By Andrew Martin
The COVID-19 pandemic reveals how vulnerable humanity is to the natural environment. The virus, previously unknown to humans, is likely to have spread from interactions with animals. It has now claimed the lives of at least 1.4 million people and infected tens of millions more globally. In the U.S. it has killed over 250 thousand people, infecting up to almost 200 thousand people daily. While the pandemic has consumed the daily news, the ecological crisis facing the planet is still unfolding. The pandemic is a part of this crisis. The encroachment of human activity on undisturbed wilderness areas unleashes new viruses and diseases.
While humans have built sophisticated societies based on the extraction of enormous resources and production of energy on a vast scale, we are no longer living in harmony with the earth. The development of capitalism has transformed the way we live, but it is an alienated existence, divorced from the natural ecosystems that sustain the planet. Its technological advancements have unleashed forces that it can’t control.
The historical shift from agrarian to industrialised societies led to a previously unknown degree of concentration of wealth and power. With the development of capitalism, manufacturing was no longer organised on a craft basis, but developed on a mass scale, aided by scientific advancements in mechanical and chemical engineering. The use of fossil fuels provided a concentrated form of energy, giving mechanical advantages to machinery that were unprecedented. Complex production methods could be performed simultaneously. The simple use of hand tools was increasingly replaced by the use of complex machines (this is outlined by Marx in Capital Vol. 1, Chapters 13-15). The new production processes – the socialisation of labour – lifted humanity from subsistence living. At the same time, it transformed the merchant class into captains of industry.
The initial period of industrialisation was powered by water wheels. The later shift to steam engines fueled by coal involved the use of energy that had been stored in the earth’s crust for millions of years. This new production and distribution of goods on a mass scale led to the wealthiest economies being based on the generalised exchange of commodities – most importantly, the commodity of labour. The single cell of capitalism is the commodity. While capitalism revolutionised the labour process and created the working class from tillers of the soil, it is at its root a deeply defective system.
The primary aim of production and all commercial activity is to produce private profit. The quest for profit comes at a price. The natural limits of what the earth can sustain have been stretched. The irrationality of capitalism, which exalts in the free exchange and pursuit of consumer goods as our primary purpose, now threatens our very existence.
The burning of fossil fuels produces around 35 billion tonnes of CO2 per year and may have already led to irreversible damage to the planet. This amount of pollution has deadly consequences. In the U.S it is the cause of 3% of all deaths which is more than all homicides and traffic accidents combined. Its long-term effects are much worse.
Already we are feeling the effects of climate change. The bushfires in Australia 2019-2020 burnt through 18 million hectares of bushland leaving thousands of people devastated and traumatised. The U.S west coast and even parts of Siberia have been devastated by fires that are unprecedented in their intensity and destructiveness. Meanwhile, parts of India, China, South Sudan and Bangladesh have faced catastrophic floods. The three largest fires in Colorado, U.S occurred in 2020 with thousands of hectares of land still burning.
The planet is getting hotter. Death Valley in eastern California recently recorded the highest ever temperature on earth – 56.7 °C. In the Antarctic, the temperature rose above 20°C for the first time. These extreme events are increasing in frequency and are related to each other. This is an avoidable tragedy.
The climate is continually changing. According to NASA, in the last 650,000 years, there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat with an abrupt end of the last ice age almost 12,000 years ago. Most of the changes in global temperature have been due to small variations in the earth’s orbit which changes how much solar energy it receives.
Ice cores from Antarctica reveal how the earth’s temperature changes with rises and falls in greenhouse gases. The first evidence for human-induced global warming was brought to light by British researcher Guy Stewart Callendar in 1938. He drew the connection between rising temperatures and the increase in fossil fuel use from the mid-19th century.
The urgency is hammered home each time we are subject to such severe “natural disasters”. Unfortunately, this urgency is not reflected in the political policies of the two major parties in Australia, which both remain firmly wedded to the burning of fossil fuels and the same remains true for much of the industrialised world.
Such is the scale of greenhouse gases that have been emitted, climate change may be irreversible and we are already reaching its tipping points. Scientists do not understand all the interactions of the earth’s ecosystems in a stable climate, let alone one that is spiraling out of control. There is widespread scientific consensus that global warming must be limited to 1.5°C if we are to avoid a likely runaway catastrophic climate disaster. The current trajectory is that the globe will warm by as much as 5°C.
We are already witnessing mass die-offs; extinction of animals on an unprecedented scale. In many of the world’s rainforests, relationships that animals have built with their natural environment over millions of years could be lost in as little as a decade. Their habitats are being destroyed. Rainforests are rich in life. Any loss of rainforest intensifies the risks of extinction, yet 15 million hectares of forest are lost per year.
In Borneo over 50% of what is the world’s oldest forests have been lost — this includes over 90% of the habitat of orangutans. The Amazon is home to over half of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest. It is being cleared faster than ever before. It consists of a myriad of ecosystems that scientists are beginning to understand is vital for the whole earth. Despite covering only 1% of the earth’s surface it is considered the “lungs of the planet” and is home to 10% of all the animal species that we know about.
It has, unfortunately, not been immune to fires. According to the WWF, 73 000 km² was burnt in the Amazon rainforest in 2019, almost double the number of 2018 and they continued to burn in 2020. This is not part of the natural life-cycle of any rainforest, but is a direct result of deforestation, deliberate burn-offs and global warming. The drying out and heat stress of the world’s forests lead to more catastrophic fires and less chance for the planet’s systems to absorb greenhouse gases.
Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world. The WWF estimates that the catastrophic bushfires of 2019 and 2020 impacted nearly 3 billion animals. Over 500 of Australia’s native species are at risk of extinction including the greater glider, black-flanked rock-wallaby, regent honeyeater, swift parrot and the much loved koala.
Even as these events are taking place, conservative governments globally are winding back environmental protections in some countries and seeking more subsidies for fossil fuel industries. In Australia, national tax-based subsidies that encourage fossil fuel use cost up to $12 billion every year.
Risk of Runaway Climate Change
This state of affairs guarantees that, unless we act now, global warming will worsen – but how much worse things could become is unclear. One giant variable is the extent various feedback loops or possible feedback loops begin to accelerate the warming process. Even with reductions in future emissions, it is not yet clear how much these could get ahead of us and threaten life as we know it.
One major feedback loop occurs with loss of Arctic sea ice. This darkens the ocean’s waters so they absorb more sunlight. The more the sea ice melts, the less the planet can reflect the sun’s energy from the polar ice caps. Moreover, the thawing of arctic tundras – land areas where the subsoil is (or was) permanently frozen – releases methane, a more potent gas than CO2.
According to a climate policy paper Existential climate-related security risk jointly written by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, humanity faces an existential threat from global warming. It describes climate risk to civilisation as “one posing permanent large negative consequences to humanity which may never be undone, either annihilating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtailing its potential”.
The paper criticises institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for their conservatism and failure to grasp the extent of global warming – that climate change occurs in a non-linear way. Spratt is Research Director for Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne and Dunlop chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading 1998-2000. The report was endorsed by former Australian defence force chief Admiral Chris Barrie.
The Emeritus Director of the Potsdam Institute, Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, warns that “climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”
In 2013 the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report provided the scientific input into the Paris Agreement, which aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC’s work shouldn’t be dismissed, but it doesn’t go far enough to face the challenges we are confronted with.
The IPCC predicts global warming will reach 1.5°C by 2040 Global Warming of 1.5C. The report, approved by most of the world’s governments in 2018 calls for the need to “adapt”, claiming “adaptation will be less difficult” than limiting climate change to 1.5°C. This is a tacit acceptance that the earth will be irreparably damaged. The report compares temperature changes of 1.5°C to an “overshoot” of 2.0°C. Even if increases are limited to 1.5°C the report acknowledges that there is “high confidence” that there will be a loss of some ecosystems.
The IPCC also concluded in its report that the world could exceed its carbon budget by the end of the decade. The report states that to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, the world can emit 770 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2). To have a likely chance (67%), the remaining budget drops to 570 GtCO2.
However, there is already broad acceptance that 1.5°C of warming will trigger tipping points that will lead to irreversible changes. According to the scientific journal Nature, even if current national pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are implemented—and they state that’s a big ‘if’—they are likely to result in at least 3 °C of global warming. The journal states that the earth’s cryosphere, its ecological systems of frozen water are close to several tipping points that the IPCC has not taken into full consideration.
According to the UK based Carbon Brief, there are nine tipping points that could be triggered by climate change. They state small changes in the Global Mean Surface Temperature (GMST) can trigger tipping points that can push climate systems into a completely new state. These tipping points range from collapsing ice sheets, thawing permafrost, forest die-back and changes to large scale ocean-atmospheric reactions drastically changing the length and duration of wet and dry seasons and wind patterns.
The worst of these, already taking place is the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet. The Carbon Brief estimates in the worst-case scenario (one they think is likely) that if the ice sheet completely melts, then sea level rises could be up to 7m.
The Carbon Brief draws similar conclusions to the report written by Spratt and Dunlop. The idea of tipping points is not new. In 1987, Prof Wally Broecker of Columbia University pointed towards an understanding of tipping points. His study of palaeoclimate data suggests the “Earth’s climate does not respond to forcing in a smooth and gradual way. Rather, it responds in sharp jumps which involve large-scale reorganisation of Earth’s system”.
Tipping points could turn the earth into what climate scientists term a “hothouse”, with sea level rises destroying densely populated coastal communities. Spratt and Dunlop’s report contends that by 2100 35% of the global land area and 55% of the global population would be subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability. Deserts would cover more than 30% of the world’s surface.
Many eco-systems would collapse including all coral reefs, the Arctic and the Amazon. Water availability and deadly heat conditions mean that the survivability of humanity would be marginal at best. These events will almost certainly create a severe scarcity of resources and produce famines. Some of the world’s most populous cities — including Chennai, Mumbai, Jakarta, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Lagos, Bangkok and Manila will already have been abandoned by this stage. Some 2 billion people would be made refugees.
It is almost impossible to imagine this scale of destruction. No civilisation based on the present capitalist mode of production can survive this turmoil.
Rising sea levels
Over the last 140 thousand years, sea levels have ranged by up to 120 metres. The most recent change was when the last ice age ended. According to the CSIRO, 150 million people live within 1 metre of the high tide level and 250 million within the 5-metre high tide level.
In its fifth assessment report, the IPCC in 2013, estimated that without any cuts to emissions, sea levels could rise by up to 1 metre by the end of the century. The study used observations of the climate system, paleoclimate archives, theoretical studies of climate processes and simulations using climate models. It found the rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been greater than the last two millennia. A study led by Jim Hansen in 2016 found that sea level rises would most likely increase by several metres within 50 to 200 years.
The projected rise of sea levels poses a very real threat to coastal societies. The melting of land-based ice such as glaciers and ice sheets, combined with the warming of the oceans will leave small island nations and coastal areas inundated with water. Many major cities will become unviable. While the sea level between 1900 and 2016 has risen 0.2 metres, it is accelerating. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost an average of 279 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019, while Antarctica lost about 148 billion tons of ice per year.
Even a small rise can have devastating consequences for coastal habitats. Sea level rises have already led to a loss of land through coastal erosion and inundation of low lying coastal areas. It has also led to salt-water intrusion into aquifers, deltas and estuaries. The coral atoll communities in the Pacific such as the island nation of Tuvalu could be destroyed.
It is predicted by 2050, 95% of North Jakarta will be submerged due to rising sea levels and land subsidence which is caused by excessive groundwater extraction. It may be the first major urban area to be claimed (in part) by climate change, but this scenario will play out in many other megacities around the world.
According to the International Union of Conservation which has 1400 member organisations and receives input from over 17000 conservationists and scientists, coral reefs are among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. They contain the highest biodiversity of all marine systems and their habitats directly support over 500 million people. According to UNESCO, the coral reefs in all 29 reef-containing World Heritage sites containing 99% of all coral species would cease to exist by the end of this century if greenhouse gases continue unabated. Heat stress is already affecting 21 of the World Heritage sites with mass coral bleaching (a stress response of coral expelling microscopic algae) occurring, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
It was once considered that only in a worst-case scenario that by the end of the century, the Arctic will be almost free of ice. Climate scientists have since revised that estimate to happen by 2050. Since satellite records began in 1979, summer Arctic ice has lost up to 70% of its volume and 40% of its area, providing the clearest evidence of human-induced climate change.
The research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, uses climate models from 21 research institutes that simulated the loss of sea ice.
Even the most optimistic climate change predictions mean temperatures will continue to rise with records being continually broken. The amount of CO2 and methane already in the atmosphere makes mitigation difficult even if the most drastic cuts are taken. Droughts will become more intense and a permanent feature in some parts of the world, altering river systems and turning whole areas to desert permanently. In 2012, the U.S department of agriculture declared a natural disaster over 2 245 counties, 71% of the U.S. The drought struck several breadbaskets leading to instability of food prices. Drought and Climate Change These events will become more frequent.
Although observational methods are still limited and tenuous, climate scientists are pointing to evidence that the intensity and frequency of cyclones have increased due to anthropogenic climate change and will continue to do so. According to an Atlantic hurricane surge record, since 1923 there is a statistical linkage with global warming and increases in tropical cyclones. Climate scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, used long-term tide gauge datasets to model surge events, linear trends and accumulated cyclone energy.
There is a much clearer link when it comes to acidification of the oceans and they will continue to acidify depleting fish stocks. As CO2 dissolves in the ocean it creates carbonic acid. According to the IUCN, the oceans absorb 25% of all anthropogenic emissions. This is happening in parallel with ocean warming and deoxygenation. Heat, acidity and oxygen depletion are a deadly trio wreaking havoc on the ocean’s marine ecosystems. Combined with overfishing, the world’s marine life is being devastated.
Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity and the University of Bremen in Germany have found that 60% of fish species that they studied will be unable to survive by 2100 if climate warming reaches a worst-case scenario of 4-5ºC above pre-industrial temperatures. Rises in water temperature affect pregnant fish and their embryos. With rising temperatures, fish need more oxygen and energy to survive, but the acidification of the oceans is compounding a growing problem for most fish species.
Failure of Capitalist Governments
These are all very grim and bleak predictions. The prospects for turning this situation around also seem dismal at this stage. Wealthy countries have, at every global climate summit, refused to compensate for the damage done to poorer countries.
Capitalist governments have failed to even fund programs that could mitigate against inundation in the coral atolls in the Pacific. It is not beyond the resources of the wealthy elite to direct funding towards the most basic coastal defence systems, but Pacific nations have by and large been forced to fend for themselves.
While the technology exists to replace many outmoded energy and transport systems, it is capitalism itself that must be replaced for these new technologies to be rushed into mass usage fast enough. The IPCC says that an investment of $2.4 trillion is needed every year for the next 15 years in renewable energy to limit temperature rise to below 1.5 °C from pre-industrial levels. Will the capitalist governments and corporations do it? Left to their own devices, certainly not.
Even the mass struggles for climate action of the type we saw in 2019 – while able to win certain victories – will be constantly pushing uphill so long as the capitalist rulers retain power over the economy, government and states. The scale of transformation needed requires a complete system change. If we are to meet this challenge we need a society that utilises the full potential of collective collaboration internationally and does so for the safety and progress of all people and the planet – not for the enrichment of the few.