It is clear that there is now quite widespread public awareness of the fact that climate change is a reality and a serious threat to the future of humanity. And this is reflected to some extent in the mainstream media despite their reluctance to treat the issue as a real emergency. However, there is still a considerable disjunction between the way climate change is generally perceived and the reality of what is actually happening.
Most people think of the consequences and threat of climate change primarily in terms of melting ice and rising sea levels. This is certainly how it has been projected in the media as in the iconic image of a polar bear marooned on a shrinking ice flow. Or this Wikipedia entry:
For example, in 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (IPCC) projected a high end estimate of 60 cm (2 ft) through 2099, but their 2014 report raised the high-end estimate to about 90 cm (3 ft). A number of later studies have concluded that a global sea level rise of 200 to 270 cm (6.6 to 8.9 ft) this century is “physically plausible”. A conservative estimate of the long-term projections is that each Celsius degree of temperature rise triggers a sea level rise of approximately 2.3 meters (4.2 ft/degree Fahrenheit) over a period of two millennia: an example of climate inertia.
Or this sea-level doomsday simulator in The Irish Sun, which includes the statement:
Scientists generally agree that current levels of global warming means significant chunks of Antarctic sheet ice is at risk of melting. This would add significant amounts of water to the ocean, increasing the average sea level—and putting areas that lie below sea level at risk of flooding.
The 2017 National Climate Assessment found that a rise of 2.4 metres is possible by the year 2100. And a 2015 study published in Science Advances suggests that if the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted sea levels could rise by as much as 58 metres—although this is almost impossible in our lifetimes.
There are several problems with all this. First it leads to confusion about the effects of ice melting. The melting of sea ice, which includes all the ice at the North Pole, and some of it in the Antarctic, does not raise sea levels at all because it is already in the water and its volume has already been displaced (which does not mean it doesn’t matter—I will return to this). What raises sea levels is the melting of land ice such as the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps.
Second, although rising sea levels are obviously a major threat long term, they are not—unless you live in certain specific locations such low lying islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans (the Maldives, the Solomons, Tuvalu etc)—the main way in which people are going to be affected by climate change in the near future, which will instead be through extreme weather events.
Third, this all feeds into the idea of climate change as an event or process set in the relatively distant future, probably ‘not in our lifetimes’. This is reinforced by international conventions and agreements such as the Paris Accords and Leo Varadkar’s Climate Action Plan which are full of projections and targets for 2030 and 2050. Most of the time people are preoccupied with the immediate problems in their lives; work, paying the rent or mortgage, putting food on the table, the kids and so on. Tell them about something that is going to happen in thirty year’s time and the most likely responses are a) ignore it on the grounds that it may never happen or, if it does happen it will be after they are dead; b) ignore it on the grounds that by then the authorities will come up with ‘something’ to fix it. Even many political activists are likely to think it is a less immediate priority than many of the issues they are already focused on.
In reality, however, dangerous climate change is not just something for the future but is visibly happening now and has been happening for a while. I said earlier that the main impact of climate change would be via extreme weather events and their consequences. These could be listed primarily as; excessive heat waves, droughts, forest fires, excessive rainfall, storms and flooding with occasional exceptional and unusual cold spells. All of these things have been clearly on display across the world over the last 12 months.
Last year The Washington Post published an article titled ‘Red-hot planet: All-time heat records set all over the world during the past week’. It reported the following:
Numerous locations in the Northern Hemisphere have witnessed their hottest weather ever recorded over the past week.
Large areas of heat pressure or heat domes scattered around the hemisphere led to the sweltering temperatures. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports the heat is to blame for at least 54 deaths in southern Quebec, mostly in and near Montreal, which endured record high temperatures.
In Northern Siberia, along the coast of the Arctic Ocean—where weather observations are scarce—model analyses showed temperatures soaring 40 degrees above normal on July 5, to over 90 degrees.
On Thursday, Africa likely witnessed its hottest temperature ever reliably measured. Ouargla, Algeria soared to 124.3 degrees (51.3 Celsius).
A massive and intense heat dome has consumed the eastern two-thirds of the United States and southeast Canada since late last week. It’s not only been hot but also exceptionally humid. Here are some of the notable all-time records set:
The University of California Los Angeles set its all-time high-temperature of 111 degrees on July 6.
Denver tied its all-time high-temperature record of 105 degrees on June 28. Montreal recorded its highest temperature in recorded history, dating back 147 years, of 97.9 degrees (36.6 Celsius) on July 2.
In July of this year we learned that June 2019 was the hottest June since climate records began. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the average global temperature for June was 1.71°F (0.92°C) above the 20th century average of 59.9°F (15.5°C). In July we have already had another massive heat wave in North America and across Europe, including over 4O°C in Paris.
In the last day it is reported that Belgium and the Netherlands have recorded their highest ever temperatures. The Belgian town of Kleine Brogel in Limburg province hit 39.9°C (102°F), the hottest since records began in 1833. A Eurostar train broke down in the extreme heat, trapping passengers, meanwhile in the southern Dutch city of Eindhoven witnessed its highest temperature in 75 years of records at the Royal Meteorological Institute.
Between these heat waves we have had drought and devastating fires in California; 50 C temperatures in much of Australia; catastrophic cyclone in South East Africa; major fires in Portugal and Northern Greece; fires across Alaska and Siberia; drought in Southern India with one city of 7 million people running out of water; flooding in Nepal (90 dead and 1 million displaced) and Japan; a heat wave across Northern China; fires across Sweden; and Iceland erecting a monument to a disappeared glacier.
What is more, there was also the extraordinary cold spell in America in January/February of this year in which semi-arctic conditions swept down into the heart of the USA in what was a ‘polar vortex’ with temperatures as low as –30°C (The polar vortex is linked to climate change because rising temperatures in the Arctic affect the jet stream in the upper atmosphere driving cold winds south and drawing warm wind northward).
Time Running Out
And there have been many other extreme and damaging weather events, far more than can be listed here. In terms of the immediate future—the next few years in other words—two other current developments are immensely important and dangerous. The first is the melting of sea ice in Antarctica:
The vast expanse of sea ice around Antarctica has suffered a ‘precipitous’ fall since 2014, satellite data shows, and fell at a faster rate than seen in the Arctic. The plunge in the average annual extent means Antarctica lost as much sea ice in four years as the Arctic lost in 34 years.
What makes this so dangerous is not its immediate impact on sea-levels (see above) but the fact that white ice reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere whereas dark oceans absorb and retain heat. In this way this vast melting of ice creates a feedback loop intensifying warming. Second, the question of the state of permafrost (soil, rock or sediment that is frozen for more than two consecutive years);
A team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks said they were astounded by how quickly a succession of unusually hot summers had destabilised the upper layers of giant subterranean ice blocks that had been frozen solid for millennia.
The loss of permafrost is significant because it is releasing vast amounts of methane. Indeed, in the first two decades after its release, methane is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In other words we have another major feedback loop.
Perhaps most important and alarming of all is the fact that all these developments—especially the loss of Antarctic ice and the Arctic permafrost—point to the probability that the IPCC’s dramatic warnings and predictions in 2018 are in fact conservative underestimations of what is really happening. Thus Antarctica has experienced air temperature increases of 3°C in its Peninsula. Although that might not seem very much, it is 5 times the mean rate of global warming as reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And the melting of permafrost is 70 years ahead of most scientific predictions.
On 24 July, Matt McGrath, BBC Environment correspondent, put up the alarmingly headed post; ‘Climate change: 12 years to save the planet? Make that 18 months’. It states:
Do you remember the good old days when we had “12 years to save the planet? Now it seems, there’s a growing consensus that the next 18 months will be critical in dealing with the global heating crisis, among other environmental challenges.
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C this century, emissions of carbon dioxide would have to be cut by 45% by 2030. But today, observers recognise that the decisive, political steps to enable the cuts in carbon to take place will have to happen before the end of next year.
Again this does not mean there are only 18 months before we all die; it is based on a timetable of forthcoming UN climate conferences which, it argued, will have to take decisive action in order to avert catastrophe. But it reinforces the point that the scientific consensus is now that the situation is even more urgent than suggested by the IPCC’s twelve year schedule in 2018.
All of this has enormous political implications. Firstly, it means all the various governmental plans and international accords that we have had so far are completely inadequate. Any politician which speaks in terms of targets for 2030 and 2050 simply doesn’t get it. By the time Ireland gets its promised 1 million electric cars in 2030 or reaches zero neutral carbon emissions by 2050 it is overwhelmingly likely that irreparable damage will have been done to our world. And mainstream political thinkers just don’t get it. David McWilliams, for example, recently speculated in The Irish Times on the long term efficacy of Chinese investment in Africa, noting that by 2100 one in four humans will be African—a prediction based on current trends continuing. McWilliams imagines he is smart and ‘ahead of the game’ but in the whole article there was not one mention of climate change. In other words when it comes to ‘the real world’ of economics he imagines it is simply going to be business as usual for the next 80 years. There is no chance of this being the case.
Secondly, the whole question of system change not climate change is pushed even more to the fore. There have been innumerable debates over the years as to whether capitalism might possibly or could theoretically stop climate change. What is now manifestly the case is that it has not done so and isn’t going to do so in the time available. We are going to need socialism—meaning a publicly owned and democratically planned economy, producing for human need, not profit. And we need this not only nationally but also internationally, both to prevent runaway climate change and to cope with the change already built into the system.
Lastly, there will be serious resistance; not just from school students and Extinction Rebellion but from many different quarters ranging from indigenous peoples to organised labour. If 3.5% of the population of Puerto Rico can mobilise against their governor over Hurricane Maria, sexism and homophobia, and the people of Sudan can overthrow their dictator, then people will resist the effects of climate change. The key issue for us is ensuring that socialist voices and socialist arguments are heard within this resistance. The alternative—personified by the looming figure of Donald Trump—points in the direction of racism, fascism and barbarism.