A wake-up call on Climate Change


Alan Thornett

The recent report the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is another sharp wake up call as to the potentially catastrophic dangers posed by global warming.

The report is the fifth since the IPCC was founded in 1988, and it focuses primarily on the science of climate change. The report has the endorsement of 195 governments and 800 climate scientists from around the world were involved in its preparation. It represents, therefore, an overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion.

It reaffirms with greater confidence and more extensive analysis the conclusion reached in its previous report in 2007. This was that the carbon content of the atmosphere continues to rise directly as a result of human activity. It says that it is now 95% certain of its conclusions, rather than 90% certain as in 2007.

The overall approach of the report, however, remains extremely cautious. Major factors are omitted from its analysis, in a number of key areas, where it is considered (or it has been argued) that the processes concerned are not well enough understood. This has skewed a number of its conclusions.

This approach reflects the vicious attack the IPCC has been under from the climate change deniers since its 2007 report and the support they have had from the right wing media. It also reflects the IPCC’s own structures and the breath of the consensus required before a decision can be taken. At the end of the day the IPCC can only move at the speed of its slowest and most cautious members. Another factor, of course, is the complexity of the global climate systems themselves.

Despite all this, however, the report concludes that global warming is ‘unequivocal’—both the atmosphere and the oceans have warmed, snow and ice has diminished, the sea level has risen, and the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere has increased.”

It points out that each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850. That in the 250 years since the industrial revolution human activity has released half a trillion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere from burning coal, oil and gas and that such activity is now set to release a second half a trillion tonnes in just a few short decades.

It argues—based on evidence obtained from ice cores—that the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, are now greater than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

The report concludes that global temperatures could rise by up to 4.8C by the end of the century, depending on what governments are prepared do to control emissions.

As a result of this, it concludes, the rise in the sea level—one of the greatest threats from global warming—could reach 98cm by 2100, depending on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted and efforts to mitigate its effects. This is much higher than that which the 2007 report (which hardly dealt with the issue) projected. There is still a problem, however, since it but still fails to take into account two major factors: the huge ice-melts from Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets which would have produced a higher figure.

Even the US government—via its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s report—estimates a ‘worst-case’ sea level rise of 2 metres by 2100.

Sea level rises of much less than the above predictions, however, can have a catastrophic effect on coastal communities and low lying countries such as the Maldives and Bangladesh.

Monirul Qader Mirza, a leading contributor to IPCC reports, says that studies by the Institute for Water Modeling in Dhaka, Bangladesh, show that a 32cm rise in the sea level could submerge 84 percent of the Sundarbans—the world’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO Heritage Site—by 2050. The entire Sundarbans, which act as a coastal bio-shield against cyclones, may be lost in the event of about a one-meter rise. 

Another area in which the IPCC has been over cautious is over the potential impact of methane—a very powerful greenhouse gas—on global warming.

Two major sources of methane emissions are omitted from the report’s calculations on the basis that the processes are not well enough understood. These are the methane that will be released as the permafrost thaws and that which will be released as the temperature of the Arctic seabed rises.

This is important if the global temperature is to be kept below 2C, which is the crucial tipping point where the process spins out of control, is to be avoided, since methane emissions are a major factor in the feedback process by which the rising global temperature releases methane from the Arctic tundra and the deep ocean floor that in turn accelerates global warming which releases more methane.

Such a feedback process is already happening with the loss of the polar ice caps and the arctic sea ice. As the ice retreats heat which would have been reflected back into space by the ice is adsorbed into the planet.

One very good thing which has happened with this IPCC report (as opposed to the last one) has been the much more proactive attitude which has been taken in confronting the climate deniers seeking to discredit it.

Halldor Thorgeirsson, a UN official speaking on it’s behalf, pre-empted another wave of attacks by exposing the way that the deniers are funded by big business. For example the US think tank the Center for Energy and the Environment, a major generator of the climate sceptic agenda, has received funding from Exxon Mobile, Texaco, General Motors and the Koch brothers who made a fortune from fossil fuels.

The report also debunks the claim of the sceptics that global warming has slowed down since 1998. It is not true. The rate of increase (of the surface temperature) has indeed slowed down but earth has continued to absorb heat just the same.

The slower rate of increase in this period is explained in the report by two principal factors, the absorption of heat into the deep oceans (and therefore not reflected in the surface temperature) and by natural fluctuations which take place within the overall upward trend.

How much impact this report will make on the chances of a credible international agreement on climate change remains to be seen. The first time it will be discussed is at an intergovernmental meeting which will take place in Poland later this year. Hopefully it will revive the process after the collapse that took place at the UN conference on climate change Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15) when the chance of an international treaty was vetoed when the USA refused to sign.

Despite all this there is an urgent need for a global programme of energy conservation to reduce the vast amount of energy which is wasted and massive investment in renewables to keep fossil fuels where they belong—which is in the ground.

Nicholas Stern (the author of the influential Stern on global warning and the economy) called for urgent action in his comments on the report. He said the following:

Current action is much too weak to reduce emissions by enough to avoid a significant probability of the global average temperature rising by more than 2C above its pre-industrial level by the end of this century. The Earth has not experienced a global temperature more than 2C higher than pre-industrial since the Pliocene epoch 3m years ago, when the polar ice caps were much smaller and sea levels were about 20 metres higher than today. Modern humans have only been around for about 250,000 years, so we have no experience of such a climate.’ (Observer September 29th)

He also points to the kind of social problems, such as climate refugees and movements of population that society is likely to face as global warming takes hold:

What we have learned from history is that if people are faced with increased dangers of floods, droughts and other extreme weather, they will try to escape, resulting in population movements of perhaps hundreds of millions, leading to widespread and continued conflict. We have to decide if this is the kind of world we want to present to our children and grandchildren.” (Observer September 29th)

There is little sign of such action happening, however. In the framework of austerity Governments are turning to extreme form of energy such as fracking and shale gas to squeeze the last bit of carbon out of their reserves. As the more accessible reserves run out the energy companies are turning to remote parts of the planet, irrespective of the level of environmental damage, in order to maintain production levels.

In Britain Cameron’s early cynical posturing around environmental issues (his hug a husky days) is long gone as is talk about the ‘greenest government ever’. Cameron and Osborne now talk about the unaffordability of environmental measures when the country is in debt and even the modest measures already in place are under threat.

Today we not only have Peter Lilly, a leading flat earth type climate denier, as a member of Cameron’s strategy group, but we have Owen Patterson, another climate denier, as Secretary of State for the Environment and in charge of key decisions when it come to the key decisions when it comes to the future of the planet.

Meanwhile the global temperature continues to increase, the ice sheets continue to melt, the seas continue to rise, the glaciers continue to retreat, water becomes more scarce, the deserts continue to expand, the acididification of the oceans due to the absorption of CO2 continues apace and species are driven into extinction. Weather patters are disrupted resulting in extreme events including floods, droughts, and fires that devastate whole regions of the globe and disrupt food production.

In fact the term climate change is grossly inadequate to reflect what is going on. What we are facing is climate chaos—a major destabilisation of the global climate system. Whilst not every individual event can be attributed directly to global warming it is clear that as the average temperature rises extreme events are multiplied and intensified.

In this situation the responsibility of the left is to go beyond this report and develop a socialist, or more precisely an ecosocialist, response to global warming. As approach that sees the ecological issues and the protection the planet from global warming, as key components of a socialist, or in my view an ecosocialist, programme of action.

Unfortunately much of the left are still either oblivious to the problems of the environment or see them as subordinate to the real economic issues.

It is very important, therefore, that Left Unity takes these issues seriously from the outset this means heading the warnings which are contained in the IPCC report and getting fully involved in the various campaigns around the issue—in particular the campaign against climate change and the campaign against hydraulic fracking.



14 responses to “A wake-up call on Climate Change”

  1. Micky D says:

    Calling people who disagree with the Apocalypse next Tuesday approach re climate change ” Deniers ” is effectively a way of attempting to shut down debate on the subject and is unworthy of Left Unity . All opinions should be heard on what approach society / humanity takes to this issue . Personally i would prefer less doomsterism and more technological innovation as well as better infrastructure where needed … Why for instance shouldnt we attempt to use technological solutions to such an issue ? Could it be that such thinking goes against the grain of trendy doomsterism and pro austerity feeling within green groups and large parts of the left ?

    • Dave Parks says:

      [Moderator – can you delete my last post and use this one instead – too many typos in the last version]

      Let’s be very clear about this, there is a *denial industry*. This denial industry arose as bogus “citizens groups” set up and funded by the tobacco industry to first deny a link between smoking and cancer and then to deny a link between secondary smoke and health risks and then when that had failed to create a lobby of libertarians opposing restrictions on smoking on civil liberty grounds. Incidentally, before I’m accused of being a holier than thou anti-smoker I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m a nicotine addict. The role of the likes of Philip Morris in all of this is very well documented. See for example:
      I’m not a scientist but I do have a degree in Physics and I do have some understanding of the world of science. I find arguing about climate science with people who refuse to accept the science as useful as arguing with those who refuse to accept the moon landings. It is an argument that can never be won. I am sorry if you find this offensive Micky D but that is the most charitable I can be – some of the denial industry is organised and funded by people who known damn well what the truth is but it will hurt their profits if we take the issue seriously. They are scum! The big oil companies have a lot to loose.
      The science is extremely clear. The question is what is to be done about it? I would suggest that we need determined international action to reduce CO2 emissions and the staring point has to be that the market won’t fix this.
      Off the top of my head some suggestions:
      1. Nationalise all of the energy production and distribution companies.
      2. Draw up an emergency plan to reduce CO2 emissions. Measures taken should not hit working class people in the pocket for increased energy prices.
      3. Nationalise all of the transport company and draw up a plan to move towards a goal of free public transport. Public transport should also be extended so that those in rural communities can get around without the motor car.
      4. Reclaim the streets in towns. Let’s have town centres planned so that pedestrians can get around and do what they need to do without the motor car. We have moved to a model where if you want cheap food you need to drive out of town to a huge super market. If you walk around town you have to constantly dodge motor cars. This may not be a perspective generally accepted by other socialists but I would love to see cars banned from the centre of all towns. Our living environments used to be places where children could play and we could socialise – now the bulk of the land between housing is roads and the centre of town pavements are like crowded conveyor belts where we do our duty to go and consume.
      4. There is a severe shortage of housing. There needs to be an emergency plan to build housing but the housing that is built should be energy efficient and as green as possible. The best minds in science and housing should be bought together to determine the best way of building housing wit minimal CO2 emissions e.g. in production of concrete.
      5. The housing stock is in a dreadful state and still much of it is poorly insulated. We need to reverse the privatisation of public housing. Some slums should be ripped down. Other privately rented housing should be under strict control – affordable rents and decent standards of home insulation and energy efficiency. If landlords fail to comply they should be forced to sell or face compulsory purchase.
      6. There is talk of carbon capture technology being used with power gas and coal power stations. As far as I’m aware despite all the talk none of the private businesses plans to go ahead with such technology. Again the market has failed. It will be impossible to go totally over to renewables so we need to make this happen – so long as it is technically possible. Again the power industry needs to be nationalised and carbon capture introduced as a priority.
      7. Fracking needs to be stopped. Despite claims that it is greener than say, coal, it is not a clean energy source. It is a source of methane emissions (worse than CO2) and the current program of fracking commits us to years up pumping more CO2 in the atmosphere.
      8. There needs to be a huge increase in investment in science and technology related to renewables, carbon capture and related fields. For example, renewables alone can not currently meet fluctuation in demand and it is highly inefficient to store energy (e.g. pumping water up hill to release as hydro-electric later) – there may be technical solutions such as gas compression techniques that can create more efficient ways of storing off-peak electricity production.
      9. We need international agreements that actually make a difference. That will be difficult under capitalism but we should still fight for them. There are also international issues which could make a big difference but require the kind of cooperation and innovation and investment that will never come from the markets. For example costs of renewable technologies are in part a question of scale of production. Computer chips are cheap because of the huge scale of production. Photo-electric cells could potentially be a tiny fraction of their current cost if we have planned production and international co-operation. There is an efficiency cost in electricity being transmitted from its source of production – according to Monbiot there is the technology to reduce the losses with extreme high voltages but again we are talking 100s or 1000s of kilometres and this requires major planning and cooperation. It maybe possible to produce renewables in far off places (centre of deserts) – but currently there is not the infrastructure to make it efficient.
      Ultimately I think the climate crisis can not be solved under capitalism but in the meantime there could be other demands we could rise. Off the top of my head how about a 4 day week with no lose of income for the bottom 40%. That would need fleshing out but it could be an aspiration. A shorter working week will cause less strain in terms of transport and give us more leisure time.
      Anyway to conclude, rather than closing our eyes and hoping the problem goes away we should accept the reality – but that does not mean we hide away full of doom. Let’s do something about it – the problems we face from climate change cry out for socialists solutions. Let’s be proactive in being positive and addressing the issue and by doing so giving people hope – there is a world to win!
      [PS. Apols for bit of the off the top of my head rant – but I hope some of this is useful]

      • oskarsdrum says:

        Thanks for these two important contributions on this issue, Alan and Dave! Those are an excellent set of proposals I think. This should be a central campaigning/organizing priority for left unity, not an afterthought like it is for much of the left!

      • John Collingwood says:

        Lots of good ideas Dave. Transport and housing contribute a massive percentage of the emissions that we produce, and there is loads that can be done to improve not only our carbon footprint, but also quality of life at the same time. Much of it comes down to good local planning – ie rebuilding local government as well as poor housing stock.

        I’m right with you on developing public transport and improving pedestrian facilities, but don’t forget cycling. As one gets older, carrying heavy shopping bags loses its appeal, and bikes can do the job better – except of course in very hilly places.

        Housing is tricky. One reason for the shortage – often forgotten – is that we are tending to live in smaller and smaller units. Apart from the obvious problem of old people on their own in housing that is no longer suitable, this also makes the average household less and less efficient – more fridges, washing machines, etc per person. The main difficulty of course is the ridiculous extent to which housing has become a sink for money, through the fundamentally stupid notion that its value can float upwards for ever and ever, such that any large-scale housing renewal project becomes a financial nightmare.

        Overall, I feel that the hardest thing is for individuals to keep on doing their own bit towards sustainable living, in the face of their government’s seeming to have given up any serious attempt to deal with the ‘big’ stuff like electricity generation and transport policy. But unless we all keep trying, we really are lost, aren’t we.

      • Anya-Nicola Darr says:

        Dave is right on all fronts here…how can you be TOO doomsterish about Climate Change given the recent reports from the scientific community and the Global Response to it still stuck in doing very little, very slowly indeed. Left Unity need to take this issue very seriously indeed or it will loose many founder members to the Green Party and quite rightly too!

      • Micky D says:

        Under your proposals the lights would go out …whats socialist about that ?

      • Dave Parks says:

        Micky D, you sound like the Daily Mail! Did you actually read my post? There is nothing in what I suggest that would cause this. In terms of renewables I state twice that renewables alone cannot meet our energy needs. See my points 6 and 8. We need to be able to control and plan energy production to tackle the issues.

        Should there be an “ecology section/caucus” as Sean suggests? I think people should form whatever caucuses they want. I see platforms and caucuses as an important component of debate. However, more importantly I think policy for addressing climate change needs to be right at the centre of economic, transport and housing and probably many other areas.

        A problem I have with traditional Green politics, certainly not all of it but a large section of it, is that it tends to be orientated to consumption and market solutions. To much electric, gas petrol being consumed – then hike up taxes and prices which make working class people pay for a crisis they have not caused. We have to reject this kind of approach – make the capitalist class pay for their crisis. We should look to solutions that improve life for ordinary workers and the vast bulk of the population for that matter. I make some suggestions above – but I’m sure collectively we could be much more creative.

        John, I get your point on housing. As I said housing needs tackling but it also needs thinking through. How do we create decent communities for us all to live in? Suitable housing for all that meets our real needs. On bikes – totally agree with you I include bikes in my thinking as pedestrians – I’m a life long cyclist!

        Ideology – yes I think dealing with climate change will be infinitely easier if we have an internationally planned economy. However, that is not going to happen until the capitalist class have been overthrown by the working class on a world wide basis. Personally I think climate change as an issue requires a bold socialist message. Incidentally, I don’t see international planning as being in contradiction with more local production as Chris Marsh advocates.

      • Sean Thompson says:

        Spot on.

  2. stufer says:

    hey Micky D,
    “Deniers”is right – as in holocaust deniers, yeah? your coining ‘doomsterism’ as a way of trying to mock the issue and this report clearly demonstrates where you stand.
    troll on sunshine.

    peace x

  3. SeanT says:

    This is an excellent and very useful contribution by Alan (and Dave’s response is extremely helpful as well). It’s clear, to me at any rate, that developing positive policies – and just as important, a positive strategy for action and agitation on climate change – and placing them at the centre of our political agenda in the coming period, is vital.

    Unfortunately, the tactics employed by the growing movement of activists concerned about climate change (including many in the labour movement of course) seem to have had a negative effect. The more the issues have been publicised, the more ordinary people have tended to turn away from them. One of the important tasks for our new party will be to present the truth about the ecological crisis that confronts humanity and the policies which we believe are necessary to confront it in positive ways that relate to the concrete realities of working people’s lives, to counter the sort of doomsaying and preachiness that much of the green movement has been guilty of in the past (me included!). Ecosocialism has to be presented as the hopeful and practical way to a future that is both more just and more sustainable.

    I think that we should establish an ecology section/caucus as soon as the party is formally established in order to develop a plan for action.

  4. Chris Marsh says:

    I reluctantly kind-of agree with Micky D and his preference for ‘less doomsterism’, because for decades a focus on future threats has led to denial, and then hopes pinned on technological fixes. I have always advocated a focus on the damage already caused by our over-reliance on a bonanza of readily extracted fossil fuels – damage particularly to forests and soils and the threat to food security. We need more sustainable – and necessarily IMV local – food production systems. A major benefit of growing food in and around cities is that we can ‘just do it’. In Lester Brown’s World on the Edge he advocates the drawing up of an Earth policy to prevent environmental and economic collapse – is that likely in view of all the denial and vested interests? But he notes that there is major local food movement developing spontaneously. So can LU please have a policy of supporting and enabling local food production?

  5. David Ellis says:

    Dave Parks: `Ultimately I think the climate crisis can not be solved under capitalism but in the meantime there could be other demands we could rise.’

    In other words Mr Parks thinks socialism is for the enlightened few and the distant future and its a thin broth of his home spun illusions for the rest of us.

    • Ray G says:

      More arrogant offensive slurs and willful misunderstanding from our favourite troller Baton Rouge.

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