| There is no Planet B placard Photo Ivan Radic CC BY 20 | MR Online “There is no Planet B” placard. (Photo: Ivan Radic / CC BY 2.0)

On the edge of the ‘climate abyss’

Originally published: Counterfire on May 15, 2024 (more by Counterfire)  |

A survey conducted by the Guardian of almost 400 ‘of the world’s leading climate scientists’ finds that a great majority of them have concluded that ‘global temperatures [will] rise to at least 2.5C (4.5F) above preindustrial levels this century, blasting past internationally agreed targets and causing catastrophic consequences for humanity and the planet.’

All those whose views were sought out were part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Nearly 80% of the scientists ‘foresee at least 2.5C of global heating, while almost half anticipate at least 3C (5.4F).’ A mere 6% had an expectation that the internationally accepted standard of 1.5C (2.7F) was still attainable.

A large proportion of the experts felt angry or despondent over the lack of effective action to deal with the climate crisis and pointed to a future marked by ‘famines, conflicts and mass migration, driven by heatwaves, wildfires, floods and storms of an intensity and frequency far beyond those that have already struck.’

Gretta Pecl, at the University of Tasmania, predicted ‘major societal disruption within the next five years’ and suggested that states will be ‘overwhelmed by extreme event after extreme event, food production will be disrupted. I could not feel greater despair over the future.’

The rate of global warming over the last four years is put at 1.2C, which is already producing major impacts, but present climate policies suggest an increase of 2.7C will occur, with a significant minority of scientists concluding that even this dire prediction is likely to be exceeded. Many of them also stressed that global inequality means that the effects of climate change will disproportionately impact poor countries. ‘I expect a semi-dystopian future with substantial pain and suffering for the people of the global south,’ one South African scientist noted, adding bitterly that the ‘world’s response to date is reprehensible – we live in an age of fools.’

Finger of blame

When it comes to pointing the finger of blame for this situation, a ‘lack of political will was cited by almost three-quarters of the respondents, while 60% also blamed vested corporate interests, such as the fossil fuel industry.’ This suggests that, while some are on the right track, the scientists have a much clearer idea of the process of climate change than they do of the social and economic forces that are driving it.

For its part, the Guardian followed up its announcement by interviewing a series of UN officials. These, very predictably, focused on appealing to fossil-fuel capitalists and governments to see the dangers ahead and change course. Alok Sharma, president of the Cop26 summit in 2021, felt that the ‘survey should be another wake-up call for governments to stop prevaricating.’ The official spokesperson for António Guterres, the UN secretary general, declared that the ‘goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C is hanging by a thread … They need to realise we are on the verge of the abyss.

While the survey provides compelling evidence that we should consider very carefully, there is little reason to suppose that those who have continued to drive global warming in the interests of profit making will be roused by this particular ‘wake up call’. The liberal media and UN officialdom may not agree, but those who can prevent climate disaster aren’t gathered in corporate boardrooms or around cabinet tables. It is working-class people, their movements and the struggles they take up that can make a difference.

Beyond the alarming views of climate scientists, evidence of how rapidly climate disaster is unfolding is all around us. I wrote an article for Counterfire in April on the prospect of another terrible wildfire season in Canada this year and this now appears even more likely. CBC reports that some 52 fires are currently burning in the province of Alberta and one of them, ‘classified as out of control at 1,000 hectares … is about 16 kilometres away from Fort McMurray.’ Residents of that town have been told to be ready to evacuate at short notice.

In neighbouring British Columbia, according to Al Jazeera, thousands ‘of people … have been evacuated from their homes as authorities warn that an enormous wildfire continues to grow.’ Residents of Fort Nelson and nearby Fort Nelson First Nation have been told that ‘it is imperative that you leave the community immediately for your own safety.’ It is horrifying that such developments are taking place weeks before the worst of the summer heat creates the greatest level of danger.

As fires burn in Canada, we learn from the Associated Press that ‘flash floods from unusually heavy seasonal rains in Afghanistan have killed more than 300 people and destroyed over 1,000 houses.’ The full extent of the catastrophe remains unclear and, as UN special rapporteur Richard Bennett pointed out, ‘the floods are a stark reminder of Afghanistan’s vulnerability to the climate crisis.’

Dozens of people have also been killed in Indonesia by mudslides of volcanic ‘cold lava’ released by flood conditions. A report from the BBC includes comments by Wengki Purwanto, the director of the West Sumatra branch of the Indonesian Forum for Environment. He stresses that the increased risk of flash floods is compounded by ‘excessive exploitation of natural resources and haphazard development.’

Intensifying impacts

An ‘explainer’ that the Guardian published to complement its survey of climate scientists, looks at what it means for ‘global heating … to soar past internationally agreed limits.’ Even at the 1.5C ‘benchmark’, which is now almost certain to be breached, major impacts are predicted, including ‘ice sheet collapses and permafrost thawing’. At 2C, major heatwaves would massively increase and ‘direct flood damage’ would double. If the world reaches a 2.7C increase, then two billion people would ‘no longer enjoy the benign conditions in which the whole of civilisation arose over the past 10,000 years.’ At 3C, some of the world’s most heavily populated cities would ‘end up below sea level.’

In his Capitalism in the Anthropocene, John Bellamy Foster draws a conclusion that the editors of the Guardian wouldn’t want to endorse. He suggests that the destructive course on climate that has been set is not the result of a bad choice that can be remedied by scientific evidence and appeals to reason. He suggests that the competitive drive towards short-term profit that is fundamental to capitalism is at odds with sustainability. It is, as he puts it, ‘this irrational system of artificially stimulated growth, economic waste, financialized wealth, and extreme inequality that needs to be overturned if we are to create a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality’ (p.75).

Yet, if capitalism has a destructive relationship with the natural world and creates the conditions for climate disaster, it is also incapable of dealing effectively with the impacts that it generates. Even in wealthy countries, the lack of preparedness to deal with the now inevitable proliferation of heatwaves, drought, storms and flooding is readily apparent. In the face of the economic and social dislocation that these impacts will bring, no rational and just plan to cope is possible in a society dominated by an exploiting class and shaped by the pursuit of profit.

On a global scale, the situation is even more dreadful. Poor countries that contribute the least to the climate crisis pay the greatest price for it. They lack the resources and the infrastructure to respond and rebuild when they face climate impacts. Their capacity to cope is further undermined by exploitation and ruinous debt loads.

We need to unite in practical struggles for immediate measures to reduce emissions and to protect populations in the face of the effects of climate change. Certainly, there is every reason to believe that real and vital gains can and must be won in this way. At the same time, however, the dire situation and grim predictions that the survey of climate scientists reveals won’t be remedied by appeals for a change of heart on the part of those in power. The struggle for climate justice must be part of a challenge to the capitalist system itself.

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.