Is there still time to stop climate catastrophe?

October 16, 2018

Phil Gasper examines the latest findings of the UN’s panel of climate change experts — and answers our questions about what they mean and what can be done about them.

THE LATEST report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is dire. The headline in the New York Times said there is a “strong risk of crisis” by 2040. The Washington Post said we have “just over a decade to get climate change under control.” How bad is it, and what do these timelines mean?

THE SITUATION certainly is dire, though we’ve known that for the past 30 years. What we now have are more accurate models of how serious the consequences of global warming will be.

One thing to remember is that the IPCC is a body set up by the United Nations. It is staffed by leading climate change experts, but it only issues reports that are acceptable to the governments they represent. So IPCC predictions tend to be very conservative. Historically, they have consistently underestimated how quickly the climate is warming and how serious the effects will be.

With respect to how quickly the climate is warming, we have pretty good models. In particular, we know the effects of pumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere. It’s simple physics that this will result in average global temperatures going up due to the greenhouse effect.

Devastation in the wake of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida
Devastation in the wake of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida (Petty Officer 1st Class Colin Hunt | flickr)

What’s more difficult to model are the so-called “tipping points” and feedback loops. For instance, as the world warms, the polar ice caps start to melt. We’re already at the point where the Arctic is almost ice-free during the summer. With less ice, less sunlight is reflected back into space. Instead, it’s absorbed by the ocean, which in turn speeds up ice loss, so even less sunlight is reflected into space, and so on.

A further effect is that as global warming increases, permafrost — ground that is frozen — begins to thaw, releasing trapped methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has an even bigger impact on warming than carbon dioxide — in the short term, although it does dissipate much faster.

This is another feedback loop: More methane released into the atmosphere means warmer temperatures, which means more loss of permafrost, which means more methane in the atmosphere, and a continuing downward spiral.

All this means that warming may happen even faster than the IPCC predicts. But the dire predictions in the latest report have more to do with the consequences of warming.

When the Paris climate agreement was signed in December 2015, the prevailing wisdom was that it is essential to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius compared to the average pre-industrial temperature. The agreement said it would be better to keep the increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, but 2 degrees was the goal.

The new report shows why even 2 degrees is too much. If we go above 1.5 degrees, the consequences will be devastating in terms of rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes, more severe heat waves, wildfires, droughts and flooding due to changing weather patterns, damage to agriculture, food shortages, accelerated rates of extinction and loss of biodiversity, the death of all coral reefs — the list goes on.

Of course, we’ve already begun to see these effects with only 1 degree Celsius of warming above the pre-industrial level. If warming reaches 2 degrees, the effects will be exponentially worse. If it reaches 3 or 4 degrees by the end of the century, the future of human civilization and even our survival as a species starts to come into question.

If fossil-fuel use continues on its current trajectory — which, incredibly, is still rising — then the consequences will already be catastrophic by 2040.

But we already know now what we need to do to address the problem, which is to eliminate all fossil-fuel usage by mid-century. If we haven’t taken substantial steps in that direction by 2030, then it will be too late to prevent warming from going over the 1.5-degree limit and probably much higher.

This will require enormous changes in how the economy is structured. The reports says, “There is no documented historic precedent” for what needs to happen, and that’s no exaggeration.

IS THERE any chance the new report will lead governments to take the drastic steps that are needed? This past weekend, Trump told CBS News that he doesn’t know if climate change is caused by human activity — and also that he believes the climate will change back again!

TRUMP IS an idiot, and so are the climate denialists who are running his administration. But the problem goes way beyond Trump.

The Paris climate accord — which Trump, of course, is planning to leave — is a non-binding agreement. The signatories made promises about reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, but there are no enforcement mechanisms, and even if every promise were kept — and we’re certainly not on target for that — it wouldn’t be enough to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The problem is that governments of every political complexion have prioritized the interests of the fossil-fuel industry.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, is remembered today as the opposite of Trump in every regard, but when he was president, he said he was following an “all of the above” energy policy — which meant some small steps toward encouraging the development of renewable resources, like solar and wind power, but at the same time, the expansion of fracking and the use of natural gas and oil.

Obama boasted that more pipelines were built under him than under any other U.S. president. The U.S. became the number-one fossil-fuel producer in the world when he occupied the White House.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in Canada has followed a similar trajectory. Last year, Trudeau told a conference attended by oil and gas executives in Houston that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.”

Leaving the oil in the ground is exactly what we need to do. But that runs counter to the interests of the fossil-fuel industry and the logic of the wider capitalist system in which it is embedded.

The size of the fossil-fuel industry is mind-boggling. There is more capital invested in it than any other industry. The major oil and gas companies make tens of billions of dollars in profits each year, and the total value of existing fossil fuel and nuclear power infrastructure is at least $15 trillion.

Most of this infrastructure has decades of possible further use. But in order to solve the climate crisis, we need to shut it down almost immediately and invest in renewable energy.

The people who own and profit from the existing system obviously won’t let that happen without a huge fight. That’s why they’ve been funding climate denialism for decades, both through sponsorship of think tanks and large campaign contributions to right-wing politicians.

As we now know, Exxon, Shell and other major oil companies knew of the risks of global warming as early as the 1970s from their own research, but they buried it in order to continue making profits.

GIVEN THE institutional opposition to change, is there any realistic way in which the kind of transformations necessary can actually happen?

I DON’T know what the chances are, but I do know that radical change only happens when mass movements demand it.

But we have to start by being clear that the problems are political, not technical. A study published in 2015 by a group of researchers at Stanford led by Mark Jacobson found that a transition to 100 percent wind, water and solar power for all purposes — electricity, transportation, heating/cooling and industry — could be achieved in the continental U.S. between 2050 and 2055.

The Jacobson study was criticized by another group of researchers, but they began by conceding that 80 percent of energy needs could be fulfilled by renewables by 2050.

Even if the lower figure is accurate, that’s enough, because the Jacobson plan is based on replacing current energy use, but we need, hand in hand with a transition to renewables, massive gains in efficiency and conservation.

But we should also be clear that the problem can’t be solved if we remain within the confines of our present economic system, which is based on maximizing profit. Green capitalism is a contradiction in terms.

Reducing emissions will require reducing the size of the global economy, and that runs headlong into the way that capitalist economies are organized.

The dynamic of capitalism is based on production for exchange, not for use. In capitalist economies, a small minority, driven by competition and the search for ever-greater profits, controls the means of production. The system imposes a drive to accumulate on individual capitalists, and this results in a focus on short-term gains that ignores the long-term effects of production, including its consequences for the natural environment.

The measure of success for capitalists is growth and accumulation. If any individual corporate executive tries to buck the trend, they will either be replaced, or their company will go out of business. Endless growth is built into the system.

The problem is that endless growth is impossible on a finite planet.

Capitalism has opened up what Karl Marx called a “metabolic rift” between human societies and the rest of nature — a disruption between social systems and natural systems. The processes necessary to sustain capitalist society put it at odds with the natural world.

What we need now is a revival of mass protest on a global scale with the immediate aim of ending fossil-fuel production, but which also understands the need to completely reorganize the way our economy works.

There are a lot of efforts today — a lot more than in the past, in fact — which are dedicated to climate justice, such as stopping pipelines and protesting coal plants, to name a couple. Those are vital struggles, not only for the short-term advances they would represent, but in building up a movement that can set its sights on an eco-socialist economy, in which sustainability and human need take priority over corporate profits.

Ultimately, the question is whether we can build that kind of movement fast enough.

One hundred years ago, Rosa Luxemburg said that we’re faced with a choice between socialism and barbarism. The details of capitalist barbarism may have changed, but I think that remains true today.

Further Reading

From the archives