The looming climate catastrophe

February 4, 2015

Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, reports on studies showing that climate change is even worse than we thought.

"I think I have said how much hotter than our own was the weather of this Golden Age. I cannot account for it. It may be that the sun was hotter, or the earth nearer the sun...The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of to-day. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man."
--The Time Machine (1895) H.G. Wells

NOT FAR hence, fans of dystopian literary visions of a future earth may no longer require the greats of science fiction to illuminate our minds with vivid vistas of a ravaged and desolate planet. Nor require the services of a time machine. Reading the latest scientific reports on climate change, one could be forgiven for interpreting socialist author H.G. Wells' 1895 vision of a far-future earth an all too possible and proximate outcome of the actions of humans today.

A factory in New Jersey pumps out pollution
A factory in New Jersey pumps out pollution (John Isaac)

According to data from U.S. government agencies NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 14 of the 15 years of the 21st century have been the hottest on record, with 2014 the hottest year of all. Commenting on the report, Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies made the conclusions clear: "This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades...While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases."

Nevertheless, using poster-boards and an easel to demonstrate how systematically the self-declared, "World's Greatest Deliberative Body" clings to outmoded AV technology as tenaciously as it does to outdated arguments, in January, the U.S. Senate saw fit to debate, as well as vote against (twice), what scientists affirmed long ago: Humans are the force responsible for destabilizing earth's climate, through the unrelenting combustion of fossil fuels for energy.

EVEN BY the frequently ludicrous standards set by the U.S. Senate, the vote represented a step backwards. Ten years ago, under President George W. Bush, a bipartisan sense of the Senate vote approved Amendment 866 to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, while an amendment, introduced by Republican Sen. James "It's a Hoax" Inhofe, was defeated by voice vote (44 to 53).

With six Republican co-sponsors, the successful amendment stated:

The Senate finds that--

1. There is a scientific consensus, as established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences, that the continued buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere threatens the stability of the global climate;

2. There are significant long-term risks to the economy, the environment, and the security of the United States from the temperature increases and climatic disruptions that are projected to result from increased greenhouse gas concentrations;

In the intervening years, while the elected political leadership of the country has backpedaled toward the absurd, the speed and effects of climate change have been put on fast-forward, with the NASA study highlighting the increasing frequency and severity of anomalous and extreme weather events around the world. Be they extended droughts, massive downpours or the changing nature of winter storms such as Juno, that barreled through the U.S. Northeast January 26. As temperatures continue to rise, so will sea levels, which helps to account for the increase in coastal flooding in New England and the severity of storm surges.

Nor'easter's like Juno obtain their power from the contrast between warm oceans and colder land, similar to "lake effect" snow. Hence, as climate change increases the temperature of the Gulf of Mexico and oceanic coastal waters, scientific predictions about more powerful storms are being born out in practice, even as the number of cold days, or the total number of days with snowfall, declines. Kevin Trenberth, climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, noted, "The snow season is getting shorter...But the interesting thing is you can end up with heavier snows in part because of climate change." While 2014 was not quite the hottest on land, ocean temperatures set a new high temperature record and are rapidly acidifying, as 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the oceans.

IN THE United States, as a result of climate-influenced changes to the jet stream, and its temporary and unusual descent southward in 2014, temperature records for the country were split between the anomalously hot and drought-stricken West and the frigidly cold East, as a graphic at Science News makes clear. According to a follow-up report for the Risky Business Project, a think tank set up by ultra-rich plutocrats such as Michael Bloomberg and other billionaires, business as usual (i.e., the type from which they became stupendously rich) will, by the end of the century, render regions of the country currently dominated by agriculture unsuitable for mammalian life on some days: "One of the most striking findings in our analysis is that increasing heat and humidity in some parts of the region could lead to outside conditions that are literally unbearable to humans, who must maintain a skin temperature below 100F in order to effectively cool down and avoid fatal heat stroke."

According to their report--which, coming from capitalists, also laments the negative consequences for labor productivity--the Midwest will experience a climate similar to the desert Southwest, while Chicago will come to resemble Texas. Not surprisingly, aside from direct human health impacts, the effect on agriculture and other plants and animals will be severe. Other reports illustrate the likelihood for the changing nature and expense of important foods and where they are able to grow, as well as the increase in frequency and severity of periodic climate disruptions such as La Niña.

Commenting on the way in which politics has gone into reverse, sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel University observed, "We are worse off than 2005...The resolution saying that anthropogenic climate change is real and we need to act passed in 2005 and failed in 2015...Ten years [later], more certain science, less political will."

How is it that, contrary to many people's hopes and expectations, we are worse off with regard to the official recognition of anthropogenic climate change after six years of a Democratic presidency supposedly focused on dealing with it than we were after a similar period of President George W. Bush and his "oil administration"?

BEYOND CLIMATE change, the issue is arguably even more grim. Of nine global processes that underpin life on earth, a team of international researchers has found that humans are already pushing beyond safe limits on four of them, "eating away at our own life support systems," according to the team. Alongside anthropogenic climate change, there is loss of biodiversity and biospheric damage, land use changes, and gigantic additions of nitrogen and phosphorus to the oceans from fertilizer run-off.

The lead author of the studies, Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, noted: "We are clearing land, we are degrading land, we introduce feral animals and take the top predators out, we change the marine ecosystem by overfishing--it's a death by a thousand cuts...That direct impact upon the land is the most important factor right now, even more than climate change."

Like increasing numbers of people around the world, Steffan believes that it is an economic system, the operation of which is antagonistic to the biosphere, that is the root cause. "It's clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter's generation will find it increasingly hard to survive," Steffan said. "History has shown that civilizations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn't change. That's where we are today."

Capitalism has only one core value: exploit humans and the earth to maximize and expand profit at all costs. Jørgen Randers, one of the co-authors of the oft-cited 1972 report Limits To Growth--which argued that unlimited economic growth and resource use would prove problematic for the environment and human development in the near-term future and which made predictions about what is actually happening now--is today even more forthright:

It is cost-effective to postpone global climate action. It is profitable to let the world go to hell. I believe that the tyranny of the short term will prevail over the decades to come. As a result, a number of long-term problems will not be solved, even if they could have been, and even as they cause gradually increasing difficulties for all voters.

However--similar to James Lovelock, famous for the idea of a self-regulating earth, known as the Gaia Hypothesis--rather than dispense with capitalism, Randers' solution is to dispense with democracy, in favor of an environmentally friendly dictatorship. While the millions of Chinese choking on pollution and arrested and beaten for demonstrating for cleaner air, water and land would no doubt strongly disagree, Randers sees the "most obvious" solution "to reinstall enlightened dictatorship for a time-limited period in critical policy areas, like the Romans did when the city was challenged and which is the solution currently pursued by the Chinese Communist party, with obvious success in the poverty/energy/climate area."

Which is to say, if we accept the premise that capitalism must continue, the answer lies in the "militarization of climate change." This is a concept that the Pentagon believes is absolutely essential to build into all future planning. Though many people around the world would apply the phrase to the Pentagon itself, for the U.S. war machine, climate change is the ultimate "threat multiplier."

In the preface to the Pentagon's Climate Change Adaptation Road Map, released in October 2014, which adopts much of the language and assessment of the scientific reports noted above--though for radically different ends--U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel writes in the present tense of the need "to assess the vulnerability of our military's more than 7,000 bases, installations, and other facilities. In places like the Hampton Roads region in Virginia, which houses the largest concentration of U.S. military sites in the world, we see recurrent flooding today, and we are beginning work to address a projected sea-level rise of 1.5 feet over the next 20 to 50 years."

One can only wonder therefore, how the hierarchy of the world's most powerful military machine are planning for anthropogenic climate change, while at the same time their political masters deny it.

U.S. POLITICIANS are not the only ones unconcerned with the reality of life on planet earth however. An even more powerful group of people, small in number, yet in charge of the direct running and continuation of capitalism, regardless of planetary destabilization, are similarly blasé. The economic and political power of this group helps explain why their outlook triumphs, even over that of the death-dealing military muscle of the Pentagon.

The professional services group PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conducts a survey in advance of the annual gathering of the ultra-rich in Davos, Switzerland--the event where the 1,500 most influential CEOs and business leaders from around the planet decide what they consider the 20 most urgent issues to address in the world. As a result of last year's survey, which registered concern for climate change at number 19, with only 10 percent of major business leaders saying it was a problem, PwC didn't bother to list it in this year's survey. In a separate survey, only 6 percent of respondents invited to Davos said climate change should be addressed by governments.

If irreversible global climate change and disruption to ecosystems and human welfare on a world scale was not even close to their number one concern, what took top spot on their list of risks, you ask? Seventy-eight percent of CEOs from around the world identified over-regulation by government as their primary worry and biggest risk to their business. This comes after 35 years of consistent and concerted neoliberal attacks on any and all forms of government regulation. It comes despite the fact that two-thirds of U.S. corporations pay no income tax, and some of the largest, such as General Electric, Boeing and a host of highly profitable Fortune 500 energy companies, spent more on lobbying politicians than they did on taxes between 2008 and 2012.

Indeed, not satisfied with dominating the energy market and being the main driver of climate change, the giants of the fossil fuel industry have been taking additional action to ensure they maintain their market share against the rise of increasingly cost-compatible renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar power. According to information obtained by the Guardian, fossil fuel corporations have slowly been taking control of the boards of solar and wind trade groups in Europe to promote natural gas as a cleaner "bridge fuel," argue for it on national security grounds, and slow down the adoption of wind and solar alternatives by watering down renewable legislation in the European Union. According to the Guardian:

Big energy firms such as Total, Iberdrola, E.On and Enel have together adopted a dominant position in trade bodies such as the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) and European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA). Their representatives now constitute a majority on both group's boards...Energy utilities and fossil fuel firms began moving into the renewable associations in 2010 as part of an intensifying effort to influence policy lobbying in Brussels.

MEANWHILE A new report by the charity Oxfam indicates that if current trends continue, within a year, the richest 1 percent of the world's population will own more than half of all wealth on the planet, while the bottom 80 percent will own just 5.5 percent. According to figures cited by Oxfam in their report, "In 2010, the richest 80 people in the world had a net wealth of $1.3 trillion. By 2014, the 80 people who topped the Forbes rich list had a collective wealth of $1.9 trillion; an increase of $600 billion in just four years, or 50 percent in nominal terms," which is as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the world's population, or 3.5 billion people.

According to Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report 2014, all that is needed to put you among the better-off half of the world's population is $3,650 per year--including any home equity you may have. Hence, the colossal inequality between rich and poor is truly staggering: less a pyramid than a narrow funnel that suddenly opens out into a gushing flow of gold at the top end. Credit Suisse calculated total global wealth at $263 trillion, which means that the top 1 percent currently own and control over $130 trillion.

In other words, if we want to protect the planet, save countless species, stabilize the climate and leave a world for our children as wondrous as the one we were born into, all we need to do is get rid of the rich and the system that operates in their interests.

Rather than lives of sacrifice, with the abolition of capitalism and the construction of a democratic, cooperative, equitable and ecologically sustainable society, the vast majority of the planet's population will lead not only far better, more fulfilling, safer, healthier lives, but be able to do so in harmony with nature. A society reorganized to value equality, long-term planning and sustainability via real democracy and production for need through cooperation, could easily cope with a larger global population, where all have equal access to the necessities of life, while having a smaller footprint on the earth.

Rather than stick to the "core values" of capitalism, a system which requires inequality, an economically exploitative relationship with people and planet, never-ending growth, war, racism and the systematic oppression of women, now would seem like a good time to organize "system change."

This fact is not lost on the super-rich, who, conscious of the growing levels of social revolt around the world, from the Arab Spring, to Occupy, to Ferguson, according to one former hedge fund manager, are busily plotting their escape strategies. Should the people rise up to reclaim what is rightfully ours, "I know hedge fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway." Let's hope they do.

HOWEVER, OFTEN missing from any critique of the economic and political power wielded by corporations to explain the lack of momentum in dealing with climate change, as clearly enormous as it is, is a further dimension of power essential to the successful operation of capitalism. In addition to an economic and political rationale coming from the very top of capitalist society to ignore what can now be regarded as an existential threat to human civilization, geopolitical strategy and imperial designs for global hegemony need to be layered into any comprehensive analysis which seeks to explain the policy decisions of nation states.

So the United States is currently using the "oil weapon" and booming domestic energy production based on fossil fuels to return to a state of planetary geopolitical supremacy. With 6 trillion barrels of the estimated 8 trillion barrels of so-called "tight-oil" in the world, to be liberated via fracking, within the borders of the country, and vast reserves of coal and natural gas, the ruling elite of the United States hope to emerge from a difficult period of political uncertainty, rollbacks for their plans in the Middle East and increasing pressure from competitor nations and civil unrest with a renewed era of dominance based on a reassertion of economic power. The price of oil having dropped by more than 50 percent in the last few months due to a global glut and overproduction has proven a huge boon to the United States ruling class, by bankrupting Iran, Russia and Venezuela--countries it perceives as opposing its strategic dominance in key areas of the world.

How else can we understand and explain the fact that President Obama can one day speak about the urgent need to address climate change in his 2015 State of the Union address, while a few days later open up vast new swathes of the Atlantic Ocean to the oil industry--something off limits to drillers since an oil spill off the coast of California in 1969--in addition to new areas of the Gulf of Mexico?

The United States has not only set fire to more fossil fuels than any other country in history, followed a close second by the European Union, but it fully intends to maintain that position. While Obama may have won praise from a few environmental groups for putting limits on exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an oil spill where drilling is permitted will not respect the refuge's boundaries. And we saw in 2010 how difficult it is to clean up an oil spill in the much more hospitable waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Ignoring the long-term impacts of climate change, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, commenting on the unprecedented increase, argued that giving away only 80 percent somehow represented "balance": "This is a balanced proposal that would make available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop."

No wonder the oil companies are happy with the Obama administration. Not only that, but the White House last year issued a "National Strategy for the Arctic Region" about the need to economically develop and militarize the Arctic in preparation for the expansion of mining, shipping and new forward operating bases for the U.S. military.

Furthermore, how to understand Obama's decision to cut short a state visit to India--having demanded indemnity from the Indian government for U.S. nuclear corporations in the event of a disaster caused by using their equipment, while chiding the country for its poor record on women's rights--in order to jet off to schmooze with the new rulers of Saudi Arabia, where administration officials assured reporters that no such comments or criticism would be forthcoming.

While quoting Gandhi, and just hours after lecturing the Indian people and government on women's rights, Obama was forced to defend the U.S.'s hyper-friendly and uncritical relationship with a feudal theocracy that publicly whips political dissidents, but more importantly controls such a significant portion of the world's oil supply: "Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counter-terrorism or dealing with regional stability."

Which is to say, women's rights and climatological stability take a backseat to continued oil extraction and the Realpolitik of accommodating dictators if they happen to sit on a big pile of oil reserves in a strategically important region.

It should be clear from the analysis above that if we are to avoid the fate outlined by the time-traveling protagonist of H.G. Wells' imagination, whereby the laborers and capitalists evolve into separate species on a degraded and dying earth, we need to organize a revolutionary reconstitution of social power that ends capitalism. Otherwise, "in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labor. Once they were there, they would no doubt have to pay rent, and not a little of it, for the ventilation of their caverns; and if they refused, they would starve or be suffocated for arrears."

Further Reading

From the archives