later in the century, about two billion people will live in areas close to the limits of human habitability. All societies will be shaken by continuous shocks of extreme heat, drought, crop failures and floods.
Per Espen Stoknes, co-author and director of the Norwegian Business School’s Center for Sustainability, said: “In this scenario, the model indicates that the collapse of regional society, driven by rising social tensions, insecurity food and environmental degradation, is more likely than today. .
“Regional and global crises are often not caused by a single event like a bad harvest, but by cascading failures compounded by climate change, chronically dysfunctional governments and system failures.”
He added: “We knew shocks were happening since 1972, and yet the response has been denial, now is the time to hold governments accountable to the future and push for strong governance models that are flexible enough to face the complex challenges of today”.
The scenario “The Giant Leap” explains how we can avoid finding ourselves in the nightmare of “Too Little, Too Late”.
The authors conclude that it is still possible to stabilize temperatures below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, stabilize the world population well below nine billion people, reduce the use of materials and approach the end of extreme poverty in the world by 2050.
In this scenario, social tension decreases and well-being increases throughout the century due to greater income equality.
The research team said that to achieve “The Giant Leap”, corporations would need to take unprecedented and immediate action across five interconnected policy shifts.
- Eradicate poverty through reform of the international financial system, lift 3-4 billion people out of poverty
- Address glaring inequality by ensuring that the richest 10% do not receive more than 40% of national income
- Empowering women to achieve full gender equity by 2050
- Transforming the food system to deliver healthy diets to people and the planet
- Transition to clean energy to achieve 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 we need to begin implementing this decade to build economies operating within planetary boundaries by approximately 2050” , said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute. for climate impact research.
Dr Dixson-Declève added: “Citizens around the world recognize that we need a new paradigm. And we estimate that the investment needed for this change is low, just 2 to 4% of GDP per year. This is less than our current annual subsidies to fossil fuel industries. It’s easily affordable and it will create millions of jobs. What is missing are coalitions of politicians willing to make it happen.
Owen Gaffney, author and global sustainability analyst at the Stockholm Resilience Center, said: “The top 10% currently have 50% of global income. Effective progressive taxation, including wealth taxes, can easily provide the necessary funds for The Giant Leap.
These solutions will also help redistribute wealth, which will go a long way to reducing polarization and building the trust and legitimacy that governments need to take giant leaps forward.
The book is published as a report to the Club of Rome and will be published in paperback and e-book in September 2022 in English and German.