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.
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