Thomas Hummel elaborates on the ecological and political implications of the most recent IPCC report.
While it’s true that the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is full of bad news, and released just as the planet is literally burning around us, I have decided not to worry. July may have been the hottest month ever recorded, but after all, COP26 in Glasgow is right around the corner, and you know what they say about the 26th time being the charm. Without doubt, capitalist governments will be able to set their iron-strong material and structural determinations aside this time, and finally start to work together to bring down our collective greenhouse emissions. Of this, there can be no doubt.
Humor of the gallows aside, the report is placing us in a dangerous position. Much of it confirmed what we already knew – that oceans are rising, extreme weather events will become more and more frequent, droughts will impact crop yields, and that generally speaking, the gentle climatic cradle of the “Holocene,” the geologic era containing the entirety of human civilization, is being replaced by a world marked by instability and uncertainty.
What is in the report?
This summer has been pretty bad on the climate front. There have been enormous fires and extreme temperatures in Greece and Turkey, floods across Germany and Belgium, record-breaking heat waves across the northwestern United States and western Canada, with temperatures reaching up to 49.6°C (121.3°F) (estimated to be a once in 50,000 year event previous to warming), and widespread forest fires in the western United States, with 39,267 fires burning over 3.5 million acres as of August 8. The smoke from these fires has reached all the way to the east coast. Siberia in Russia is also experiencing unprecedented, extremely destructive forest fires.
Scientists are starting to detect warning signs of the collapse of the Gulf Stream. The breakdown of this system is a tipping point that would have severe consequences ranging from drought in India, South America and West Africa, rising sea levels in North America, and increasing storms and lowering temperatures in Europe. Rain fell at Greenland’s summit for the first time ever recorded, while Madagascar is on the brink of a devastating climate change-induced famine.
What makes this recent assessment so frightening is that it indicates that all we have experienced thus far is only the smallest taste of what’s to come if we do not abruptly alter our way of life.
This report is the sixth that the IPCC has released since 1990, with one coming out roughly every five to six years. The report is the work of hundreds of authors and represents the scientific consensus that has emerged from the time of the last release. This report is much more precise than past reports, removing elements of uncertainty that allowed us to hope that the climate picture might not be as bad as we now know it to be.
This report is only the first of three on climate change. The first, which was released on August 9, focuses on physical science alone, while the next two, set to be released next February and March, look at climate impacts and climate mitigation.
The report relates that we are currently at about one degree Celsius of warming relative to pre-industrial levels, and at 410 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 150 ppm more than the million-year average. Current carbon dioxide concentrations are estimated to be higher than they have been in at least two million years. It states that this is unequivocally the result of human activity.
The report makes it clear that regardless of the path we take now, we have irrevocably left the gentle cradle of the Holocene. In the future, civilization will have to adapt itself to a much more unstable world. A certain amount of sea-level rise, higher incidences of extreme weather events, and ocean acidification are all already baked into the environmental reality of the coming epoch and beyond. What is still in our hands is the degree of instability beyond this that future generations will have to face. The goal of staying under 1.5 degrees may still be possible according to the report, but only just. It would take a globally coordinated effort, a near total level of social mobilization, and a complete overhaul of our way of life to make this a realistic possibility.
The report looks at five different scenarios that might play out depending upon what we do in the coming years. What the report calls Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 1-1.9 (SSP1-1.9), the most optimistic scenario, has the climate peaking at 1.6 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels by mid-century and then dropping 0.2 degrees to 1.4 by century’s end. The worst-case scenario, SSP5-8.5, sees a steady increase of emissions, with a 2.4 degree rise by mid-century and a 4.4 degree rise by century’s end.
Making SSP1-1.9 a reality involves immediate, drastic changes in our way of life, with global emissions cut 50 percent by 2030, and net-zero being reached by 2050.
Each scenario gets slightly worse. The middle scenario, considered to be the most likely outcome, puts us at a 2.7 degree change by the end of the century. The worst-case scenario has emissions doubling by mid-century, sees no change in our way of life, and as a consequence has temperatures rising by 4.4 degrees by 2100.
While the difference between 1.4 and 4.4 degrees might not sound that significant, it is in fact the difference between billions of people facing immiseration or dying a premature death. That there already will be millions of climate refugees is likely inevitable, but in worst-case scenarios, up to two billion people could be displaced due to rising sea levels alone, not to speak of migrants seeking relief from drought, famine, and subsequent climate conflicts.
Every degree of warming is important. Keeping the climate only at 1.5, as opposed to 2.0 degrees warmer, means that 150 million less people will die from air pollution alone. According to the IPCC, this seemingly small difference has life and death consequences for hundreds of millions of people. It’s been demonstrated that, for every degree of warming, yields of staple cereals drop 10 percent. The same is roughly true for corn yields. So the difference between 1.5 and 4.4 degrees of warming is 30 percent less of these staple crops when population growth means more mouths to feed. And since this phenomenon is not perfectly linear, there could even be significantly less than 30 percent. As warming increases, feedback loops also get stronger and stronger in a nonlinear manner, such that each additional degree represents a larger risk that warming will start to become self-reinforcing, running away independent of our activity. These grim statistics measuring variations of human misery in relation to the severity of warming go on and on in a deeply disheartening downward spiral.
But according to the report, there is still time to head off the worst consequences if the right choices are made. However, there is very little chance of this happening as long as current systems remain in place.
The statistics speak volumes about capitalism’s inability to manage the crisis. After 30 years of effort by capitalist governments all around the world, wind and solar provide less than two percent of global energy. And despite the enthusiastic lip service paid to the energy transition that is supposedly underway, solar and wind only grew in absolute terms globally in the past decade. Relative to the overall energy mix, they have actually fallen.
Howard Zinn famously said that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” One of the biggest problems with the IPCC’s report is that it attempts to do just that. In fairness, this is likely to a certain extent due to the tendency instilled in scientists in their training to be cautious in drawing their conclusions. The IPCC scientists may feel that they have enough expertise to make judgments about the direction of the planet’s climate, but not enough in the area of politics and economics to draw policy conclusions. However, we should not think that this neutrality is simply due to scientific practice since large UN reports are edited by politicians and even members of the fossil fuel industry before they are released who of course fight for language that reduces pressure upon them to act. The attempt to achieve neutrality ends up defaulting toward inoffensive, mainstream conclusions about the origins of the crisis, which impacts ideas about how the crisis should be handled.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, it is not “humanity” as an undifferentiated whole that is responsible for climate change. This assertion starts to appear ridiculous when we take into account that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the world’s emissions. All human systems except one have been able to live in relative harmony with the environment for the entirety of our 200,000 years on earth. Capitalism is the only system whose relation to nature is so disastrous that it has come to threaten the whole of life. But you wouldn’t know this reading the report from the IPCC. The “Summary for Policymakers” contains the word “human” 79 times while “capitalism,” “colonialism,” and “corporation” do not appear at all. In the nearly 4,000 page full report, the word “capitalism” appears only once, in an entry in the bibliography.
The effect of this attempt at neutrality is to obscure who the real culprits are, allowing for those systems that are killing the planet to escape unharmed. In fact, it allows those companies to often profit further from the crisis, “greenwashing” their way into pretending that they are part of the solution as they advise ordinary people to do their part by buying these companies’ supposedly “green” products. Saying that it is humanity as a whole, and not this system that is responsible, will have people blaming themselves, trying to fix all this through their personal consumer choices. Instead, we should be taking to the streets and organizing in our workplaces and schools in order to fix it the only way we can – by building our collective power.
Despite reports to the contrary, the attempt at neutrality has not substantially changed in the third part of the report on mitigation that was leaked by Spanish scientists associated with Extinction Rebellion. It is true that the draft of the third part of the report, focused on mitigation strategies, does begin to explore the problem of growth, but as the Spanish article that originally carried the leak states, “the essential radical change in an economic system whose perverse operation of accumulation and reproduction of capital in perpetuity has brought us to the current critical point is not clearly mentioned.” And while growth is problematized, this sits next to policy proposals about market mechanisms such as putting a price on carbon, and individualist solutions like eating less meat. It’s true that more and more scientists are willing to draw conclusions that are more explicitly anti-capitalist, but the IPCC is rendered impotent by its injunction to reach a broad consensus.
We cannot make any mistake about it – any proposed solution to the climate and broader environmental crisis that leaves capitalism in place is doomed to fail, with possibly apocalyptic consequences.
One of the main reasons for this is that growth is the fuel that keeps capitalism’s engine going. But infinite growth is an impossibility on a finite planet, and growth for its own sake is the philosophy of the cancer cell.
Profit is the motive force for production under capitalism, and profit implies growth. Marx’s simple formula at the beginning of Capital for capitalist production is all we need to understand. Marx’s formula is M-C-M’ or Money – Commodities – More Money. At the start, the capitalist has a sum of money, invests it in commodities, and then sells those commodities for an expanded sum of money. The new sum is of course an expansion in just one firm, but as all capitalist firms are driven by the same logic, in aggregate this means an expansion of the system as a whole. If the expansion of profit is not sizable enough to be worth the risk, then there will be no investment, and the system will enter a crisis. Growth is what keeps this sick system healthy.
Furthermore, this need to grow is reinforced by competition between firms. A firm that is growing faster than another will accumulate resources more rapidly. They can then use that power to undercut, buy out, or otherwise overpower their competition.
This expansion requires ever-expanding sources of cheap and reliable energy and there is simply no substitute, or combination of substitutes, which can take the place of fossil fuels in this context. If a company chose to pursue powering itself with clean energy, this would be an extremely costly endeavor, putting itself at a disadvantage in relation to its competitors.
The same dynamic is at play on the international level. Imperialist powers compete in a similar way as firms do domestically, driven by the logic of capital to fight amongst one another for resources and markets. If a country were to take on the burden of switching away from fossil fuels, this would critically weaken that country in relation to its inter-imperialist rivalries. The result is a race to the bottom.
We can see this dynamic at work with China, where increased competition with the U.S. has made the central government concerned about investing in renewables. China’s provinces could produce enormous amounts of renewable energy, but transporting it would require massive investment in high-voltage transmission infrastructure. Its rivalry with the U.S. will not allow this to occur when energy can be extracted at lower costs from fossil fuels. From the standpoint of an imperialist rivalry in which all possible resources must be directed toward outpacing the competition, resources to battle climate change become wasted resources. China had been investing in renewables until competition became more aggressive in 2017, and the country even enjoyed a few years where emissions had plateaued. While 53 gigawatts of solar were added in 2017, only 41 new gigawatts were added in 2018, falling even further the following year.
In Capital, when talking about child labor, Marx relates that regardless of whether or not the individual capitalist is a loving father, and a devoted husband, or even a member of the ASPCA, as a capitalist, he is compelled to use child labor if he wants to stay competitive. It was finally legislation which ended child labor, but in the context of climate change, the logic of inter-imperialist rivalry makes this an impossibility, since states are unable to legislate away their competitive advantages. The logic of the system only allows for state policy within an extremely narrow, and wholly ineffective horizon.
This presents us with a frightening truth: no one is in charge. The ruling class benefits from this system, but its logic is ultimately out of its control. World leaders and business people may be genuinely concerned about climate change to some extent, but this does not change their limited agency to do anything about it.
We can see this contradictory dynamic at work in capitalist states’ plans for addressing the crisis.
Even the stated goals of wealthy countries, which they are not currently on track to meet, are insufficient to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Climate Action Tracker found that by meeting their stated climate targets, these countries will still cause an increase of 2.4 degrees of warming. The same study found that their actual current policies will land us more likely around 2.9 degrees warmer, but possibly as warm as 3.9 degrees.
Meeting a 1.5 degree target would mean cutting fossil fuels by six percent a year, but these nations are planning to increase fossil fuel production by two percent a year, while G20 countries offered 50 percent more pandemic recovery funding for fossil fuels than to clean energy.
In the U.S. and many other parts of the world, many people felt a sense of relief when Biden took office since in contrast to Trump’s outright denial, Biden has at least said that he recognizes the severity of the crisis, has rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, and is pledging to cut US emissions in half by 2030. But the policies of Biden’s administration run into sharp contradiction with this stated goal.
For example, a mere two days after the IPCC’s “code red for humanity,” the Biden administration, worried about inflation and rising oil prices, released a statement urging the countries of OPEC+ to increase crude oil production. Biden has also granted 2,000 drilling and fracking permits on federal lands since taking office. In June, the administration advanced a proposal to drill at Dinosaur National Monument located on the border between Colorado and Utah, which the Trump administration had previously suspended due to pressure from activists. Biden has also approved Trump’s plan to open up Alaska’s North Slope for oil drilling, as well as the Line 3 pipeline that runs through Ojibwe indigenous land and would transport 760,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil every day.
Just as scientists are telling us that we have to move away from fossil fuels immediately, the U.S. and other capitalist states are doubling down on their long-term use.
We are seeing similar disappointment in relation to the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that just passed the Senate. Most of its original climate plans have been removed, and Congressional Democrats have now planned to try to pass a separate $3.5 trillion bill, which, even before it gets whittled down in negotiations, is full of half baked solutions like a “clean energy payment program,” without any clear and enforceable emissions regulations. Even if it was meaningfully allocated, this $3.5 trillion would be significantly lower than the $10 trillion over ten years deemed necessary by advocates of a Green New Deal. Anyone who raises the issue of how we would pay for this should remember that the U.S. pissed away $21 trillion on our military in the twenty years since 9/11. If we can pay for war then we can pay to battle climate change.
Unsurprisingly, the administration has amplified “carbon capture” as a solution in the hope that it will allow for the continued burning of fossil fuels without the negative consequences. But expecting carbon capture to be able to play a significant role in battling climate change is an article of faith since this technology is entirely unproven, inefficient, and prohibitively expensive.
Normally, death is a hard, but ultimately beautiful and necessary part of life. As Marx said, in “history as in nature, decay is the laboratory of life.” Death is the soil that allows for the endless play of new forms that come into being, dance their unique dance in a dim light, and pass away to give rise to the next beautiful, and never to be seen again form.
But this is not death. This is murder. Not just of millions of human beings and their aspirations for a happy and secure life, but of countless species we share this planet with. In capital’s mania to accumulate more and more wealth, more and more power, it has decimated the earth’s populations of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians by 60 percent in the last 40 years.
Heartbreak is a normal response to learning all this. But it is crucial to remember that there is still hope, that ordinary people, by taking control of their lives, can still prevent the worst warnings of scientists from coming true. But if we let the ruling class maintain its position, then all hope is lost. They will drive this earth into a new dark age, and into a mass extinction event.
Biden’s infrastructure plan won’t cut it, but a genuine Green New Deal, forced upon politicians by a mass movement in the streets and in workplaces, could be capable of getting the job done. We were taught in our high school history classes that the original New Deal fell from the sky like a divine gift from our wise and generous leaders. But the truth is that the New Deal was won through mass working class activity that frightened the ruling class so much that they were willing to offer concessions to avoid socialist revolution. We need this kind of activity today if we are to have a hope of saving the planet.
An effective Green New Deal would create massive investment in renewables, pumping trillions of dollars into the production of solar voltaic and wind power, and to a lesser extent concentrated solar, tidal and wave, and geothermal, all of which can help balance the grid at night and on less windy days. The grid will have to undergo a massive renovation to be able to handle the variability of renewable energy. New grids will have to be massive in order to have enough redundancy to properly balance available energy with demand. The variability of renewables presents a technical challenge, but it’s a difficulty that is far from insurmountable. Innovations in battery technology may help, but most likely what will make the difference is building renewable energy capacity far in excess of what is needed at any given time.
But a private company will not have any interest in producing capacity far beyond what is needed. After all, this means that most of the time, they wouldn’t be making a profit on a large part of their investment. This is one of the many reasons that the market will not be a major player in an effective Green New Deal. Instead, it will require the creation of public institutions that are freed from the burden of making a profit.
Capitalist literature on an energy transition often assumes that the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels will take place outside the country. This means putting millions of working class people out of work who depend on jobs in the fossil fuel industry. The patchy, insufficient solutions the ruling class offers us pits environmentalism against the interests of the working class. We saw the results of this kind of initiative in the “yellow vests” protests in France, where a tax on oil consumption meant that working class people were being forced to pay to clean up the mess the ruling class created. Instead, we need to create millions of climate jobs domestically, in manufacturing, installation, maintenance, the expansion of public transport, and so on, so we can improve the lives of working class people at the same time as we battle the climate crisis.
The question inevitably arises about how we will pay for this. Even though this concern may appear a little ridiculous when the stakes are avoiding apocalypse, Jonathan Neale, in his excellent recent book, Fight the Fire, explores how the Green New Deal might be financed. First, having a state institution that is not beholden to the profit motive perform this work means that taxpayer money in excess to the direct cost does not need to be spent to make a profit for rich business owners. So having a state institution perform it is cheaper. Roughly 20 percent of the necessary money could come from savings when hiring unemployed workers for climate jobs, who stop receiving benefits and start paying taxes when hired. People will pay for the energy and new public transport owned by the new state institution and 40 percent could be raised in this way. 20 percent could be raised by taxing the rich, and the final 20 percent through government spending such as “deficit spending,” “quantitative easing,” or “climate bonds.”
Again, we will only get all of this if we fight for it. But it’s not enough to just call for this fight in the abstract. We need to start to think about how we build the kind of movement that can achieve this.
Revolutionaries have a potent weapon in our arsenal for creating this kind of movement: the united front. We need to start to build the broadest coalition possible around a program of fighting for a Green New Deal among workers, students, and activist groups. We do not need to agree upon everything in order to fight together for this goal, but we do need to be having discussions about capitalism and a future society whenever we can. We have recently seen how powerful a methodology this is on the anti-fascist front with the crushing of the fascist party Golden Dawn by the anti-fascist united front Keerfa in Greece. Of course, environmental activism is very different from anti-fascist politics, but a united front around battling climate change has the potential to be just as powerful.
This coalition can help its members realize their strength by intervening in struggles like those around pipelines, fighting and defending mass transit systems, providing clean water for communities without it, and in some cases fighting for legislation that will stop polluters or create climate jobs.
It’s easy to become fatalistic and passive when faced with a problem as enormous as climate change. There’s nothing that the ruling class would love more than for us to feel so overwhelmed and dispirited by a problem they’ve created that we despair and allow business to continue as usual. It is essential that we begin to see ourselves as the creators of a future that is not yet written, and that is dependent upon our activity in the here and now. The only way we avoid the worst possibilities of the coming crisis is if millions of people begin to see themselves as having the agency to collectively create a new and better world.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Richard Hurd. Modified by Tempest.
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Thomas Hummel is a member of the Tempest Collective and DSA based in NYC. He was born in Buffalo, New York.