SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 223 November 2018

The latest, starkest global warning

In October, cyclone Leslie devastated the Iberian peninsula, only the second time a tropical cyclone has hit Europe since 1842, the other being Vince in 2005. Climate scientists linked the severity of this storm to increased sea temperatures. Leslie coincided with the meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN climate research body, where a special report was presented that called for a new target to be adopted to restrict the global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, instead of the present target of 2C.

The report was commissioned due to increasing evidence that the extreme weather events of the past two decades are linked to the greenhouse gas emissions, mainly of carbon dioxide (CO2), that have led so far to a rise in temperature of 1.5C. Until recently it was thought that, if the increase could be restricted to 2C, the worst effects of global warming could be avoided. The recent extreme weather connected to the rise of only 1C caused a rethink.

The report directly compares the effects of a 2C to a 1C rise, with the clear and verifiable conclusion that an extra 0.5C will increase the risk of extreme heat, drought, floods and poverty. At 1.5C it is possible that 50% less of the world’s population would suffer from water stress, and hundreds of millions fewer of the poorest on the planet would face poverty as a result of climate change.

Heat-related deaths and forest fires would be more severe at 2C, but the impact on the natural world would be even greater. Pollinating insects would be almost twice as likely to lose half their habitat, with unforeseeable consequences for agriculture. Coral reefs would be virtually wiped out – at 1.5C, 10% could be saved. Sea-level rise would affect ten million more people by 2100 with 2C.

The damage to the oceans will also be less severe with 1.5C. There is already increased acidification and lower levels of oxygen in seawater caused by climate change, but marine fisheries are projected to lose three million tonnes at 2C, twice the amount lost at 1.5C. Ice-free summers in the Arctic, which is warming at three times the rate of the world as a whole, will occur every ten years at 2C, compared to once every 100 years at 1.5C.

Twelve years left

The IPCC has reaffirmed with more certainty than ever that climate change is happening now and that there are only twelve years left to avoid potentially devastating effects. Despite this stark warning, some prominent climate scientists think that the conclusions are still too cautious and that the risks are even greater on the downside than made out in the report. It is true that some of the dangers that are harder to predict concretely at this stage have been downplayed or omitted. This was probably done to avoid frightening major power governments which might conclude that meaningful action would be too expensive.

This approach ignores the fact that these governments have been unwilling to take any meaningful action to tackle global warming for nearly three decades, whatever the cost or level of risk. However, working-class and poor people can also have a sceptical attitude to the issue, correctly fearing that they could be made to pay for tackling climate change, rather than the big corporations responsible for the great majority of the pollution.

As a result, some workers are tempted to listen to the climate-change deniers, or global-warming effects deniers, who latch on to any ambiguity or inevitable lack of precision in the data predicting events decades into the future in order to discredit climate science. In these circumstances, the IPCC is doing the right thing, although probably for the wrong reason, in adopting a cautious approach – not taking the risk of giving the deniers undeserved credibility.

Restricting temperature rise to 1.5C would make a big difference. Yet, even if this is achieved, there will still be extremely serious environmental consequences. Although the report does not categorically state that avoiding 1.5C is impossible, the implication is that it is nearly inevitable. Out of the 90 ‘pathways’ (models) considered, only nine resulted in temperatures peaking below a 1.5C rise. The high likelihood of 1.5C is the result of decades of criminal inaction by the leading capitalist powers. It means that containing and then reversing warming must remain the priority, although adaptation to the consequences of global warming will also have to be tackled.

The report’s authors spell out what needs to be done to restrict warming to 1.5C, restating what has been clear for many years, but they add that immediate radical action is needed. They also say this will have to be on a historically unprecedented scale to have any chance of success. Carbon dioxide emissions will have to be cut by 45% by 2030, and industrial CO2 pollution by 75-90% by 2050.

This will require investment to be increased at least fivefold in low carbon technologies, such as wind power and solar, and in energy efficiency measures like building carbon neutral homes. The deployment of renewables will have to increase by up to 14 times. In addition, green transportation will have to be introduced, including electric cars. Massive reforestation must be started, since trees absorb CO2.

Can 1.5C be achieved?

Controversially, it is also proposed that introducing carbon capture and storage technology will be required to achieve the 1.5C target. This will involve continuing to generate power using the fossil fuels that produce CO2, but capturing and storing the gas before it enters the atmosphere. The problem is that no safe method to do this exists for the vast quantity of gas that will be produced.

What are the prospects for the unprecedented changes demanded by the report? Professor Jim Skea from Imperial College London, one of its authors, said: "We show it can be done within the laws of physics and chemistry. Then the final tick box is political will. We cannot answer that. Only our audience can – and that is the governments that receive it".

The response from the governments referred to was muted, even from those that like to pose as green. One reason is that previous findings from the IPCC included a much longer timescale for action, 2050. When radical measures are needed to produce results in only twelve years, paying lip service to the IPCC findings then effectively ignoring them risks losing credibility. Anyway, actions speak louder than words. The German government, which has long claimed green credentials, is currently pulling down forests to dig for coal. Another ‘green champion’, Norway, is pushing ahead with oil exploration in the Arctic.

Some environmentalists look in hope to China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, since it is now the global leader in renewable energy production. It is true that there was a levelling out of emissions a few years ago, following a reduction in the rate of economic growth in China, but greenhouse gas output has now begun to increase again. This is partly linked to the government’s drive to increase the number of polluting coal-fired power stations, while the available renewable technology is not being fully utilised.

Britain’s Tory government, which until recently also claimed to be environmentally friendly, is now carrying out former prime minister David Cameron’s demand to ‘dump the green crap’. It is championing shale gas extraction, which has restarted in Lancashire, after initial drilling caused minor earthquakes seven years ago. Apart from the danger of earthquakes and the pollution of groundwater, burning shale gas in power stations will generate more greenhouse gases, adding a further twist to global warming.

After the Kyoto treaty ended in 2012, the Paris accord of 2015 is the only vehicle for international action that claims to address climate change. Participating countries have made pledges of how much they intend to cut their greenhouse gas output, targets that will be reviewed in 2020, the year the scheme is meant to come into operation. There are three main problems linked to the accord, however.

Firstly, the pledges made are so low they will result in temperatures rising by a catastrophic 3C, a chasm away from the 1.5C the IPCC is calling for. The second snag is that these pledges are all voluntary, so there are no teeth in the Paris accord to enforce even these totally inadequate targets. After nearly 30 years of back-sliding by the major powers it would not be cynical to doubt whether the existing pledges will be honoured, even less that any promises made in 2020 will conform to a 1.5C target and, if they were to be made, that they would be carried out.

Finally, Donald Trump has announced that the USA, the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, will pull out of Paris, a move that will fundamentally undermine its credibility. There is, therefore, very little evidence that meaningful action will be taken by the big polluting powers, whether addressing a 1.5C target or 2C.

Systemic failure

This conclusion is not linked to the actions of any malign individuals like Trump. It goes much deeper, to the way capitalism as a system operates.

The world is dominated by a few dominant powers, whose governments above all represent ‘their own’ multi-national corporations. This handful of huge firms compete for market share and profits with their rivals in the other nation states and rely on their governments to protect their interests, in the first place, profits. This is a fundamental reason why any meaningful international agreement to tackle global warming has proved impossible.

Action on climate change will threaten profits, particularly of the politically powerful big oil firms, which stand to lose the most by a switch to renewable energy. Consequently, these corporations have successfully lobbied their governments to block any significant concessions that could have led to an international agreement on global warming that would have met the planet’s needs.

These firms look at the estimated short-term cost of radical action and conclude that it is unacceptable, even though all the studies show that the cost of doing nothing now will be far greater in the long term, due to the future devastation caused. The latest IPCC analysis is that it will cost $900 billion per year to implement the programme it says is needed. It is inconceivable that the capitalists will accept this and the blow it would mean to their profits. It is also hard to imagine that the present shaky world economic system would be able to accommodate such a rapid, radical change without major dislocation.

Yet $900 billion represents less than 2% of world economic output. It would be entirely possible, as part of a democratically organised socialist plan of production, to implement such spending without dislocating the economy or cutting across the other urgent needs of society. This cannot happen, however, if profit remains the driving force in the economy. So it has never been more urgent to overturn the present system and create the possibility of tackling the danger of global warming.

Pete Dickenson

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