Civilisation in jeopardy
Extreme weather is becoming typical weather, writes Eddie Ford, and the cause is undeniable: capitalism
The past seven years have been the hottest on record, according to new data from the European Union’s satellite system - the Copernicus Climate Change Service. Copernicus also said that 2021 was the fifth-warmest year ever, with Europe living through its hottest ever summer and the west of the USA and Canada encountering record temperatures.
Furthermore, as we all know, this winter has so far proved to be extraordinarily mild in the UK. In fact, London at 16.3°C recorded the highest ever January 1 temperature since they first started taking systematic measurements in the 1850s. Hence all the pictures of hardy swimmers emerging from seaside dips.
Of course, warmer winters might be welcomed by humans, but it is a completely different matter for some animals - especially butterflies, hedgehogs and bats. These are now at risk, as the unseasonably mild weather has disrupted hibernation in the UK, causing them to emerge too early, before sufficient food is available - particularly when you consider that a later deadly cold snap could hit us. And the lack of frost, which tends to kill off pests, is not good news for gardeners and farmers. Certain fungi and insects now thrive all year round. There are also concerns about the impact on pollinators, if the flowers bloom before they have a chance to take advantage of the nectar; and on migratory birds that feed on fruit but have not yet arrived. According to the Met Office, warm weather records in the UK are being broken nine times more frequently - a clear sign of an overheating planet.
Moreover, much warmer weather in London coincided with wildfires in Colorado - with thousands of people having to flee for their lives. Record highs and extreme drought set the stage for the devastating series of blazes in densely populated suburbs, especially in Boulder County. Colorado’s fire season usually spans May to September. However, exceptionally warm and dry conditions through the winter - including a historic lack of snowfall - created tinderbox conditions ripe for fast-spreading fires. All that was needed to ignite such a conflagration was a spark and a force to then fan the flames - which happened in the form of a ferocious windstorm with gusts over 100mph, creating a flash firestorm unlike anything previously witnessed in the region during December.
Ironically in some respects, the climate conditions for these devastating fires began with a wet, snowy spring. March 2021 saw a major snowstorm dumping up to two feet of snow and bringing much-needed moisture to all of eastern Colorado. The active storm pattern continued through the spring and inevitably all this moisture helped grow the grasslands that dominate the land cover east of the Rocky Mountains. By the start of summer, the lower-elevation plains east of the mountains were lush and green, and this wave of moisture helped vegetation to blossom during the late spring and early summer. All that newly grown vegetation turned into perfect fuel for any fire, once it became desiccated by months of drought – which, unusually for Colorado, happened in the autumn and winter, as opposed to the spring and summer months. Something strange is indeed happening to the weather in Colorado - and everywhere else.
Naturally, it would be a fundamental mistake to draw an equals sign between a hot day in London and the fires in America, automatically concluding that global warming is responsible. When it comes to climate change and weather patterns, nothing is ever simple or straightforward. On the other hand, the fact that this is a recurring pattern makes this conclusion unavoidable. Just look at the sheer number of fires, floods and extreme weather events in general - including the record temperature in London and the fact that UK towns and cities have been hit by flash flooding 51 times since 2007. Not to mention the devastation caused by Storm Arwen last October, leaving thousands in north-east England and Scotland without power for more than a week - the embattled Boris Johnson is now facing calls for an urgent inquiry into the “appalling” response from the government.
Indeed, a recent analysis by the soft Tory think tank, Bright Blue, showed that Britain was not adequately prepared for the increasing risk posed by flooding, as the climate changes. Particular areas of concern were: urban drainage and sewerage infrastructure, which is under severe strain; hospitals - at least 15 have encountered some flooding, causing disruption; schools - 68 are known to have been affected by water entering buildings and disrupting lessons or school transport; and care homes, 13 of which have been flooded.
Nor should we forget the widespread flooding across Germany, France and other European countries in July - with greater or lesser disruption in more than 135 locations across the continent. The speed and intensity of the water overwhelmed defences and 240 people lost their lives as a result. The flooding led to widespread power outages, forced evacuations and damage to infrastructure and agriculture. This was especially severe in Belgium and Germany, and the total cost of the disaster has been estimated at around $43 billion.
Nasa scientists have established that in 2020 the planet’s yearly average temperature had increased by 1.02°C from the baseline between 1951 and 1980. Shortly, Nasa, together with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the UK Met Office, will publish their assessments of how hot 2021 turned out to be - which in all likelihood will not diverge greatly from the Copernicus findings. We already know that, back in the summer, Death Valley hit the world’s highest recorded temperature of 54.4°C for the second year in a row. And only last week Texas recorded the highest January temperature ever at 37.2°C, while Argentina also experienced one of its hottest new year’s days, reaching 46.6°C at Pozo Hondo. Meanwhile, Indonesia saw severe flooding, following days of torrential rain.
Without doubt, tragically, this trend will continue. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently predicted that if carbon emissions continue to grow and no action is taken, global temperatures could rise to between 2.6°C and 4.8°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century - making the idea of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C seem increasingly remote. This will mean more rain, more drought and more record-breaking hot weather events. According to insurance company Aon, 2021 is likely to be the fourth time in five years that global natural catastrophes have cost more than $100 billion. The planet is in deadly peril.
All this tells you something that is now undeniable: the stark reality of global warming, with irrefutable evidence that the biggest factor is the role of humanity. This means that we are talking about capitalism - not humanity or civilisation in general, as some would misanthropically argue. The fundamental thing about the current social order, which makes it so difficult for governments everywhere to stick to their climate pledges, is not simply the car economy or meat production. Rather, it is the nature of the social system, which is driven by accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production. This is the fundamental law of capitalism.
We are dealing with a social-economic system that is profoundly anti-ecological. Even if the major states stuck to the pledges they made in Glasgow last year and actually implemented them, we would still have hundreds of years ahead of us of destructive climate change. For example, if you take the polar ice caps, which are warming up far faster than the UK, you have up to 200 years of melting to come, inbuilt into existing conditions. There is nothing we can do to stop it, bar the invention of science fiction-type technology.
In September 2020, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the Arctic sea ice area has been continuing to shrink since 1979. An IPCC study in 2020 calculated that the polar ice caps are melting six times faster than in the 1990s. As a result, at least in the opinion of the IPCC, the global sea level rise could soon reach more than a metre - meaning that 680 million people living in coastal areas could be displaced.
Obviously, sea level rises of this magnitude will see major cities around the world disappearing under the waters - places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dhaka, Hanoi, Jakarta, Calcutta, Mumbai, New York, London, Tokyo, etc being the most in danger. Many Pacific islands will be totally obliterated. Additionally, if the polar ice caps keep melting in this way, days could possibly become longer than 24 hours, because the planet will start to spin more slowly due to the increased sea levels at its axis - which could have all sorts of consequences.
Clearly, something has to be done. Whilst capitalist states might eventually feel compelled to act, if they do so it will be in a way that is very much against our interests as individuals and as a class. Eg, faced with a gridlocked Congress the US armed forces could, conceivably, act in the name of averting catastrophe, establish an emergency administration and preside over some sort of dictatorial climate socialism. No, the only logical, rational and democratic solution is proletarian socialism and the global transition to communism.