Towards the Anthropocene
Over the last few months the related questions of global warming and climate change have time and again hit the headlines.
- Following the US and Australia - Russia refuses to ratify the Kyoto treaty. This more or less scuppers attempts to make it international law: that would have required signatures by countries responsible for at least 55% of all greenhouse gasses. Although it has just 4% of the world’s population, the US generates around 25% of emissions. George Bush contemptuously dismisses calls to combat climate change as liberal hysteria and a threat to US economic growth.
- The highly respected GeoPhysical Union reports that, with the continued growth of carbon dioxide and methane emissions, it is now “virtually certain” that this will “cause the global surface climate to become warmer”. Estimates suggest that carbon dioxide emissions rose 11% over the last decade, and will grow another 50% worldwide by 2020.
- A peer-reviewed study predicts that by 2050 between 15% to 37% - up to one million in all - of all animal and plant species could be made extinct because of climate change (Nature January).
- Leading experts form Britain and the US meet at Cambridge University to consider a range of technical solutions to global warming: firing dust into the upper atmosphere; stationing a giant, 2,000-kilometre-diameter eye patch in space to deflect 2% of the sun’s rays; growing huge algae beds in the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide; building massive cloud-generating machines, etc.
- A so-called Pentagon “secret report on climate change” is leaked (The Guardian February 22). Drawn up by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, prominent Californian ‘futurists’ and part-time Hollywood war/disaster-film consultants, it paints a near future which could plausibly result from “an abrupt slowing” of the ocean’s “thermohaline circulation” (the deep ocean currents that influence subsidiary ones like the Gulf Stream). There are many possible side-effects - the Dutch lowlands, including the Hague, flooded in 2007; by 2010, the US experiences a third more days with peak temperatures above 90F; feedback unleashes a new ice age with “Siberia-like” conditions in Britain by 2020; large-scale famines in southern Africa, India and China; acute water shortages in the Middle East, the Amazon basin and the Nile delta; the US and Europe become “virtual fortresses” to prevent mass migration from the increasingly uninhabitable ‘third world’; low-lying countries like Bangladesh are inundated; and, as international tensions over food and water increase, there are much greater incentives for countries like Japan, Germany and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, and to use them.
- The British government’s chief science advisor, professor Sir David King, maintains that climate change is “the most severe problem we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism” and forthrightly condemns the Bush administration for “failing to take up the challenge of global warming”. The Independent reports that he was given a hush order by Ivan Rogers, the prime minister’s principal private secretary (March 8).
- The world’s second largest reinsur-ance company, Swiss Re, predicts that in 10 years time the cost of disasters like floods, frosts and famines aggravated by global warming could reach £82 billion annually, or the equivalent of one World Trade Center attack (Financial Times March 3).
From the abundant material I have read it is clear that most scientists agree that the earth’s climate is getting warmer. Over the last century and a half there seems to have been a rise: about 0.6° C, it is reckoned. There is, however, dispute over the extent to which human activity - air and road transport, domestic heating, power stations, industry, agriculture, etc - is to blame, and whether or not increases will continue and trigger a dramatic feedback effect - ie, cold, non-saline, water from melting Arctic and Antarctica ice sheets halts warm ocean currents and brings about a new ice age.
There is, though, nothing unusual about climate change per se. It has never ceased, is ongoing and must therefore be considered inevitable. Or to use an ideologically loaded phrase - it is natural. Notions of fixing in place the climate as it now is, or returning it to a pre-industrial ideal, through some kind of human exodus, are both misplaced and doomed to fail.
Examine the geological record. It is obvious that as well as periodic ice ages over the last 20 or 30 million years - in the Quaternary and Tertiary periods - the earth’s temperature has in general been far higher in the past than it is today. For example, Scotland’s coal seams formed in tropical swamps and forests, Kent’s chalk cliffs were laid down under shallow, balmy seas and London’s clay contains the remains of elephants, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses. A different arrangement of the continents might possibly explain this greater warmth and certainly the present configuration, arrived at through millions of years of continental drift, is perfect for ensuring cold conditions. That particular theory aside, there can be no doubt that for most of the Mesozoic and Palaeozoic eras - which together cover many hundreds of millions of years - the earth was much, much hotter.
The last glacial maximum occurred something like 15,000 to 20,000 years ago - the Arctic ice sheet extended all the way down to near the Thames - and since then there have been considerable variations. There have been ‘mini-ice ages’ as well as bursts of relative warmth. Between 1100 and 1300, for example, Europe enjoyed temperatures which were on average 0.7° to 1.6° higher than today. That encouraged more productive agriculture throughout the continent and saw flourishing English vineyards.
On the other hand, it is worth recalling that the Thames regularly froze solid during mid-17th century winters and that the years from 1805 to 1820 were comparably inclement and bleak. So what we are experiencing at present might conceivably be in part a climatic emergence from a mini-ice age which finally ended around 1880. Not that there is a straightforward linear trend. From 1946 till the 1970s it turned somewhat cooler and only since then there has been a return to warmer conditions - though admittedly still icy compared to the distant past and geological time.
Of course, the climate is chaotic and subject to countless interacting variables - volcanic eruptions, cloud cover, sun spot cycles, ocean currents, planetary wobbles, meteorite and comet strikes. To this human beings have added other complexities: eg, warming factors such as greenhouse gases and cooling factors like soot particles. Hence modelling accurate predictions, especially long-term ones, is either downright impossible or fraught with immense difficulties.
Nevertheless many eminent scientists and the whole gamut of environmental protest groups believe that today’s climate change is primarily driven by human activity. Unless checked this will cause all manner of terrible consequences, we are told. Worst-case scenarios have temperatures 6° higher by 2100. To avoid that greenhouse emissions must be stabilised and then steadily reduced. Some even insist upon draconian measures to hold down working class consumption levels in the advanced countries and to keep the masses in the so-called ‘third world’ as little more than subsistence farmers. Ecological panic engenders social conservatism, technophobia and neo-Malthusianism.
Communists frankly admit that climate change cannot be halted. With our current resources and capabilities, whatever humanity does, the chances are that sooner or later a new ice age must take hold and once again considerably reduce sea levels. Equally there will certainly follow warmer periods, such as that we are now in, and even hot periods, which will see some low-lying countries almost completely disappear under the rising waves.
In the not so far future humanity is likely to develop the technology and theory necessary for the reliable manipulation of the climate. Surely our descendants will usher in the Anthropocene era, green hot and cold deserts alike, enhance nature and optimise conditions which benefit humanity. However, any attempt at planetary-engineering now - especially with the alienated drives of capital and vast lacunas in our knowledge - is bound to produce completely unintended, potentially cataclysmic, consequences. After all, the best forecasts cannot accurately tell you what the weather will be in even a month’s time.
Undoubtedly there will be many problems if temperatures soar. But the primary answer to all such challenges lies neither in a reliance on so-called ‘pure’ science nor the futile attempt to return to nature. What is required is political organisation and social development.
The plain fact of the matter is that developed societies are much better placed to manage climate change than impoverished ones. They can put in place flood defences, have robust social security systems and, if need be, the necessary wealth to relocate people in an orderly fashion. There are still those enchanted by the dream of universal and balanced development under the existing socio-economic system. Naive and in the last analysis diversionary. A capitalist Bangladesh can never be brought up to be on a par with western Europe or the US. Capitalism constantly produces and reproduces inequality and poverty through the very workings of its innate laws.
What climate change demands is not the suspension of the day-to-day class struggle for higher wages, land distribution, constitutional reform, etc, rather coordination for the positive supersession of capitalism.
Communism offers the only viable opportunity for humanity to practically master nature - not, it should be emphasised like some brutal conquistador, but in the way a student masters a foreign language with its rules of syntax and grammar.