Capitalism and climate change: more evidence of the growing disaster

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

The summer of 2018 has produced the hottest ever recorded temperatures across the northern hemisphere, and across 4 continents with an untold number of people dead as a consequence. Canada had an all-time record of 36℃ and 18 days that exceeded 30℃ with many deaths reported, Texas had 10 continual days of between 39-44℃, Algeria recorded 51℃, said to be a record for the continent of Africa. Tokyo, Japan had 41 ℃ with over one hundred people dead and many hospitalised; South Korea had its hottest temperatures too. In Europe Stockholm had it hottest July since records began and Sodankyla, a town in Finnish Lapland just north of the Arctic Circle, recorded a temperature of 32.1℃, 12℃ warmer than typical for the month. Quriyat in Oman baked under a minimum temperature of 42.6℃ for a whole 24 hours at the beginning of July. In the southern hemisphere parts of Australia have experienced serious drought for a couple of months. There has been disruption to industry and farming.

There have been some horrendous fires. There were said to be at one time as many as 16 individual fires burning on the west coast of the US, with several people, including 4 firemen killed; the holiday resort of Mati, near Athens, was almost completely destroyed by wildfires where at least 80 people died, trapped in homes and cars, unable to escape to the sea. Wildfires in Sweden devastated land as far north as the Arctic Circle, said to be an area the equivalent of 900 football pitches; some 80,000 hectares of forest were burning in Siberia. In Britain too, the hot dry weather which started back in the Spring, as in several other European countries, has given rise to parched gardens and grasslands with farmers using their winter food stocks to feed their animals. There have also been fires across some of the peat-filled moorlands in the north of the country that have been difficult to bring under control because they continued burning to a depth of one metre or more.

A strong factor in this heatwave has been the weak and unusual course of the Jet Stream, which is normally a key agent in steering the weather patterns across the globe. The recent Jet Stream has been extremely weak and has been in a position well to the north of the UK; this allowed widespread high pressure to persist for longer over many places. In addition there have been substantial changes to sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. “These are part of a phenomenon known as the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation,” said Professor Adam Scaife, of the Met Office, “in fact, the situation is very like the one we had in 1976, when we had similar ocean temperatures in the Atlantic and an unchanging jet stream that left great areas of high pressure over many areas for long periods, and of course, that year we had one of the driest, sunniest and warmest summers in the UK in the 20th century.” (Guardian, 22/7/18). But since 1976 there have been several decades of global warming - caused by the rising volumes of carbon emissions - adding to global temperatures. Consequently there is more residual heat absorbed in land and sea. We are also seeing a warming of the ice-caps. On August 22nd, the Guardian reported “The oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic has started to break up, opening waters north of Greenland that are normally frozen, even in summer. This phenomenon - which has never been recorded before - has occurred twice this year owing to warm winds and a climate-change driven heatwave in the northern hemisphere”.

The extreme weather isn’t just a case of excessive temperatures. There have been some storms and flash flooding too. On August 3rd across parts of America’s east coast 49 million people “were under flash flood watch” from Maine to the Carolinas; Japan had heavy flooding on its west coast, prior to its heatwave; in the Indian state of Kerala the worse monsoon floods in a century have killed 341 people since May, 191 of them since August 8th, mainly through landslides; 220,000 people were forced to flee their homes.

While the evidence of rising global temperatures and increased global warming is increasingly beyond dispute, the climatic characteristics do not follow a linear pattern. There are certain variables like the effect of El Nino, a strong weather front that brings extreme weather from the source of the Pacific Ocean. It was largely due to El Nino that 2016 was the hottest year on record at the time but the previous El Nino of a similar intensity was back in 1998. However, of the top ten hottest years on record, nine were this century, the other is 1998. According to Sybren Drifhout, professor of physical geography and climate physics at Southampton University, there has been a lapse in global warming at the beginning of the 21st century, a phenomenon known as “global warming hiatus” (despite this, the summer heatwave of 2003 across Europe was responsible for thousands of deaths, mainly the elderly), while agreeing the evidence points to an increased likelihood of a recurrence of hot summers. His predictions are that heatwaves will now become more frequent: “if (our) new predictions are correct, we are heading for a less benign phase where natural forces amplify the affects of man-made climate change.” (The Times, 15/08/18). The new forecast from an international team including the researchers of Southampton University suggests there is “a 58% chance that the Earth’s overall temperature from 2018 through 2022 would be anomalously warm, and a 69% chance that the oceans would be” (ibid).

Nasa (the US space agency) says that the past four years have been the four warmest years on record. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in its 2017 annual report on environment statistics said that it was the warmest ‘non El Nino’ year on record, that sea levels reached an all-time high, that both poles saw a record low ice and it was the most active hurricane season since 2005, with the US suffering 16 major disasters with a total combined financial losses of over $300 billion. Much of this is the result of the three powerful hurricanes, Harvey, Irma and Maria that inflicted heavy damage on various parts of the US, Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico respectively. And it is warmer oceans that trigger more violent hurricanes. Previously 64 lives were said to have been lost on Puerto Rico, but a recent report from the University of Washington said it was almost 3,000, more than the lives lost with Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. The figures were made worse owing to the US government’s lack of response to the needs of the islanders.

Capitalism doesn’t have the answer

For the last 30 years there have been reports and international conferences on global warming, expressing the growing concern of the ruling class, but at the same time designed to make us believe that something is being done to deflect the planet from the catastrophic course ahead. An Intergovernmental Commission on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up in 1990 by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organisation with a brief to monitor the ongoing situation and to come up with strategies. It helped draw up the Kyoto Protocol which set the developed countries targets in reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; this process of monitoring continued up to 2012 with the USA and Australia opting out. ‘Developing’ countries, such as India or China, were not expected to comply since they needed time to grow their economies; the issue of the environment was secondary. So it was full speed ahead for China: “In 2007 China overtook the US as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases because it was so dependent on this fossil fuel (i.e. coal). For each unit of energy, coal produces 80 per cent more carbon dioxide than natural gas, and 20 per cent more than oil. This does not even include the methane released from mines, for which China accounts for almost half the global total, or spontaneous combustion of coal seams, which burns 100 megatons of coal each year..(...) For another two decades China would be trapped in a coal-dependent economy (...) ‘Even if China utilises every kind of energy to the maximum level, it is difficult for us to produce enough energy for economic development. It is not a case of choosing coal or renewables. We need both’, the senior scientist said.”  (Jonathan Watts, When a billion Chinese jump, 2010)

This apparent “half-hearted” approach in response to climate change, even from politicians who recognise the danger of climate change, shows that demanding that capitalism limit global warming in effect means demanding that capitalism cease to be capitalism. While the Stern report in 2006 points to the ‘economic sense’ of cutting GHGs, capitalism is not a unified system based on what makes sense for humanity as a whole, but a system of competing national interests where the only economic sense is based on the short-term and short-sighted interests of the national capital. In fact Stern demonstrated precisely why capitalism is failing to respond to the problem: he is all for recommending constrains on GHG emissions “except where such restraints would lead to a significant decline in economic growth (capital accumulation)” (quoted in The Ecological Rift, John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York). For capital, and its political representatives, sustainable development means sustainable capital accumulation in terms of profit, regardless of whether this is harmful or dangerous to human beings in the short (air pollution), medium or long term (climate change).

Global warming is considered to have increased temperatures by over 1℃ over the last 100 years of industrialisation. Realistic predictions for future global temperatures talk of an increase by as much as 5℃ by the end of the century, with the full knowledge of the horrors this would bring. We should stress that the most harm in the future will be inflicted on the poorest countries and their citizens. They are the most vulnerable to climate change. They have fewer resources to combat the devastating storms, the floods, the rising sea levels, the heat and the droughts, the occurrence of these extreme weather conditions. Back in 2009 we highlighted this: “A report made public by the World Humanitarian Forum’, (...) re-evaluates the effects of climate change. Because it’s not only a very serious threat for the future, with 250 million ‘climate refugees’ predicted by 2050, but also a major contemporary crisis which is already killing 300,000 people a year around the world. More than half of the 300,000 deaths are the result of malnutrition. Then come the health problems, because global warming serves to propagate numerous diseases. Thus, 10 million new cases of malaria, resulting in 55,000 deaths, have been identified. These victims join the 3 million people who die each year from this disease. Here again the populations of the poorer countries are the most affected because they are the last to have access to the necessary medicines. The rise in temperatures attested by all serious scientists has a direct impact on agricultural yields and access to water, and this again hits the poor first and foremost. (see WR 326, ‘Global warming: capitalism kills’). So the countries with the lowest GHG emissions that will suffer the most from climate change are those with least capacity to affect any change at a global, international level.

The Economist magazine has produced its own despondent assessment: “Three years after countries vowed in Paris to keep warming ‘well below’ 2℃ relative to pre-industrial levels, greenhouse gas emissions are up again. So are investments in oil and gas. In 2017 for the first time in 4 years, demand for coal rose. Subsidies for renewables such as wind and solar power are dwindling in many places and investment has stalled; climate-friendly nuclear power is expensive and unpopular. It is tempting to think that these are temporary set-backs and that mankind, with its instincts for self-preservation, will muddle through to a victory over global warming. In fact, it is losing the war ...” (The Economist, ‘The world is losing the war against climate change’ 04/08/18). In fact it is very easy for journalists at The Economist or elsewhere to show how bad things are, and what investors or politicians should do, although we have seen that it cannot be effective within capitalism. But what we need to say about Trump’s decision to leave the Paris deal is this: the danger is not that it will prevent the USA carrying out the measures required, but that he will fool us into thinking that by comparison Democratic politicians, or the countries still holding to the Paris accords, are doing something more than “greenwashing” the real problem.

Capitalism is driving the world towards disaster, reflecting its blind and destructive impulses and its historical bankruptcy. This leopard cannot change its spots or its course. This is why movements and organisations that think it is possible to make the capitalist system peace-loving, rational and sensitive to humanity’s needs are peddling illusions. The working class struggle will more and more need to take up the question of mankind’s relationship with the natural world, because it is the only force that can bring the juggernaut of capitalist accumulation to a halt and unite humanity in a common purpose. Duffy,  07/09/18