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Italy's next government must tackle climate security

Sep 25,2022 - Last updated at Sep 25,2022

ROME  —  As Italians went to the polls on September 25, they cast their ballots against the backdrop of an unprecedented energy and climate crisis. Winter is fast approaching, and the next government will confront the tough task of protecting citizens and businesses while also setting Italy on a path to strengthen climate resilience and deliver its fair share of emissions reductions.

This summer’s extreme weather was just a preview of the climate-driven turmoil that awaits us. Abnormal temperatures, drought and catastrophic flooding have killed several people and caused massive economic losses and damage. Italians would do well to remember that they reside in what climate scientists call a climate-change “hotspot”. With temperatures rising 20 per cent faster than the global average rate, the Mediterranean is one of the world’s most climate-affected regions.

Italy itself has already experienced warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and the human and economic costs of its past emissions and short-term infrastructure choices are mounting. Between 1980 and 2020, Italy recorded more than 21,000 deaths due to extreme weather events, following only Germany and France in Europe. And in the last 50 years, landslides and flooding have forced more than 320,000 people to evacuate their homes, and eroded some 40 million square meters of beach front. Now, 91 per cent of Italy’s cities and 12,000 cultural assets are at risk of landslides and floods.

The future looks ominous. Between now and 2100, Italy’s summer temperatures could increase by up to 6°C, and summer rainfall could decrease by up to 40 per cent. Without urgent mitigation, heatwave days per year are expected to increase by an average of 400 per cent by 2050, and by up to 1,100 per cent by 2080. For a city like Rome, that could mean experiencing up to 28 days of extreme heat every year.

The economic costs will increase exponentially as the temperature rises, primarily affecting the most fragile segments of the population. According to some estimates, climate change could reduce Italy’s per capita GDP by 8 per cent by 2100. Infrastructure losses could exceed 15 billion euros ($14.8 billion); the costs from rising sea levels and coastal flooding could reach almost €6 billion; agricultural land value could fall by over 160 billion euros; and the contraction of demand in the tourism sector could cost 52 billion euros (in part because only 18 per cent of resorts in the Italian Alps will still have natural snow cover suitable for the winter season).

Recent tragedies like the Marmolada glacier collapse and extreme flooding in Marche are emblematic of the new risk environment. They show how the socioeconomic and political consequences of climate change could trigger mass migration and new tensions over water, food, and energy resources.

Obviously, climate change is a major national-security threat for Italy. But one wouldn’t know it from following Italian politics. While Italian voters are becoming more aware of the problem and are demanding action, very few options on the ballot channel these views. For decades, Italian governments and political parties have largely neglected the threat that climate change poses to the country’s security and prosperity.

The failure to formulate credible plans for the energy transition reflects a broader refusal even to acknowledge the climate implications of Italy’s current energy sources. In a country that has long been dominated by the natural-gas industry, both the political establishment and the mainstream media remain unwilling to question the state-controlled gas companies. As a result, only one-third of Italians recognize natural gas as a source of greenhouse-gas pollution, even though it is the country’s largest source of emissions.

A new government offers a chance to change course; but the window for action is quickly closing. To avoid warming pathways that will eventually render large parts of the country unsafe for habitation or tourism, the next government must recognise that there is no climate security without the European Union.

The faster the world’s major economies decarbonize, the better off Italy will be. The next government must support the EU’s climate agenda and do its part to make it a success. It also must support investments in climate resilience around the world, particularly in Africa and the Mediterranean region, where climate-driven events are poised to become a major cause of mass migration.

Moreover, Italy needs major new public investments in decarbonisation; but because it must also abide by the principles of debt sustainability, it also will need innovative policies to mobilise the private sector behind climate action.

At the same time, the next government should recognise that attempting to achieve climate security through simple technological fixes or a top-down, command-and-control approach would inevitably provoke a political backlash. Democracy thrives on its capacity for innovation, accountability, transparency, and inclusion. Italian policymakers can no longer afford to leave the country’s energy strategy in the hands of just a few companies, even if they are state-controlled.

Finally, the next government must appreciate the myriad interdependencies between the economy and the environment. There cannot be a safe economy without a safe climate, but nor can climate stability be achieved without a strong, fair economy. At the end of the day, there can be no choice between economic and environmental goals.

It remains to be seen what path the next government will take. While public opinion polls have been pointing to a victory for far-right parties, Italians of all political persuasions would support a program to preserve Italy’s security and prosperity in a warming world.


Luca Bergamaschi is co-founder and executive director of International Politics of ECCO, an independent Italian think tank focusing on climate change. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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