But on 18 October 2019, the president of Chile declared a state of emergency and instituted a curfew to quell three days of public unrest that started because of an increase in metro fares. The outbreak of anger was summed up by the message, “This is not about 30 pesos, it is about 30 years”, referring to discontent lasting three decades, which appeared on walls across the city and on social media. The protests ultimately led to COP25’s move to Madrid.
Its demands are wide-ranging: better pensions, education, health, a minimum wage; but also water rights and action on environmental degradation. What they have in common is their roots in a profoundly unequal society that can be traced back to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The economic framework he instituted has hardly changed since the return of democracy in the 90s.
At first glance, other than disrupting a climate summit, this kind of social unrest doesn’t seem to have much to do with the climate crisis. But look again.
In Chile, just a month before the social crisis exploded, we saw the first internal displacement as a result of the climate crisis. A 10-year-long drought has resulted in many small-scale and subsistence animal farmers losing their livelihoods. In the same areas, competition for water is fierce between local people and agriculture, particularly avocado producers. So as the impacts of the climate crisis become more intense, we can expect more displacement and more unrest. Not just in Chile but around the world.
The good news is that addressing social issues alongside the climate crisis has the potential to generate powerful, long-lasting solutions. In Chile, one of the measures to achieve carbon neutrality is phasing out coal power plants. The closures come with a host of benefits, from better air quality to – eventually – cheaper energy.