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Socialism Today 158 - May 2012

The extreme weather link

CLIMATE 2.0 is here, it’s official. Recent studies have detailed how the high number of extreme weather events over the last decade is linked to climate change. Now the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published a 594-page special report, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (March 2012), which puts a weighty official stamp on the facts.

The IPCC states: "Observed changes in climate extremes reflect the influence of anthropogenic climate change in addition to natural climate variability". Socialists would replace the word ‘anthropogenic’ with ‘capitalist’, since a socialist society would have dropped carbon fuels at least 30 years ago, when the threat to our then relatively stable climate – on which our agriculture relies – was known beyond any reasonable doubt. It is not inherently people who perpetuate the pollution of our planet, but our capitalist economic system and with it the capitalists’ bought politicians, locked in to carbon-based fuels by the profit motive.

Like a game with loaded dice, the Postdam Institute explains that environmental disasters are becoming more frequent. (A Decade of Weather Extremes, Nature Climate Change, 25 March) Trapping more heat energy in the atmosphere loads the dice and means that the inherently random throw of the weather dice will bring up more double sixes, or environmental whammies. The IPCC correctly emphasises that exposure and vulnerability to these disasters "depend on economic, social, geographic, demographic, cultural, institutional, governance, and environmental factors".

The IPCC draws this conclusion with "high confidence": "Individuals and communities are differentially exposed and vulnerable based on inequalities expressed through levels of wealth and education, disability and health status, as well as gender, age, class, and other social and cultural characteristics". Of these, socialists would say – ‘with high confidence’ – class is the most important factor.

In short, in Britain, this means a two-year drought exacerbated by climate change, alongside its opposite, the increased risk of flooding. Bad as that can be, in Pakistan, two years of unprecedented floods affected 18 million people, and one in five flood-affected children are now suffering malnutrition. The rural poor suffer the most. The IPCC has placed some emphasis on the disproportionate affects of climate change on the neo-colonial world, which is to be welcomed.

Over the last decade or so the rural poor in Africa have faced dislocation and malnutrition in their millions as a result of crop failures, in part due to climate change, as well as other political and economic factors (neo-colonial destruction of local food production, war for mineral resources). While any one environmental disaster might have a precedent in the historical record, it is the sheer number of extreme weather events relentlessly pounding the world which shows the hand of climate change. A recent report showed that four out of five US citizens live in counties that have been issued with a weather-related federal disaster declaration since 2006.

In March this year, 15,272 warm temperature records were broken in the USA, including 7,755 daytime temperature records, after what Dr Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground, called "a ten-day stretch of unprecedented record-smashing intensity". Overwhelming the propaganda of the capitalist media, these events are driving home the truth of global warming to the population at large. In the USA, birthplace of climate change denial and the heartland of capitalism, a rising working-class consciousness of the world-wide dangers of capitalist inaction on global warming is significant.

Yet some climate scientists are far from satisfied with the IPCC report which, with long delays in its publication, continues to understate the seriousness of the situation. Joe Romm, acting assistant secretary of the US Department of Energy in the 1990s and now a biting critic of the Obama administration – and the web's "most influential climate-change blogger", according to Time magazine – denounced the IPCC’s report summary (published in November 2011) as "another blown chance to explain the catastrophes coming if we keep doing nothing". (Climate Progress, 17 November 2011)

Like many climate experts, Romm believes the "dustbowl-ification" – his term, now taken up by Nature magazine – of the planet’s food production can be avoided by a "world war two-style approach". Essentially, this means the adaptation of a planned economy approach. Marxists would also advocate this, although with the addition of democratic control exerted by the 99% – that is, by the working class – rather than the 1%, in place of capitalist market anarchy, in order to permanently solve a wealth of other issues.

In response to the publication of the full IPCC report in March this year, Romm wrote: "But as Kevin Trenberth, one of the world’s leading experts on the link between climate change and extreme weather, put it to me in an email: ‘I have seen the chapter on the physical climate and I found it quite disappointing… I don’t think it adds to AR4 [IPCC Fourth Assessment report, 2007] much’."

Romm says that the report fails to clearly describe what the literature now suggests is coming "if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path". For instance, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research argued in 2010 that we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on a moderate emissions path. This will, of course, affect food production and drinking supplies. A "very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa". Yet, as Romm repeatedly points out, the planet is on an extreme emissions path. This is not made clear in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment, which is now quite dated, so the latest publication is a missed opportunity.

On 26-29 March 2012, Planet Under Pressure, a high-powered conference of climate scientists endorsed by the United Nations, produced a State of the Planet Declaration: "Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale".

One of the opening presentations at the conference was a revelation of a new feedback mechanism: a compost bomb. Peter Cox, professor of climate system dynamics at the University of Exeter, explained that warming the planet too quickly causes the soils to "warm up like a compost heap, making the microbes work faster and generate yet more heat. This causes heat and gases to build up and an abrupt release of carbon into the atmosphere". (The Telegraph, 27 March)

The fuses of other bombs have been lit. In December last year, Nature magazine examined the feedback effect of methane being released from thawing permafrost, expressing "serious concern". On 20 March, the British Science Foundation reported that "scientists have told UK MPs that the possibility of a massive methane release triggered by melting Arctic ice constitutes a ‘planetary emergency’." This carbon bomb is frozen underwater methane in the east Siberian Arctic shelf, which is ruptured and venting.

Yet climate change deniers continue to misrepresent research results. The Daily Mail ran a lengthy headline: "Is this finally proof we’re NOT causing global warming? The whole of the Earth heated up in medieval times without human CO2 emissions, says new study". (26 March) The study showed no such thing. Yet in the USA, Fox News picked up the story: ‘Study Refutes Manmade Warming’ (1 April). Professor Zunli Lu said his study "has been misrepresented by a number of media outlets", and "does not question the well-established anthropogenic warming trend". The Daily Mail published the story despite being told it misrepresented the results.

In reality, extreme weather disasters are on the increase and will get worse, as long as the capitalist class, which controls the media, also remains in control of the world’s resources.

Pete Mason


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