Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the EU commission, said that if social policy and climate policy are not combined, to share fairly the costs and benefits of creating a low-carbon economy, the world will face a backlash from people who fear losing jobs or income, stoked by populist politicians and fossil fuel interests.
He said: “It’s not just an urgent matter – it’s a difficult matter. 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.”
Tackling climate change will be many times cheaper than the disruption that global heating will cause, as well as bringing benefits to health, and the costs have fallen dramatically in recent years. However, the shift away from fossil fuels will mean the end of some traditional jobs such as coalmining, and the costs of change will fall unequally on different sectors of society unless politicians step in.
“Where I see a huge risk is that you get 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,” Timmermans told the Guardian in an interview. “Those interests combine with the fear of negative social consequences. Then you could get a counter-momentum where people say, ‘Hang on, not too fast, people cannot stomach this.’”
He added: “Those of us who understand we need to move fast should make the social issue the pivotal issue in all of this. I really call upon all of those in the climate movement to join me in focusing on the social issue more than they’ve done in the past. Because this could become the biggest stumbling block.”
He warned that sacrifices would be needed from the older generation to ensure that young people can live in a safe climate. Today’s older people were the beneficiaries of a previous generation’s sacrifice, and were now being called on to make changes themselves, he said.
“Sometimes I wonder whether we are aware of the transformation we’re heading to, and how profound it is. It’s an effort comparable to restructuring after a violent conflict. I used to talk to my grandparents and my parents about how they saw this, after the war. They said, ‘Well, we sacrificed a lot because we knew our children would be better off.’ And this feeling is not there yet in our society.”