As the world gathers in New York for the UN Climate Summit, and against the backdrop of possibly the largest worldwide school protest, HOPE not hate is adding its voice to the growing call for governments to take urgent action on climate change.
We are doing so for two simple reasons. We are experiencing a climate emergency. Without action, the very future of this planet is at stake. We are also backing this call because we strongly believe that extreme weather will undoubtedly lead to extreme politics.
Over the last month, and in conjunction with the European Climate Foundation, we have taken the pulse of citizens in eight countries across the Americas and western Europe to gauge opinions toward the environment. We particularly selected countries whose governments will prove critically important to global efforts to tackle the climate emergency.
Our findings were unambiguous – tackling climate change was the most important priority for government, ahead of terrorism, the economy and migration. In every country except America the majority of those surveyed said that climate change was the number one issue, and that governments had to do more.
Our poll of more than 1,000 people in the UK, Canada, Germany, Italy, Brazil, France, Poland and the US revealed that at least three-quarters of the public think the world is facing a “climate emergency”, with climate breakdown at risk of becoming “extremely dangerous”.
The poll reveals widespread alarm that the crisis is on the brink of spinning out of control, with 64% in the UK agreeing with the statement “time is running out to save the planet” – the figure was 70% in Germany, 74% in Brazil and 57% in the US.
It also found that few people believe their governments are doing enough – only 23% in the UK, 20% in Germany, 23% in Brazil and 26% in the US agree that ministers are taking sufficient action.
Although we think about climate change as an environmental issue, for many people around the world its consequences will be felt as primarily social and political.
If governments do not take urgent action to tackle the climate emergency, rising sea levels, desertification and increasingly frequent extreme weather events will have potentially devastating effects on both the world’s poorest people as well as wealthy nations.
Globally millions of people risk a bleak future: being displaced from their homes and losing their livelihoods. It’s unimaginable that in such circumstances resourceful, determined and sometimes desperate people won’t try and find better, safer places to work and raise their families.
Climate change will create volatile social situations. Large numbers of people could be forced to move within their countries and across borders – both near and far. Extreme environmental events and rapid change could also destabilise economies leading to unemployment, pressure on resources, spiralling living costs and political and social unrest.
It claimed that 821 million people worldwide now experienced hunger, and said this figure would continue to grow if countries failed to tackle climate change in the future.
Another recent UN report found that more than two billion people were already experiencing high water stress and the situation would only worsen as climate change intensified. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that by 2025 half the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas.
The WHO also predicts that increasing temperatures and more variable rainfall are expected to reduce crop yields in many tropical regions, where food security is already a problem.
Another UN report predicted that by 2030 water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places would displace up to 700 million people.
New research predicts that the sea level could rise by two metres by 2100, which would have a devastating impact across the globe.
According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, by 2050 one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change. Up to 18 million people may have to move because of sea level rise alone.
HOPE not hate’s work in communities across the country over 15 years has taught us that this type of scenario threatens peaceful co-existence and opens the door to those who seek to capitalise on the politics of hate.
Societies faced with economic insecurity, real or perceived competition for resources, pressurised public services and rapid social and cultural change can rapidly become disaffected. Especially if faced by unresponsive politicians and no hope of change.
In these situations, diversity can stop merely being ‘difference’ and instead become division, a situation that provides fertile ground for those who wish to break apart our shared identities, scapegoat and replace them with an ‘us and them’ siege mentality.
Our investigations have found that these groups are already capitalising on the issue – with climate denial and climate conspiracies having found a welcome home in the ideology of both the populist right and the far right.
While most on the far right are doing everything in their power to question climate change and impede action, a small minority on the violent fringe are adopting a language of eco-fascism to justify their hate-filled agenda and even violence.
It’s ironic that the very people who would seek to capitalise on any social dislocation caused by climate change are among the biggest group driving climate scepticism in Europe.
The war-driven migrant crisis in 2015 showed how quickly and powerfully anti-immigrant feelings can distort and destabilise politics, surging far beyond any initial racial, religious and cultural friction.
One million migrants arriving in a single year had a massive impact on European politics. It undermined the credibility of German chancellor Angela Merkel and helped establish the far right AfD party as a national force. In Italy, it provided the political ammunition for the Lega party to move out of its northern strongholds and establish itself in towns across the south. Hungarian leader Victor Orban linked the migrant crisis to threats to western civilisation and then, of course, in the UK the two Leave campaigns used migrant imagery to whip up a panic over immigration during the Brexit referendum.
Ensuring we remain united and embracing tolerance in the face of such pressures is going to be an integral part of the global fight for climate justice. But governments, policy makers and NGOs are not yet ready for this challenge.
We must plan ahead, resist and repel any backlash to those fleeing the consequences of the climate crisis, and build coalitions between the environmental and social justice movements.
Unless we take action now on climate change, and ready ourselves for its consequences, I fear we could be heading for serious trouble.
Nick Lowles is the chief executive of HOPE not hate. You can follow him on Twitter.