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How Bad Will it Get? Climate Catastrophe and Capitalism

As recent events make clear, our world has been irreversibly changed. Adequately responding to the changes already baked into the climate — and learning how to thrive in this new world while avoiding the worst case scenarios still on the horizon — will require nothing less than the revolutionary overthrow of the very system that created these problems.

James Dennis Hoff

July 8, 2021
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Photo: Aliraza Khatr/Getty

In 2017, journalist and science writer David Wallace-Wells published a widely-read and hotly-debated article in New York Magazine titled “The Uninhabitable Earth.” The article, which laid out in morbid detail the near-future effects of global climate change on human habitation, drew both criticism and praise from climate activists. For many, Wallace-Wells’ depiction of a worst case scenario — which included section heads with such titles as “Heat Death,” “The End of Food,” and “Perpetual Collapse” — was so relentlessly apocalyptic as to crush any hope that the most terrible effects of the climate crisis could somehow be avoided. This, some claimed, would discourage the kind of mass organizing necessary to confront the problem. Others, however, praised the article for exactly these reasons, arguing that the only way to move people to take action is to make clear the mortal threat of climate change. While the question of the psychological effects of such apocalyptic visions of environmental collapse remains unanswered, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: we are already living in the time of climate catastrophe, and capitalism is to blame.

Thanks to a total lack of action by corporations and bourgeois governments across the planet, several of the scenarios depicted by Wallace-Wells are already unfolding, with terrifying consequences. Take, for example, the previously unimaginable prospect of heat death. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), 2020 was not only the hottest year on record, but the six previous hottest years all took place since 2014. And while this steady rise in temperature may be hardly noticeable on a global scale, it can lead to catastrophic local events. In June, for the first time ever, wet bulb temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius — that is, the temperature and humidity at which humans can no longer naturally cool themselves — were recorded in the Persian Gulf and parts of Pakistan. Such temperatures, if sustained, would mean almost certain death for anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside for more than a few hours, even sitting in the shade with plenty of water. That such previously unheard of temperatures are already being recorded, even as corporations and states continue to emit tens of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, means that many of these areas could become all but uninhabitable within a matter of decades, or even years. 

Meanwhile, just last week, freak weather patterns brought scorching, record-breaking heat to the Pacific Northwest. Temperatures in the Canadian province of British Columbia topped 121 degrees Fahrenheit, melting roads, destroying electrical infrastructure, and killing hundreds. As many as 700 people in British Columbia, and at least 130 more from Washington and Oregon, died as a result of complications from the extreme heat. While this particular heat wave is being described as a once in a millennium event, research shows definitively that such incidents are becoming increasingly common. Extreme heat events like these have increased threefold since the middle of the 20th century, reaching average temperatures 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than previous heatwaves. Further, heat dome effects like the one that scorched British Columbia have also become more common since the 1990s as a result of changing jet stream patterns. Scientists are still debating whether or not these changes in the jet stream are the product of climate change.

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Other potentially catastrophic phenomena, such as the shrinking of Arctic sea ice, are already happening, and at an accelerated pace. Last year, researchers at the University of Leeds, reported that Arctic sea ice melt was happening at a rate six times faster than in the 1990s. Since the 1980s, the Arctic — which is warming much faster than the rest of the planet — has seen a massive decrease in the amount of summer ice. This June, temperatures there reached an astounding 118 degrees Fahrenheit, and NASA has reported that the 2020 summer ice minimum was the second lowest on record, only slightly more than the record-breaking 2012 minimum, which scientists estimate was the highest melt rate in the last 4,000 years. Because ice and snow reflect a far greater portion of sunlight than open water, this melting has created a feedback loop, in which dark open waters absorb more heat, creating even more open water, which in turn absorbs more heat and melts more ice. At this rate, scientists estimate that we could see ice-free summers in the Arctic as soon as 2035, far sooner than previous predictions. This melting has been so severe that it has already opened new shipping routes and access to natural resources, which are leading to increased tensions between the United States, China, and Russia over control of the region. Such tensions point to the potential for a period of expanding climate-driven military conflict, as rising temperatures continue to reshape the geography of the planet. 

Unfortunately, these kinds of feedback loops are not only threatening the Arctic. A leaked draft report from the normally sanguine United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that there is little time left to avoid further catastrophic tipping points. These include the melting of the polar ice caps and wholesale transformation of the Amazon forest into open savanna. The most important aspect of this report, however, is its blunt assessment that many scenarios and impacts can no longer be avoided and that world governments are currently ill-prepared to deal with the inevitable changes already taking place. From infrastructure collapse to famine, mass migration, and flooding of coastal cities and island nations, the looming effects of climate change that are already baked into the system are going to be an enormous challenge, one that will require planned cooperation on a global level that capitalism, built on competition, has proven incapable of achieving.

As the heatwave in the Northwest and the recent electrical grid failure in Texas demonstrate, even wealthy countries such as Canada and the United States are ill-equipped to deal with the infrastructure challenges posed by climate change. Images coming out of Oregon and Washington of buckling asphalt and melting electrical wires show the vulnerability of aging infrastructures and the way that such climate events can potentially lead to a cascading series of catastrophes, as heat waves and hurricanes give way to blackouts, forest fires, and flooded cities and subway systems. At the same time, historically dry regions, such as large portions of Australia, and the American Southwest, are already seeing unprecedented historic droughts and wildfires that have overwhelmed emergency services. In Australia alone, more than 46 million acres of land were burned during the 2019-2020 fire season, wiping out entire ecosystems. And things are even worse in the developing world, where increased heat and changing rainfall patterns are causing, among other disasters, longer droughts and more famines. In Madagascar alone, over 400,000 people are facing starvation thanks to a climate-induced drought that has turned many former farmlands into dust bowls. 

While such events are bad enough in themselves, the long-term consequences, if left unaddressed, will be even more devastating, as catastrophe piles upon catastrophe. Increased military conflict, pandemics, mass emigration, and economic collapse are already happening but are sure to get worse if nothing is done to both stop the causes and mitigate the effects of climate change. And capitalism has shown that it is profoundly incapable of doing either. Indeed, fossil capitalism, founded as it was on the presumption of an endless availability of cheap energy, and grounded in the necessity of limitless growth and near-sighted profit-seeking, has only made these problems worse and it is the height of insanity to think that the same system responsible for creating climate change can somehow stop it. The recent infrastructure debate and the Biden administration’s lack of any meaningful climate plan, the failure of the Paris Summit, and the increasing levels of global carbon emissions all show that bourgeois governments are not only often unwilling, but actually incapable of taking the kinds of drastic actions needed now to stop further climate change. At the same time, the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic, immigration, and economic crisis also shows that global capitalism is woefully unprepared to deal with the consequences of the climate catastrophes already happening everywhere.  

Stopping further global warming, ending runaway climate change, and adapting to the new normal of a world that will almost certainly soon be at least 2 degrees Celsius warmer than before the industrial revolution will require the kinds of cooperative economic planning and mobilizations only possible in a society run by and for the interests of working people instead of profit. This means a global socialist society that prioritizes need over growth and cooperation over competition. Building a revolutionary struggle to win such a world must be our priority if we hope to salvage what is left of our environment. But any such struggle must also necessarily involve organizing around a series of demands to protect the lives and wellness of working people and to stop climate change now before it gets worse. 

These must include the immediate nationalization of all transportation manufacturing, fossil fuel extraction, and energy production under the control of workers and communities of working people, a commitment to the cessation of the use of all fossil fuels within the next decade, and mass public investment in carbon capture technologies. It must also include demands for open borders to accommodate climate refugees, debt cancellation for all dependent and semi-colonial countries, and mass public investment in new energy infrastructure, public transportation, and forest, ocean, and wetland conservation. This is the only way we can rationally transition away from an economy built on growth, consumerism, destructive methods of production, and the use of heat-trapping fossil fuels. 

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James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.

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