WeeklyWorker

08.07.2021
The human contribution to global warming is no longer in serious dispute: it is the solutions on offer which matter

Grim warning from Canada

Heat domes and devastating fires are ominous portents of runaway global warming. Eddie Ford warns that the future looks bleak - unless the working class organises to replace capitalist class rule at the global level

In recent weeks a series of heatwaves have hit the western USA and Canada, sending people fleeing for their lives. Power lines have melted and roads have buckled.

These devastating ‘heat domes’ have caused extensive wildfires, leaving many hundreds dead. Incredibly, on June 29 the temperature hit 49.6°C in the Canadian town of Lytton in British Columbia, smashing all records - it had to be totally evacuated because of a deadly fire that destroyed most of its buildings. By July 1, almost 500 wildfires were burning across British Columbia, turning it into an apocalyptic landscape.

There was a similar picture in the US north-west. Showing the severity of things, between 1894 and June 2021, temperatures over 38°C in Washington were only recorded three times. However, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport there were three consecutive days of temperatures above that figure - reaching a high of 42°C on June 28. California has been particularly battered by wildfires, spreading fast thanks to exceptionally dry weather and strong winds - which in some places were causing fire tornadoes.

Many climate scientists had not anticipated such an extreme heatwave, some calling it “unprecedented”. This is down to the effect of heat domes. Yes, they do occur periodically in the Pacific north-west, meaning that the phenomenon is not entirely new. But the sheer intensity of recent ones is what has made them unique. Underneath a heat dome, the air can become suffocatingly still, leading to dangerous air quality levels - especially when heat-fuelled wildfires burn in a region. In some ways, you could describe it as a negative feedback loop of the very worst sort.

Either way, 40°C is the sort of temperature you would expect in the Sahara. There has been a similar heatwave in Pakistan, temperatures rising to such levels in many cities - a high of 48°C was recorded in Jacobabad, while people in Punjab and Balochistan have also endured scorching heat. Even Siberia experienced a staggeringly protracted hot spell last year that lasted several months, while Oymyakon in far eastern Russia - considered the coldest permanently inhabited settlement on the planet - reached a record 31.6°C in June.

Normally, according to climatologists, this sort of temperature is to be expected in such places only once in thousands of years. But the probability is rising fast because of human activity - burning huge quantities of fossil fuels, cattle ranching on an enormous scale, emissions from cars and planes, and so on and so forth, which are clearly adding to the global temperature. All this runs the risk that more and more of the world will soon become too hot for humans.

Sea levels

In that context, it is important to mention the publication at the end of last month of a world sea map in the Nature Communications journal.1 This study found that at the moment, 267 million people worldwide live on land less than two metres above sea level. Using a remote sensing method called Lidar - which pulsates laser light across coastal areas to measure elevation on the Earth’s surface - the researchers predicted that by 2100, with a one metre sea level rise and zero population growth, that number could increase to 410 million.

If the present trend continues, the Earth’s oceans will rise and, as a consequence, 410 million people will be displaced. A survey released last year by Climate and Atmospheric Science suggested coastal cities should prepare for rising sea levels that could reach as high as five metres by 2300, which could engulf areas that are home to hundreds of millions of people.2

Now, the authors of the Nature Communications study admit this is a fairly crude, broad-brush approach, which does not take into account flood defences and other means of protection. But it could mean goodbye to Denmark, Netherlands, a lot of East Anglia, Miami, New York, Alexandria, Venice, Bangkok, etc. Other low-lying places, such as Indonesia, Nigeria and Bangladesh, will also be threatened with inundation.

No doubt if sea levels keep rising, you would expect the authorities in the Netherlands to simply raise the height of dykes - they have the money and the technology. But that does not apply to countries like Bangladesh and Nigeria, of course. Indeed, given their sheer size - and the smallness of the Netherlands - you have to wonder if it is a practical project at all. What is clear is that rising sea levels would massively disrupt life - destroying agriculture and large parts of whatever infrastructure is in place. Even more to the point, where would these hundreds of millions of people go? They would be engaged in a struggle for survival.

When it comes to the prospect of global warming, it is vitally important to remember that we are precisely not dealing with a straight line or the steady continuation of present trends. At some point we should expect a qualitative shift. Therefore it is conceivable that the Gulf Stream, which keeps Britain with a moderate climate, could be switched off, while at the same time we could see extremely rapid melting in the Arctic and Antarctic. The melting of the permafrost in Siberia and Canada would release all sorts of greenhouse gases - not just CO2, but methane - which is far more dangerous, when it comes to the climate.

Anyway, please note it in your diary: in November we have got the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow. From the world leaders, expect plenty of hot air - which is definitely not a pun. Will we get any real action? Given how real the climate crisis is, we should certainly expect some kind of response. There are, for example, still plenty of people who remember the Great Smog of December 1952 in London. A period of unusually cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants - mostly arising from the use of coal heating in homes - to form a thick layer of smog over the entire city, which lies in a bowl. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 people died, and 100,000 more were made ill - making the Great Smog probably the worst air pollution event in the history of Britain.

Though reluctant to do so, the Tory government of the day was pressured into passing the Clean Air Act in 1956, which was in effect until 1993.3 The act introduced a number of measures to reduce air pollution - primarily a mandated move towards smokeless fuels, especially in high-population ‘smoke control areas’, to reduce smoke pollution and sulphur dioxide from household fires. Basically, that meant the banning of coal fires, transitioning over to gas and electric heating. Doubtlessly there were a lot of Tories complaining about the nanny state and how it should purely be a matter of ‘individual responsibility’ - like social distancing rules and face masks in the current Covid crisis. But the measures were introduced nevertheless.

Therefore, in the same fashion, we should expect governments to transition away from coal-generated electricity and take lots of other radical measures besides. As seen above, it can be done.

Sustainable

The real question, however, is this: do we think capitalism is compatible with achieving a balanced relationship with the environment? Not likely. Capitalism uniquely results in production for the sake of production, accumulation for the sake of accumulation. Production is based on profit, not human need. We know that there are a lot of needs not catered for in the world today. But we also know that there a lot of artificial needs driven by the advertising, car, travel, fashion and arms industries.

From our programmatic perspective, we want to go over to a system of production that is sustainable in relationship to our natural environment - which can best be done by switching over to a system based on satisfying needs, not endlessly chasing more and more profits.

What we are risking under the current order is the breakdown of civilisation and a descent into barbarism. Will the human species survive such a catastrophe? It is quite reasonable to raise at least the possibility of human extinction under such circumstances. After all, as the extreme heat events terrifyingly show, we are seeing the creation of unliveable temperatures. It is true that humans can survive when they reach well over 50°C if the humidity is low, but, when both temperatures and humidity are high, neither sweating nor soaking ourselves can cool us. Rather, what matters is the ‘wet-bulb’ temperature (given by a thermometer covered in a wet cloth) - which shows the temperature at which evaporative cooling from sweat or water occurs. Humans cannot survive prolonged exposure to a wet-bulb temperature beyond 35°C, because there is no way to cool down our bodies, even with shade and water. Such a wet-bulb temperature was once thought impossible, but last year it was reported that locations in the Persian Gulf and Pakistan’s Indus River valley had already reached this threshold, albeit only for an hour or two over small areas.

We must, of course, support the protests in Glasgow and elsewhere, but it goes without saying that protest politics are not enough. True, most people in Extinction Rebellion and other such campaign groups know that. What they are doing is highlighting an ever more urgent problem, not actually delivering answers. If we rely on the likes of Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, then the chances are that in 20 years time we could actually see a climate flip and face all sorts of unpredictable and disastrous consequences - possibly fatal.

This shows yet again that the Marxist project of organising the working class into a party with a strategic sense of the way foreword is absolutely vital. That project cannot be based on the idea of taking power in one country, but on human emancipation across the entire planet. The environment knows no national borders or limits; nor do we.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.co.uk


  1. nature.com/articles/s41467-021-23810-9.↩︎

  2. nature.com/articles/s41612-020-0121-5.↩︎

  3. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_Air_Act_1956.↩︎