Code red for humanity
The IPCC report is out and what it says is grim, says Eddie Ford: major climate change is ‘inevitable’ and ‘irreversible’. Objective circumstances cry out for the left to agitate, educate and organise around a far-reaching minimum programme to prepare the working class to take power on a global scale
Eight years in the making, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sixth assessment report was finally published this week.1 Mandated by the United Nations to provide “objective scientific information” relevant to understanding human-induced climate change, the study marshals the work of thousands of scientists throughout the world and near countless peer-reviewed studies.
In turn, the report’s summary was reviewed by representatives from 195 countries and will form the basis for negotiations at the Cop26 global climate conference, which will take place in Glasgow in November. Each country is required to come to the conference with “fresh plans” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level that will limit global heating to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This, of course, is the stated ambition of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change and a goal that the IPCC reckons is still possible - but “only just”; and only if “urgent action” is agreed upon in the run-up to and during Cop26. That is an awful lot of ifs and buts, which hardly fills you with confidence for the future.
Encouragingly, in some respects, the IPCC managed to override the objections of the Saudi Arabian government - which unsurprisingly took issue with a lot of the report’s wording, seeking to replace references to “carbon emissions” with “greenhouse gas emissions”, and so on. No doubt other governments too had all manner of complaints and doubts (whether genuine or venal), as there is always a tension between what scientists are saying needs to be done and what governments are actually willing to do. But “the science prevailed” in the sixth report, as one person put it - meaning that the IPCC’s finding were predictably grim. The starkly worded report said human-induced warming was “unequivocally” the cause of rapid changes to the climate. In fact, says the IPCC, it is “code red for humanity”, as human activity is changing the Earth’s climate in ways “unprecedented” in thousands - or hundreds of thousands - of years. Some of the changes, we further read, are likely to be “inevitable” and “irreversible” over centuries or millennia - including sea level rises, the melting of Arctic ice and the acidification of the oceans.
Total warming is “dominated by past and future carbon emissions”, states the report, but urgent cuts must also be made to the shorter-lived (but more potent) pollutant, methane - as it absorbs roughly 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Methane is released primarily through gas/oil production and, of course, cattle farming. That is, supplying vast amounts of relatively cheap beef to the western world, which mistakenly believes that it is a key source of nutritional sustenance. In 2018, there were an estimated one billion head of cattle worldwide - an increase of 6.5 million over the previous year - with meat production likely to rise, not fall. Beef exported from the US alone in 2018 was worth $7.3 billion, so we are talking about big business. Unfortunately for the planet, the constant farting of the cattle generates between 250 and 500 litres of methane per day each.
But, whatever happens to emissions, we will definitely hit 1.5°C in the next two decades, concludes the IPCC - we are at the tipping point, if not beyond it. Every fraction of a degree of further heating is likely to compound the accelerating effects: quantity turns into quality. Keeping to that 1.5°C target, preventing runaway climate breakdown, will require “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in emissions - of which there is no sign to date. Even cutting emissions, but only at a slower rate, would lead to 2°C and significantly more suffering for all life on Earth. It is a literal race against time. If emissions do not fall in the next couple of decades, then 3°C of heating looks likely - an utter catastrophe. And if they do not fall at all, the report continues, then we are on track for around 4°C to 5°C - representing the apocalypse, or as near as damn it. Even more scarily, the report outlines a “very high” emissions scenario that sees levels triple from where they are now. In which case, warming could reach 5.7°C higher by 2100. In the opinion of Tim Palmer, a professor of climate physics at Oxford University, if we do not radically halt our emissions soon, our planet could well become “some kind of hell on Earth”.2
As the report emphasises, there are no cliff-edges to the climate crisis - each tonne of carbon pumped out increases the impact and risk of extreme heat, floods and droughts, which means that every tonne of carbon matters. Therefore, in that sense, it will never be too late to act. But even if the capitalist class internationally somehow manages to get its act together by drastically reducing emissions, the climate will not return to the more moderate weather patterns we have been used to in most parts of the world. Even in a 1.5°C warmer world there will be an increase in the number of “unprecedented” weather events. Disasters such as floods and heatwaves are expected to become more frequent and intense.
There have been plenty of graphic examples recently of changing global patterns. Major fires in Greece and Turkey, not to mention the north-west USA and British Colombia - where at one point it hit 47.9°C. This is all part of a worldwide pattern of record temperatures. Alongside that we have had devastating flooding in western Germany and Belgium, which has exposed the inadequacies of their flood defences - and inevitably led to political recriminations. If things were not bad enough, we have the melting of the permafrost. Smoke from raging forest fires in Siberia has reached the North Pole for the first time in recorded history, with record high temperatures and the blazes worsening.
Then there is the alarming report from the Potsdam Institute about a possible collapse of the Gulf Stream.3 According to their research, they found “an almost complete loss of stability over the last century” of the currents that researchers call the “Atlantic meridional overturning circulation”. These currents are already at their slowest point in at least 1,600 years, but the new analysis indicates they may be nearing a shutdown. The normally temperate British Isles would clearly be affected: given that we are on the same latitude as Labrador and Siberia, our winter weather could get very cold.
Without doubt, climate and the environment are very much at the top of the political agenda today (though not that long ago you were dismissed as a crank, or worse, for raising these issues). Hence the front-page headline in The Observer proclaiming, “We’re on the brink of catastrophe” - quoting the UK minister in charge of the Cop26 talks, Alok Sharma, saying that humanity is “getting dangerously close” to running out of time on the climate question. It does have to be said that these comments are more interesting than the tiresome ‘scandal’ about him flying to 30 countries in the past seven months, as if it would have made any difference if it had been 37 countries, seven or none. Any more than cutting a loaf of bread in half and putting the rest in the freezer.
Anyhow, how is it going to be tackled? As Marxists, we understand that a capitalist society with production for profit is the major driver for many of the changes in the climate - if not the main determining factor. For many on the left, reasonably enough, capitalism is simply unable to deal with the question. That can only come from the working class movement and a socialist transformation of society - not just in one country, but over a wide area of the world. However, not even capitalist politicians are so blind they cannot see that something must be done. But, having said that, there is an entirely legitimate discussion about whether governments such as the Tories could ever carry out a programme that would provide major, significant amelioration of the climate crisis - after all, that would obviously require a drastic restructuring of society to restrict the average rise in temperatures. Therefore, the reasoning goes, the Tories will just let it rip. A leopard can never change its spots. We are doomed.
But, as we have recently seen with the Covid pandemic, or World War II before that, in times of dire emergency the capitalist ruling class will be quite prepared to suspend the law of value, allowing the state to carry out actions which restrict or curtail the actions of capitalism in order to maintain the system as a whole. This paper has written about the way the Tories in Britain, and other governments as well, have introduced a type of ‘Covid socialism’ roughly equivalent to the ‘war socialism’ brought about by the German high command during World War I - ie, the use of state power and state planning to deal with the emergency. The development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is a good example of such Covid socialism, pursued on a non-profit basis.
In terms of the general interest - particularly the general capitalist interest - governments will take what are usually regarded as extreme measures. Thus the spectacle of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, openly talking about tearing up the economic textbooks, and all the rest of it. Doing what is necessary. Keeping all options on the table. Thinking the unthinkable. Communists do not discount the idea that this could happen with the climate emergency. After all, we all have to live on the same planet (even if Elon Musk would like to live and die on Mars).
However, we have no illusions about any climate socialism introduced by capitalist states (or for that matter the CPC regime in China). As with war socialism it will likely see severe restrictions on democratic rights, attempts to drive down living standards, along with massive corruption and plenty of illicit profits. Nor will such a climate socialism peacefully, smoothly, evolve into proletarian socialism.
Whether the 195 countries signed up to Cop26 can really get their act together is, though, highly problematic. The capitalist system is riven with contradiction from the bottom to the top. Out of self-interest China, India, Brazil, Australia are all dragging their feet on carbon measures. Meanwhile the US and its close allies at the pinnacle of the imperial pyramid bleed the so-called third world white through unequal exchange, gouging interest rates, giving citizenship to kleptocrats and their ill-gotten lucre, imposing horrendous IMF and World Bank ‘restructuring’ programmes, etc.
Hence the likely possibility that what we will see coming from Glasgow will be a mixture of empty gestures, fudges and the floating of pseudo-solutions - a danger which communists must seek to expose. Such as the notion promoted by Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor to the Tony Blair government, of refreezing the Arctic by placing a giant artificial white cloud cover over the place during the three summer months. This could well have adverse - if not disastrous - side-effects.
The same probably does not apply to the idea of putting specially designed microbes in the guts of cattle, through a process known as enteric fermentation. The claim is that these microbes decompose and ferment the plant materials eaten by the animals - thus reducing the pressure that can build up, as this gas is produced.4 From farting to burping. Meanwhile, the whole crazy and grossly inefficient system of cattle farming remains in place. Grain is grown not to feed humans, but cattle.
Likewise with the big push for carbon neutrality through electric cars - ignore the extra demand for electricity and costs of producing them, and the batteries - the whole car economy is left intact. Instead of restructuring the geography of home and work and going for free urban transport, electric cars are seen as a business opportunity and sold as a panacea.
Another danger to look out for is the attempt to treat combatting runaway climate change as simply a matter of individual choice. Things will be better if each of us changes our particular behaviour - like our diets, driving less or not going on foreign holidays. Personal sacrifices. The more draconian, or anti-human, form of this individualism - the flipside - is to believe that we will have to sacrifice sections of the population. Not with a murder programme, obviously, but by a type of Malthusianism that says there are far too many people: in fact, human beings are the problem. You must have heard it a thousand times from pub bores.
Of course, our communist approach is the diametric opposite - it is about the relationship of humanity to nature and the radical reconfiguring of that relationship. Our worldview is predicated on that understanding. These problems are global and interlinked: the action (or inaction) of one government in one part of the world can have a tremendous impact on other parts seemingly far away - negatively and positively. We urgently need coordinated international action. Any form of national socialism or parochialism is worse than useless.
Another thing that is crystal-clear, alas, is that the working class is far from ready to take power globally - not even in one country. But that only stresses the absolute necessity of fighting for the minimum programme that defends the interests of the working class and hence humanity in general - one that can transform the working class from a class in itself to a class for itself by building a mass Communist Party. We need to agitate, educate and organise for this programme and party. Communists realise that protest politics, which there will undoubtedly be at Glasgow, and indeed globally, are insufficient - praiseworthy though they may be. We need to go beyond protest politics.
Stopping runaway climate change can only reliably be done through socialist transformation on a global scale. Otherwise the chances are that problems will only get worse and human civilisation itself will be put into jeopardy.