Policy-makers must do better at persuading adults to embrace the change the climate crisis demands, rather than fearing it, or “today’s children will face a future of fighting wars for water and food,” says the EU’s deputy chief.
In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said managing the climate crisis demands that countries implement climate and social policy together, so that no one is left behind.
“It’s not just an urgent matter—it’s a difficult matter,” he said. “We have to transform our economy. There are huge benefits, but it’s a huge challenge. The biggest threat is the social one. If we don’t fix this, our children will be waging wars over water and food. There is no doubt in my mind.”
Failing to fairly share the benefits and costs of shifting immediately to a low-carbon economy will ensure blowback from those who are fearful of lost jobs and income. That fear can make people easy prey for stakeholders who are invested in maintaining the status quo, Timmermans added.
What’s needed is for policy-makers to anticipate and work to prevent “an alliance between those who don’t want change because they see their interest affected, whether it’s in fossil fuels or in traditional economic circles,” and those with a more sincere, if still misplaced, fear of “negative social consequences”— those who are saying, “Hang on, not too fast, people cannot stomach this.”
To date, Timmermans said, policy-makers have not done enough to encourage the public to view the personal and socio-economic changes ahead as gifts to the future, rather than as sacrifices.
Comparing the accelerating economic transformation to the experience of “restructuring after a violent conflict,” he invoked the sacrifices his parents and grandparents went through in the wake of the Second World War: “They said, ‘Well, we sacrificed a lot because we knew our children would be better off’.”
Timmermans said now is the time for society to tap back into that way of thinking. “We need to recapture that feeling of a purpose—doing something not for yourself, but for others, which I think has always led to society being at its best.”
Timmermans also urged policy-makers to correct their public messaging on climate—with its emphasis on the costs of climate action— “to show people the benefits of a low-carbon society, which include cleaner air and water, more livable cities, and higher levels of health and well-being.”
At the same time, politicians need to respond to the plight of those whose jobs will disappear in a low-carbon world. Retraining coal miners and other fossil fuel workers is imperative, he said.
Meanwhile, a new report warns that the scarcity-driven conflict Timmermans predicts will come to pass should governments not work more effectively to unite social policy and climate protections. Researchers with the EU, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Food Programme calculate that, in 2020, food insecurity reached its worst level in five years.
“Last year, 155 million people in 55 countries faced acute food shortages—20 million more than in 2019,” writes France 24, citing the New Global Report on Food Crises. According to the study, the shortages were a result of the combined impacts of the pandemic, conflicts over scarce resources, and the climate crisis.
“We must act together to prevent an additional deterioration of the situation,” FAO emergency director Dominique Burgeon told media. In a later tweet, he added: “We must address the root causes and make agri-food systems more efficient, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable.”