Global Warning: Not adapting, won’t survive

The United Nations Adaption Gap Report 2020 investigates the world’s increasing vulnerability to climate change disasters and measures how countries are adapting to mitigate them – the gap between what is needed, and what has been achieved. It concludes that progress is insufficient and that the necessary money has not been forthcoming. The gap is widening.

The warnings are stark: “2020 was not only the year of the pandemic, it was also the year of intensifying climate impacts”, the report says. “Floods, droughts and storms affected over 50 million people. Wildfires devastated forests and communities. Plagues of locusts devoured vital crops in East Africa”.

“We have not heeded these warnings. Based on current pledges under the Paris Agreement, the world is heading for at least a 3°C temperature rise this century. If this happens, 2020 will seem like a walk in the park”.

Important warnings, but there is no ‘we’ here – this is not the result of you or me failing to recycle that yogurt pot. This is a failure of capitalist governments to implement the paltry voluntary measures they signed in the Paris Agreement of 2016. Ordinary people care greatly about their environment and are angry at the failure of governments. It is not ‘us’ but ‘them’ – the capitalist class. This critical omission fatally weakens the report.

The report begins by noting that finances for adaptation to the impacts of climate change have fallen “down the political agenda at all levels of governance” as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic. Curiously, the lockdown increased global warming by a small factor. The drop in carbon emissions during the lockdown will eventually be positive for the planet, but soot and other large particles from vehicles and factories block sunlight. The sudden fall in emissions of these particles during lockdown added to a slight uptick in warming in 2020. NASA announced that 2020 tied equal first for warmest year on record.

A study from the University of Cambridge found that climate change played a role in the emergence of Covid-19. “Global greenhouse gas emissions over the last century have made southern China a hotspot for bat-borne coronaviruses, by driving growth of forest habitat favoured by bats”. (Science Daily, 5 February, 2021) Bats are believed to have transmitted the new Covid disease to Pangolins, and from there it spread to humans. Once again, the neglect of the environment by capitalist governments has come back to bite them – or rather, us.

While capitalist governments plead poverty, unmentioned in the report is the fact that tech company profits have soared in 2020. The developed countries are currently spending $70 billion annually on adaption, the report says. This figure is dwarfed by just one tech company, Apple, which took gross profits in 2020 of $114 billion, a 12.3% increase year-over-year. There is a glaring dislocation between the vast accumulation of wealth in the vaults of the successful multinational companies, and impoverished public finances.

“There is a real risk that adaptation costs will increase faster than adaptation oriented finance”, the report warns. Inaction today, and for the past four decades since the first World Climate Conference held in Geneva in 1979, is accelerating damage and resulting costs, as more of the planet warms past those ‘tipping points’ that lead to world shattering events. Of course, there has been some progress, with one study estimating that in 2020 renewables became the largest source of electricity generation in the UK. (Guardian, 8 February, 2021) And purchases of electric vehicles are roaring ahead as costs fall.

But as the report’s foreword notes above, none of the world’s catastrophic climate driven events of 2020 has led to a definitive change of direction from ‘business as usual’ capitalism.

The UN report partially hides failure under a swathe of complaints about lack of good data, the need for more investigations, and better defined parameters. Chapter three assesses global progress on adaptation planning, and cheers the fact that 72% of countries have at least some planning at national level. But it then states: “In terms of quality, it is difficult to assess the degree to which adaptation planning efforts are adequate or effective in achieving adaptation objectives”. Difficult? It goes on to say “significantly less than half meet the criteria for implementability and monitoring and evaluation” – code for, lovely plans, little intension to carry them out. Not difficult.

In chapter four, Global Progress on Financing for Adaptation, we read the same conclusion: that there is “insufficient evidence” that available finance “is narrowing the distance to meet the increasing adaptation costs”. In other words, it is not. There is a real sense in which things are spiralling out of control.

In coded language we read: “The role of public adaptation finance in catalysing private adaptation finance is increasingly being tested as it takes on the upfront risks of investments”. Code for – multinational firms are not coughing up the cash, and it is largely public funds that safeguard public and capital investments. The only meaningful socialist conclusion to draw is that the top multinationals have forfeited their right to retain economic power in private hands. They are not fit to hold the planet’s wellbeing in their grip – they need to be brought into public ownership so that the huge wealth created by our labour can be used for the public good.

Chapter five, Progress in Implementing Adaptation, reveals that the top three climate hazards addressed by adaptation projects funded by the UN or documented in scientific literature are “drought, rainfall variability and flooding”. And again, “engagement of the private sector has remained low except for tourism, agriculture and the insurance industry”. It concludes that “evidence of adaptation outcomes, such as reduced vulnerability, however, is still rare to find”.

A study in January found that in the US, climate change was responsible for about one-third of the $200 billion in flood damages from 1988 to 2017. This is because extra heat in the air causes greater rainfall. On February 2, a study found that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is too conservative on the dangers of sea level rise. The sea is already poisoning fertile land across the world with salt. The oceans will rise quicker, the report finds, by 1.35 metres by 2100, up from 1.1 metres – quite a significant revision.

The United Nations pulls together the world’s capitalist governments, yet cannot stop wars, climate change, pandemic disease or starvation. This is not a question of the integrity of the many contributing authors of this report, among them figures on various UN secretariats. It is the simple fact that capitalist governments protect the profits of their own capitalist companies regardless of international obligations to the UN, signed at climate summits, and even regardless of the long term danger to their own working class – the people whose labour produces the profits they are defending.

The unlamented former president of the United States, Donald Trump, when he withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement, merely bluntly demonstrated what all capitalist governments covertly do (and Biden will be the same, covertly). They fail to stop global warming. And in this report the UN is merely discussing the “process of adjustment to actual or expected climate change and its effects”. Not stopping global warming itself, merely defending those facing disaster – the danger of the loss of their homes, their income, and their lives. Yet still, finance is falling behind the advancing threat.

In profit-driven capitalism caring for the environment is an expendable extra, and always has been, ever since the capitalist industrial revolution began polluting our air, water and land. Would a petrol driven car be cheaper to buy than an electric one, if the planet could bill General Motors for global warming? No.

The concluding words reiterate that, “in hindsight, there is already some evidence that the adaptation gap is widening”. The UN is useful as a resource, but useless as a tool to change the world. Those that produce, distribute and exchange the abundant wealth in this world, the working class and its allies, must take the matter into their own hands.

Pete Mason