Sunday, August 21, 2016

Doom and Gloom

Climate experts from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are meeting to do the groundwork for a new report on the likely impacts 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of climate warming - and the options available to keep to that target. Under the Paris Agreement, leaders committed to a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average annual surface air temperatures to "well below 2 degrees Celsius" higher than the pre-industrial-era average. They also agreed to "aim to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, since this would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change." Accordingly, they agreed to see to it that global carbon dioxide emissions will peak "as soon as possible," and "undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with the best available science."

Most experts agree that the 1.5-degree limit is the highest possible to avoid reaching a tipping point for planetary climate systems. Increasing CO2 levels and corresponding temperature rise may trigger self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms that could cause warming to spiral out of control. Two examples of dangerous feedback loops: Massive methane releases from thawing permafrost in the far north, increasing areas of forest burning off due to dryness, or ever-larger areas of sunlight-absorbing Arctic waters no longer covered by ice sheets during longer and warmer Northern summers.

A recent 300-page "State of the Climate" report from NOAA, or the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, paints a deeply worrying picture of globally accelerating climate changes based on evaluating tens of thousands of new climate and temperature measurements. It shows that in 2015, the average global surface air temperature was one degree Celsius higher than the mean preindustrial-era temperature. Regionally, too, 2015 saw new high-temperature records, as well as regional weather extremes linked to the cyclical El NiƱo phenomenon. Warmer ocean waters have already had devastating impacts, for example on the world's coral reefs. China, Russia, and many areas in South America had the highest annual average temperatures ever measured. Regions in Europe, the United States, and Africa were the second-warmest since measurements began. Climate measurements show that 2016 is on track to break 2015's temperature records. This year is expected to be the hottest on record.

The independent Climate Central, using analysis of NASA and NOAA data, used a preindustrial baseline to compare temperatures for the first three months of 2016. It found in an average global variance of plus 1.48 degrees Celsius. But the latest temperature records could indicate that the 1.5 degree target could soon be out of reach.

"If we manage to stop burning fossil fuels altogether before 2050, we have a chance of staying under 1.5 degrees Celsius, or overshooting it only a bit," climate researcher Jacob Schewe from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research told DW
But despite increasingly urgent warnings, CO2 emissions have continued to increase year-to-year. Burned carbon that enters the atmosphere can stay there for centuries. Schewe and other researchers have long emphasized that the world can't just keep burning coal, oil, and gas at an accelerating pace, and then suddenly stop in 2049. We have to hit the brakes hard - and now, they say. That would translate into immediate, large-scale efforts to rapidly reduce and eventually eliminate carbon dioxide emissions associated with electricity production, heating and cooling, transport, industry, and agriculture.

There is much less uncertainty about what is going to happen than about exactly when it will happen. Thus:

We know that the last coral reef will soon be dead, even if we don’t know exactly the date it will transpire.
We know that the melting Himalayan glaciers will continue to generate floods downstream in Pakistan, northern India, and western China, followed by permanent drought once they are gone, even if we don’t know exactly when this occurrence will happen. The Andean glaciers will have a similar fate and impact on the Pacific coastal strip of South America.
 We don’t know how long it will be before the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets collapse, but we know that when they do the rising sea-levels will flood many coastal inundate cities (London, New York, Washington, Kolkata, Shanghai, etc.) and submerge densely populated river deltas (the Nile, Ganges, Mekong, etc.).

 In a best case scenario, global warming is going to get much worse than it is now and cause enormous destruction and misery. Droughts, forest wildfires, heat-waves, floods, hurricanes and harvest failures will grow more frequent and more severe. Climate refugees will number in the millions, then in the tens and hundreds of millions, and many of them will perish. These things will happen even in the most optimistic scenario. The worst conceivable outcome is runaway climate change that eventually transforms Earth into a barren desert under an atmosphere swirling with poisonous gases – the extinction of life itself.

There is a broad consensus among scientific opinion that the main action required to combat global warming is to complete as soon as possible a shift that has already begun towards a green sustainable economy based on the use of renewable energy but many doubt whether even that will be sufficient. If it is assumed that the continued exploitation of fossil fuels, subject to only some technical constraints then the required rapid greening of the economy is, therefore, contingent on the near-term establishment of world socialism. If so, it is hard to raise our hopes for our survival on this planet.

Some Marxists plausibly argue that capitalism is not intrinsically tied to any specific source of energy. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution ran on a renewable energy source – mills using water power. A potent Green environmental faction has now grown within the capitalist class and created alternative means of capital accumulation and the present situation is marked by competition between the green capitalists and the fossil fuel corporations both on the market in terms of prices and in domestic and world politics such as government subsidies, planning regulations, and tax incentives. This competition will be influenced by various and numerous economic, technological and political factors, making it difficult to foresee its course. After all, trillion dollars are at stake. But as the full implications of climate change as it hits home. People will feel increasing anger as well as panic. To the extent that their rage is directed against those responsible for the climate crisis, can do much to undermine and break their political and economic power. We currently witness such a popular mood against fracking and the resistance to the development of oil and gas pipelines. The optimistic scenario presented by the leave the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole movements added to the divestment lobby will halt much of the fossil fuel industry, but that this will probably not happen until the second half of this century. A victory coming too late to have only a modest and delayed impact on climate change. 

In addition to switching to a green economy what else can be done to combat climate change and global warming? World socialism would be better.

A world socialist community of one humanity could focus human effort upon the problem much more effectively than a world still split into rival nation-states and riven by class and other divisions. A socialist community would be much better placed than a profit-driven system to minimise and mitigate the misery and suffering which will be caused by the planet heating up. In socialism, we would not face ‘economic’ obstacles to the effective organisation of relief aid for regions struck by extreme weather events and harvest failure or to the relocation resettlement of climate refugees.   

But to end on a gloomy doomster note, under conditions of pervasive and intensive climate chaos where humanity survives only in isolated pockets or ‘oases’ of suitable habitats, socialism may no longer be a viable option at all. Socialism on a global scale – in fact, any cohesive society whatsoever on a global scale – may well end up being extremely difficult to envision. People must rise to a challenge of seeking and accomplishing change. The message of this post is a grim one; it is socialism or barbarism…if we are lucky.

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