Scorching weather and climate
Things have been hot, but there is more to climate change than increased temperatures, argues Eddie Ford
Have you been enjoying the weather recently? Yes, Britain has experienced very hot weather this summer. As it happens, we have not had record-breaking temperatures - though it might have felt like it if you live in Porthmadog, Wales, with the mercury soaring at one point to 33°, this year’s record. Why bother going to Istanbul or Rome?
However, it is extremely unlikely now that we will beat the hottest temperature ever recorded for the country, which was 38.5° in Faversham, Kent on August 10 2003. And we are definitely a long way from the famous (or notorious) summer of 1976, which I remember well, when temperatures in June topped 32° in parts of the country for 15 consecutive days - leading to the passing of an ‘emergency’ Drought Act by the Labour government and the appointment of a minister for drought, Denis Howell. There was widespread water rationing that year, with gardeners banned from using hosepipes - enforced by regular street patrols. Several villages, towns and cities were besieged by plagues of starving ladybirds and a forest fire destroyed 50,000 trees at Hurn Forest in Dorset.
Interestingly, the UK Met Office at the moment does not have an official definition of a ‘heat wave’ - not that this prevented weather ‘experts’ in the media from happily using the term at the end of May after temperatures had nudged the low 30s for an entire week. Having a go, the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organisation defines a heat wave as a period during which the daily maximum temperature exceeds the maximum normal temperature by 5° for more than five consecutive days, meaning that heat waves are not that rare. Some meteorologists would rather describe the recent bout of weather as a “hot spell”, not a heat wave, on the grounds that qualifying temperatures must be at least 30° over two consecutive days, plus an overnight temperature of at least 15° in between (not yet reached anywhere, unlike 1976).
Fairly obviously, the hot, dry weather has been generally bad news for flora and fauna. There has been a string of devastating blazes on moorland, especially Saddleworth Moor near Manchester, which took weeks to extinguish. In particular, high temperatures pose a threat to many of our favourite garden birds, such as robins, blue tits and blackbirds. Many farmers have become increasingly worried about the impact on crops and cattle, with the Environment Agency calling upon the public to watch for fish “gasping” in the hot weather due to lower oxygen levels in the water. Conversely, there has been a significant increase in the number of bloodsucking horseflies, now at levels commonly found in Mediterranean countries. There also appears to be a surfeit of pollen beetles and flying ants in some parts of the country, whilst butterfly and bee numbers are expected to rise as a result of the hot weather too - which is good news, given the near catastrophic decline of bees and other pollinators that play such a vital role in the ecosystem, especially with regards to food crops and wild flowers. When it comes to changes in the weather, there are always winners and losers.
The cause of the recent hot spell or heat wave, whatever the exact scientific definition, has been the jet stream - dragging a belt of high pressure across the country, blocking out cloud and rain and sucking in warm air from southern Europe. This has been combined with long days in June and July, when the sun is at its highest in the sky, making the temperatures rocket. You will not be astonished to discover that sales of ice cream have increased by 24% this year with demand for quiche up 11% - along with a corresponding lettuce shortage.
Over the past 12 months or so there has been an outbreak of extreme heat events, especially forest fires, across the globe from Canada and the United States to Portugal and Japan. In fact, in Europe alone there have been 450 large-scale fires this year, 40% up on the annual average this decade. Though it might sound initially weird - even something out of a dystopian science fiction movie - there have been fires burning inside the Arctic Circle because the forests have become unusually combustible due to the very hot weather and drought.
Therefore, perhaps incredibly, fire has swept parts of Lapland after two freakishly hot, dry months. In just 12 days last month, there were eight wildfires, the biggest of which tore across an area of boreal forest the size of 900 football pitches and sent smoke billowing through the Lule valley. In order to cope, the local fire station in the bucolic Lapland town of Jokkmokk - normally staffed by three full-timers and a team of volunteers - had to call in reinforcements from neighbouring regions, army personnel, home guard members and volunteers from the small local community, including refugees. They hired helicopters, bulldozers and excavators and on some days the team membership swelled to 130. Sweden has experienced 65 fires already this year, most of them in the south and centre of the country, as compared to an annual average of three fires over the past decade. Feeling the stress, Sweden has appealed for help under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism - seeing France dispatch soldiers, Italy water bombing aircraft, while Denmark, Norway and Estonia also provided firefighters and equipment.
Massive wildfires have also engulfed Siberia - yes, you read that right. True, every year Siberia is struck by wildfires that destroy great swathes of boreal forest. Yet the current fires which started in late June are burning at extraordinary rates unheard of in at least 10,000 years, having already burned roughly 538 square kilometres (133,000 acres) of forest in southern Siberia - the smoke reaching all the way to Canada. As everybody knows, we are seeing increasing temperatures across the globe, but northernmost regions, like Siberia, are experiencing temperature inclines at twice the rate. Since November, temperatures in southern Siberia have been up 4° from the average. And, as the weather turns drier and warmer, the forests in the region become more and more prone to wildfires.
This poses a direct threat to the ecology of the entire planet, as each year the Russian forests absorb a net 500 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, making up nearly 10% of the land surface and housing more than 30% of the carbon on Earth. Consequently, when these forests burn, they release vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere - the loss of carbon absorption in combination with the release of carbon, creating a vicious cycle that leads to more global warming and, as a result, more wildfires. Just as alarmingly, these wildfires can also hasten the melting of Arctic ice, already vanishing at frightening rates - with enormous blankets of soot falling on snow and ice, thereby darkening their surface and causing them to absorb more sunlight. Alas, fires of this nature are not confined to Siberia. Over the past decade there have been a series of destructive wildfires in Canada and Alaska as well - last year, a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta became the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. According to a recent study, the wildfire season in Alaska is 40% longer and large fires twice as common as they were 75 years ago. Things are looking bad.
Nevertheless, when discussing extreme weather events, we obviously do need to talk about climate as well. While specific weather events like heat waves, floods, wildfires, etc cannot be directly attributed to global warming (thanks to the rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere), it is equally true that there is a correlation of some sort between climate change and the increasing frequency of natural disasters. Scientists are saying that the world appears to be well on the way to a 1.5° increase in temperature, compared to pre-industrial times, by 2040, some fearing that it is likely to exceed 2° - which was the Paris agreement target signed in 2016. In theory, this committed more than 170 countries to limit global warming to “well below” 2°. But it goes almost without saying that many of the signatories have not made any real efforts to reach that target, quite often because of intense domestic political pressures and a desire to get re-elected.
The potential outcome of such a rise in temperature is horrendous. We could see mass relocation of populations, chronic and repeated water shortages, and increased conflicts - some military - caused by displacement and diminishing resources, both natural and human-made.
When you read up on the subject of climate change and global warming, it helps to understand a bit of Marxism: ie, ideas about quantitative and qualitative development. Meaning that it is not a question of temperature simply going up steadily and incrementally, year by year and decade after decade. Instead, at some stage you hit a trigger point that leads to a sudden and dramatic shift in global climate pattern - a qualitative development or change, whether wanted or not. That is why in fossil records you see not only meteorite strikes like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, which turned out to be good news for mammals - especially us hominoids - but shifts from one climate system to another.
This explains why bourgeois commentary, and that of most politicians, go on about adaptation - which is quite sensible on one level. For example, you build houses that can be cooler in summer and warmer in winter and introduce more electric cars, fire breaks, parks, better land management, and so on. But these little doses of palliative care fail to grasp the enormity of the problem facing humanity. As we have seen above, it is certainly true that, if you take the poorer countries, their people are far more heavily hit by extreme weather events than those in the more advanced countries.
On the other hand, they are now talking about building a second Thames barrier. You do not need to be a genius to realise that if water levels rise by a critical amount thanks to new weather patterns, such barriers will quickly become an utter irrelevance, as central London will find itself underwater - something almost too dreadful to contemplate, yet, we must, if we want to avoid a human catastrophe. Ironically, showing the utter irrationality of capitalism, you regularly read in the financial press and Sunday magazines about how waterside properties command increasingly high resale prices’ - precisely the sort of properties that will eventually be swept away if nothing serious is done about global warming.
Anyhow, we discover in the Financial Times that there are benefits to global warming - apparently the forests that have just been burnt down in Sweden will grow back faster, and the wine industry in southern England will get a boost. There will also be near infinite demand for ice cream and sunglasses. How marvellous. But we need to approach this vitally important question seriously, not on the superficial level of saying it is really, really, hot today - gosh, it must be global warming. Not very useful or empowering. Having said that, a detailed look at the scientific data reveals abundant evidence that the climate is undergoing relatively rapid change, whether it be rising sea temperatures or melting ice sheets. Something is happening, and it looks bad.
Communists are the first to recognise, contrary to modern myth, that, when it comes to climate change, it is not just a question of human activity - you can have sunspots and solar storms, or loads more clouds, for various reasons that essentially have nothing to do with what we get up to on this planet.1 Human beings are not the centre of the universe. But, when all is said and done, human industry is a hugely important factor, when it comes to global warming.
Therefore, logically, human beings can do something about it. Even if it has become too late to entirely reverse the damage and things have gone beyond the tipping point, at least we can heavily mitigate it - which could mean saving many millions from dying of drowning or drought, and entire species from extinction. The only realistic programme is democratic control over human economic activity - which immediately poses the necessity of socialism.
Social murder and Syriza
Nature cannot be blamed for everything. There are political factors too
We have all seen the gruesome headlines about the recent wildfires outside Athens that left at least 91 dead and some 25 still missing, mostly from Mati - a small seaside resort surrounded by pine forests. Yes, global warming might have been a contributory factor if you want to look at things on the very biggest scale - but the central factor was poor infrastructure, especially when you consider that Greece has not suffered a prolonged hot spell/heat wave this year. Rather, the blaze was so devastating because of the resort’s dense and anarchic (often illegal) housing construction, exceptional gale-force winds of up to 124 km per hour and appallingly slow response times from the emergency services. On top of that, Mati this year failed to complete an annual cleaning of undergrowth required by law, hence leaving a thick layer of highly combustible pine needles and dead branches on pavements and in public spaces around the resort.
Of course, the Syriza government has presided over a regime of vicious austerity - including, naturally enough, severe budget cuts to the emergency services. Not so long ago, it has to be said, a large part of the British left was holding up Syriza as the ‘broad party’ model to emulate, with Alexis Tsipras the darling pin-up boy - the CPGB was regarded as mad for arguing that Syriza should not ‘take the power’ and remain a party of opposition. Anyway, justified anger is building up against the authorities - and the Syriza government. At an emergency meeting of the cabinet, Tsipras declared that he personally takes “full responsibility” for the tragedy - lamenting that, out of an “instinct of self-preservation”, members of his government could have “made too many excuses to lessen responsibility”. But things went from bad to worse later, when the civil protection minister, Nikos Toskas (a retired army general), told a hastily arranged news conference that, while he suspected that arson had caused the fires, he had found no indication of “grave errors” in the way they had been handled.
The Mati disaster is a clear example of what Engels in The condition of the English working class called “social murder”, whereby the bourgeoisie “places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death - one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet”.1 Quite correctly, John McDonnell last year on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show said Grenfell Tower was an example of “social murder” - being a concept with a “long history in this country”, in which “decisions are made with no regard to consequences” and “as a result of that people have suffered”.
This accusation of social murder particularly stands up when you contrast the Mati disaster to the wildfires in California taking place at almost the same time. The blazes have been considerably more ferocious and frequent than the Mati fires - so far nearly 37,000 wildfires have burned more than 4.25 million acres, but only six people have died, two of them firefighters. The explanation is self-evident: the US has a vastly superior infrastructure - though hurricane Katrina showed that this is no guarantee of a quick response time or efficient delivery of services, when you have a callous, bureaucratic machine that fears its own citizens more than it wants to protect them (possibly in the mix was also an instinctual or primordial racism amongst lower elements of the state apparatus).
In other words, extreme heat events like Mati are just as much the product of a dysfunctional capitalism under failing governments than changing weather patterns or climate change - if not more so.