Allan Todd writes: Currently, we’re witnessing a serious military and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. Coming on top of a deadly global pandemic and its harsh economic consequences – neither of which is over – it would be easy to say things couldn’t get much worse.
But we’d be wrong. Not only are we already experiencing ever-worsening impacts of global heating (6 storms in the UK since last November; never mind ‘record-breaking’ floods and wildfires in Europe, as well as in the Global South, in recent years), but climate activists have been warning for some time that we’re heading for uncontrollable Climate Breakdown, IF we don’t do something serious about it before 2030.
The IPCC Summary Report, 2022
Those warnings are borne out by the Sixth IPCC Report, released on 28 February, after 7 years of work. Drawing on the peer-reviewed work of thousands of scientists, it’s the bleakest one so far. We thought it would be: Professor Julia Steinberger, a leading IPCC author, warned us it would be in a recent public meeting of our Ecosocialist Alliance. In fact, many of the authors had already given us an even earlier warning, in a survey for the Nature magazine, just before COP26.
Their current projections are even more worrying than their findings, as noted by various sources immediately the Report had been released. On the day the Report released, UN General Secretary António Guterres commented:
“I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this. Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”
While Hans-Otto Pörtner, the Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II made the current situation painfully clear:
“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”
Another of those commenting on the Report was John Kerry who stated that the question now was “whether we can avoid the worst consequences of global heating”; and then went on to accuse the world’s biggest polluters – in particular, the fossil fuel companies – of being “guilty of arson on our only home.”
Overall, the Report is a strident alarm call, which concludes that the impacts and increasing risks of global heating are now happening faster and more severely than had been expected. And it’s worth remembering that their previous climate models and predictions have proved to be too optimistic, regularly under-estimating both the extent and rapidity of observable climate change.
The most recent evidence regarding some of the key climate feedback areas suggests we’re heading for an increase in average global temperatures as high as 3C, or even 5C – rather than the 2C/1.5C, first raised as aims by COP21 in Paris in 2015. Yet, although we need to cut global GHG emissions by 45% by 2030, and achieve ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050, current ‘commitments’ to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) will see such emissions increase by 14%.
Many governments and politicians – and fossil fuel companies – say they now ‘get it’ about climate change but they do relatively little. Yet many of their current policies are inadequate, and even run counter to sustainability and/or deepen social inequalities. Such organisations often point out how expensive it will be to transition to renewable energy – whilst ignoring the increasing expense involved in coping with the impacts of the Climate Crisis. But, as Jonathan Neale has said in his book, Fight The Fire: “It doesn’t matter how much it costs. Stopping global heat is like paying for a cancer operation that will save your child’s life.”
The Report states that mass die-offs of trees and corals are already underway, and that key ecosystems are losing their ability to absorb CO2, thus moving from being carbon sinks to carbon sources. The Report also makes clear that some ecosystems – especially those in the polar and equatorial regions – are already close to exceeding the limits of natural adaptation. One comment made by the Report is that although some countries have agreed to conserve 30% of Earth’s land, that figure may well have to rise to 50% – something that E. O. Wilson, in his book Half-Earth, had argued in 2016.
As a result, we already have the Sixth Mass Extinction of species, at almost 1000 times the natural rate of species extinction. According to the Report’s projections, any additional short-term warming will lead to massive extinctions in all regions. For land-dwelling species, a rise of 1.5C will see 14% at ‘very high risk’ of extinction’ – while an increase of 3C would see around 30% of such species disappearing.
Extreme weather events and other stresses – arriving earlier than previously predicted – will increase in both frequency and severity, thus further accelerating ecosystem degradation and the loss of ecosystem ‘services’ on which human life depend. At 4C of global heating, for instance, the frequency of destructive wildfires will increase by at least 50%.
For humans, the consequences of such global heating – already observable – will become increasingly devastating. Changes in ocean warming and acidity will further reduce phytoplankton levels, thereby reducing fish stocks. Depending on what level of global heating occurs, it’s now estimated that the biomass of oceans will decrease from between 6%-15% compared to the period 1995-2014. Already, desertification and increasing freshwater shortages are reducing agricultural production, and thereby food security, for millions of people in the Global South. As a result, the number of under-nourished humans could increase by 10s of millions by as early as 2050.
Already, half the world’s population are experiencing severe water scarcity for at least one month per year – while many others are suffering from flooding because of increased rainfall and melting glaciers. The 3.5bn people who live in countries ‘highly vulnerable’ to global heating are already suffering from mortality rates (from flooding, drought and storms) that are 15 times higher than in the rest of the world. Some regions – for instance, parts of the Middle East – have begun to experience levels of heat-stress that make it impossible for humans to work. Even Europe and parts North America – not just China and Eurasia – are at risk from extreme agricultural droughts: at 2C heating, the risk in these areas will increase by 150%-200%.
Another human impact of all this is, of course, mass displacement and migration of people. According to the Report, 40% of humans now live in the danger zone. Since 2008, 20m people – so far, almost all in the Global South – have been forced to become climate refugees. Many others lack the means to leave their inhospitable regions. Those living ‘informally’ on the fringes of the mega-cities in such regions are particularly vulnerable – often lacking access to clean water and sewage facilities. Particularly hit in such precarious situations are women and children, often comprising the majority living in such places. One additional factor in mass-migration is rising ocean levels – already adversely affecting many small islands. By 2050, this impact will become even worse, regardless of whether global heating stops over the next decade or so: a risk that applies to the Global North, as well as the Global South. If current GHG emissions remain constant, there’s a 200% increased risk for Europe by 2100.
And, as we’ve seen most recently with Covid-19, the combined impacts of global heating and deforestation are resulting in the spread of deadly zoonotic viruses. The Report warns that because of the on-going “degradation and destruction of health systems”, a high-emissions scenario would see the yearly number of climate-related deaths rise to 9 million by 2100. Even a medium-emissions scenario would see a rise to 250,000 deaths per year.
The Report lists 5 ‘Major Reasons for Concern’: ecosystems under threat; extreme weather events; unequal distribution of social impacts; climate deaths; and large-scale events (such as the breakup of polar ice caps). For each, the Report compares current levels of risks to what their 5th Assessment Report of 2014 had predicted. The bottom line now is that, EVEN IF THE LEVEL OF HEATING REMAINS LOW, the risks for “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” – in ALL 5 AREAS – have been assessed as either ‘high’ or ‘very high’. Even a limited ‘temporary overshoot’ beyond 1.5C, but remaining well below 2C, would lead to severe risks and irreversible impacts – especially as even such a limited scenario would result in the release of large stores of CO2, via wildfires, melting permafrost, etc.
Furthermore, the Report makes it clear that the capacity of the world to adapt to climate impacts will diminish rapidly the more global heating rises – quickly reaching ‘hard’ limits beyond which adaptation becomes impossible. Recently, some of those around the concept of ‘Deep Adaptation’ have begun to argue that the main thing climate activists should push governments for now is action to mitigate and adapt. However, while such policies are needed, as global heating continues to increase, there is a danger in thinking that there will only be one tipping point. Though we know that the Climate Crisis has been moving much faster than most climate scientists predicted, it would be wrong to think that, if we haven’t stopped it by 2030, then it’s too late to do anything more to limit global heating.
Most climate scientists point out that it’s probable that there won’t be just one tipping point, but several – some of which may be reversible, IF we take the right actions as early as possible. Though each tipping point will make the next one come sooner – probably creating a cascade of ever-worsening impacts – we don’t know exactly how long we’ve got before we reach that stage, so the right response is to keep increasing pressure to get the reductions in GHG emissions that are needed as soon as possible. On current knowledge, the right goal to aim for now is 2030. But, if we pass that date without achieving all the necessary climate goals, then we carry on – to 2050, or even until 2080 – taking action to avoid catastrophic Climate Breakdown.
Social tipping points
Nonetheless, things ARE going to get very bad during the lifetime of our younger generations. The devastating impacts of climate change are already leading to ‘social collapse’ in some regions of the Global South. The Report identifies five key areas – starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war – and predicts that ‘social tipping points’ will be crossed in many regions. In particular, the Report warns of huge increases in malnutrition across the Global South; several densely-populated parts of the world becoming unsafe or even uninhabitable; and the number of those living in extreme poverty rising from 700m to 1bn by as early as 2030.
The Director of Edinburgh University’s Climate Change Institute sees the increasing impacts of climate change like a “wrecking ball”, acting on a set of “global dominoes”, which “threatens to destroy the foundations of food and water security, smash onwards through the fragile structures of human and ecosystem health, and ultimately shake the very pillars of human civilisation.”
Yet, even here, it’s important not to throw up our hands and go down the route of giving up. History has provided plenty of examples of how people, in such situations, instead of resorting to a war of ‘all against all’, have often banded together to force their elites to make big changes – or have even overthrown them.
In fact, the prospect of such civil resistance arising from climate-related social collapse, which might eventually impact even on the Global North, led the Pentagon in 2018 to draw up a plan known as Zbellion for dealing with a possible scenario – as early as 2025! – in which young people (Generation Z / Gen Z- ie., those born since the mid-1990s) rise up against climate impacts, gross inequalities, precarious employment, under-employment or unemployment. These, of course, are the very people we need to embrace ecosocialism!
Atmospheric CO2 concentrations
The worrying aspect to all this is not so much that scientists know that the feedback effects from human-made global heating are happening much more quickly than in the past, it’s that they don’t know when really serious ones will come (though the evidence suggests they’ll come much sooner), or which feedbacks will be the most important ones in pushing the planet’s climate beyond crucial tipping points. So, while they can say that things will continue to worsen, they can’t put a definite date on when they’ll get really bad. As Jonathan Neale says: “This is a serious matter. And when we humans don’t know something serious, it is dangerous to pretend we do.”
What we do know is this: the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has already risen from 280ppm in 1750, to 313ppm in 1952 to 417ppm in 2020. Even if the rate of increase now stays steady, we’ll reach 480ppm by 2050. And that’s not all: the foregoing isn’t counting the methane pumped into the atmosphere via natural gas – or the greenhouse gases being released as current global heating thaws out the permafrost in Siberia and elsewhere.
Yet the COPs – including last year’s COP26 – have been very disappointing in what they delivered as regards actions, as opposed to ‘pledges’ and ‘targets.’ However, one thing to welcome from COP26 is that COPs will now be every year, instead of every 5 years. So we need to build the global climate movement even bigger for COP27 – and keep pushing as hard as we possibly can for the changes needed.
Six Degrees of Warming
Because, ultimately, each degree or half-degree by which we limit global heating will matter to millions – & indeed billions – of people in both the Global South and the Global North. A good overall view of how each degree will matter is provided by Mark Lynas in his book Our Final Warning:
2C: Arctic sea ice gone; worldwide drought
3C: Global food crisis; Amazon rainforest collapse
4C: Much of China & India uninhabitable; mountain glaciers gone
5C: Mass wipeout of life; humans reduced to polar refugees
6C: Possible human extinction
Although Climate Breakdown is unlikely to happen before 2030, it is very probable that it will occur – if the right actions aren’t taken in time – in the lifetime of my grandchildren, now aged 10 and 12. Already – mirroring the title of Hansen’s 2009 book, Storms of my grandchildren – they’ve experienced one ‘record-breaking’ catastrophic flood of their house (2015) and two highly-destructive wind-storms (2021 and 2022).
The point is that a world 2C hotter than it was in 1750 would be worse than a world that was 1.5C hotter – ie. even rises of 0.5C are important. So we can’t stop fighting for climate action – because every gain will matter. As Jonathan Neale has said: “…there will not be a point where it will make sense to stop trying to limit the damage.”
Right now, the ‘Big Carbon’ arsonists – and their political stooges – in the UK & elsewhere, are using the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to bring back fracking, develop more oil and gas fields, massively expand nuclear energy, and even open new coalmines. This is despite their knowing that new renewable energy projects, and a national home-insulation programme, can be rolled out quicker and more cheaply, and would create more jobs – as well as reducing the scale of fuel poverty. This is just what Disaster Capitalism does when it’s suffering a number of inter-related systemic crises – crises largely created by the richest 1%.
This is precisely why climate activism is not some trendy/hippy/middle-class fad. Above all, it’s a class issue, a feminist issue, and a race/social justice issue. As what happened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed, when the overwhelming bulk of the victims – working class/poor/women/black – were left to their own devices by the US government. Trade unions – and global trade union solidarity – will be crucial to winning this fight. And it is a fight: a fight for a safe, decent & sustainable life for the world’s 99%.
However: no system is too powerful for us to change it – whether in partial or more fundamental ways. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that united mass action – by trade unions and global movements working together – can push through changes which the ‘System’ doesn’t want. And even that such ‘systems’ CAN be changed.
Another – better – world IS possible: we just have to carry on fighting for it! Because, ultimately, the stark choice facing us really is: ‘Ecosocialism – or capitalist barbarism and extinction.’
Allan Todd is a member of Left Unity, an ecosocialist/environmental and anti-fascist activist, and author of Revolutions 1789-1917 and the forthcoming (July 2022) Trotsky: The Passionate Revolutionary
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