The realty and challenges of the climate crisis

Bob Sheak, December 28, 2019

This post focuses on recent evidence documenting the accelerating climate crisis, what propels it, the prospects for meaningful change.

Recurrent and increasingly bad news on the unfolding climate crisis

The climate crisis grows, leaving humanity very little time to avoid a terrifying outcome. Recent scientific findings based on systematic field observations, sophisticated computer modeling, meta-analyses of research continue to document how the effects of the climate crisis are accelerating and affecting all parts of the earth.

Bob Berwyn reports for Inside Climate News (12-18-19) that scientists are “confidently saying 2019 was Earth’s second-warmest recorded year on record, capping the warmest decade. Eight of the 10 warmest years since measurements began occurred this decade, and the other two were only a few years earlier” (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/18122019/decade-climate-heat-drought-extreme-storms-arctic-sea-ice-antarctica-greenland).

There were plenty of examples of this rapidly unfolding crisis in 2019. “Arctic sea ice melted faster and took longer to form again in the fall. Big swaths of ocean remained record-warm nearly all year, in some regions spawning horrifically damaging tropical storms that surprised experts with their rapid intensification. Densely populated parts of Europe shattered temperature records amid heat waves blamed for hundreds of deaths, and a huge section of the U.S. breadbasket region was swamped for months by floodwater.” And that wasn’t all. There were deadly heat waves, droughts, and wildfires in many parts of the world.

“…wildfires burned around the globe, starting unusually early in unexpected places like the UK. They blazed across country-size tracts of Siberia, fueled by record heat, flared up in the Arctic and devastated parts of California. Australia ended the decade with thick smoke and flames menacing Sydney and a record-breaking heat wave that sent the continent’s average temperature over 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Again and again, scientists completed near real-time attribution studies showing how global warming is making extremes—including wildfires—more likely.”

Leslie Hook cites evidence from a The UN’s World Meteriological Organization documenting that “global average concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose to 407.8 parts per million in 2018, up from 405.5 parts per million in 2017.” This particularly reflects how the biggest economies of the world continue on energy paths dependent on fossil fuels. Hook quotes Petteri Taalas, Secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization: “There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement,” [adding] “It is worth recalling that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3 to 5 million years ago…. Back then, the temperature was 2 to 3°C warmer, and sea level was 10 to 20 meters higher than now.”(https://insideclimatenews.org/news/26112019/unep-emissions-gap-report-paris-climate-greenhouse-gas-peak-2030).

Jake Johnson brings our attention to a study issued by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) on just the day after the report by the World Meteorological Organization was made public. The UNEP confirmed in its annual Emissions Gap report “that levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2018.” Johnson also quotes from the report: “It is evident that incremental changes will not be enough and there is a need for rapid and transformational action….By necessity, this will see profound change in how energy, food, and other material-intensive services are demanded and provided by governments, businesses, and markets (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/11/26/science-screaming-un-report-warns-only-rapid-and-transformational-action-can-stave). The UNEP finding that only “profound change” is enough to curtail greenhouse gas emissions has relevance for the 2020 elections. In this context, Bernie Sanders call for “revolutionary” change seems far more appropriate than Democratic candidates who want only incremental change.

Impacts on people

In another of his articles, Jake Johnson cites findings from a report by Oxfam International that shows “climate-related disasters displaced 200 million people since 2008” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/12/02/condemning-inaction-rich-nations-oxfam-unveils-report-showing-climate-related). According to Oxfam, “one person every two seconds being forced from their home due to hurricanes, wildfires, cyclones, and other extreme weather,” while “[o]ur governments are fueling a crisis that is driving millions of women, men, and children from their homes and the poorest people in the poorest countries are paying the heaviest price.” And: “Today, you are seven times more likely to be internally displaced by extreme weather disasters… than by geophysical disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and three times more likely than by conflict,” the organization found. “There was a five-fold increase in the reported number of extreme weather disasters that resulted in people being displaced over the last decade.”

Tipping points

The evidence is indisputable, based on authoritative and verifiable scientific research, that fossil fuel emissions continue to increase, more of the sun’s heat is trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, temperatures rise, and climate-related disruptions and catastrophes occur more frequency and with more intensity. At some point soon, climate scientists tell us, the effects of climate change will reach a point where they overwhelm societal or international capacities to cope. They are called “tipping points.” Bob Berwyn writes on how scientists think we are closer to or have already reached climate tipping points (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27112019/climate-tipping-points-permafrost-forests-ice-antarctica-greenland-amazon-nature).

Scientists are warning, as Berwyn reports, about a point of no return, where “‘abrupt and irreversible changes’ to the climate system could be triggered by small changes in the global temperatures to create ‘a new, less habitable, hothouse climate state.’” And there are “indications that exceeding tipping points in one system, such as the loss of Arctic sea ice, can increase the risk of crossing tipping points in others.” In an article for Nature, cited by Berwyn, “scientists focused on nine parts of the climate system susceptible to tipping points, some of them interconnected:
• Arctic sea ice, which is critical for reflecting the sun’s energy back into space but is disappearing as the planet warms.
• The Greenland Ice Sheet, which could raise sea level 20 feet if it melts.
• Boreal forests, which would release more carbon dioxide (CO2) than they absorb if they die and decay or burn.
• Permafrost, which releases methane and other greenhouse gases as it thaws.
• The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a key ocean current, which would shift global weather patterns if it slowed down or stopped.
• The Amazon rainforest, which could flip from a net absorber of greenhouse gases to a major emitter.
• Warm-water corals, which will die on a large scale as the ocean warms, affecting commercial and subsistence fisheries.
• The West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which would raise sea level by at least 10 feet if it melted entirely and is already threatened by warming from above and below.
• Parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet that would also raise sea level significantly if they melted.

Naomi Oreskes and Nicholas Stern give the following examples of how the ravages in one part of the climate crisis can affect other parts, with catastrophic effects on societies (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/opinion/climate-change-costs.html).

“In some cases,” they write, “they may produce a sequence of serious, and perhaps irreversible, damage.” They give the following examples: “a sudden rapid loss of Greenland or West Antarctic land ice could lead to much higher sea levels and storm surges, which would contaminate water supplies, destroy coastal cities, force out their residents, and cause turmoil and conflict,” or “increased heat decreases food production, which leads to widespread malnutrition, which diminishes the capacity of people to withstand heat and disease and makes it effectively impossible for them to adapt to climate change,” or “Sustained extreme heat may also decrease industrial productivity, bringing about economic depressions.” But they refer to an even “worst-case scenario,” in which “climate impacts could set off a feedback loop in which climate change leads to economic losses, which lead to social and political disruption, which undermines both democracy and our capacity to prevent further climate damage. These sorts of cascading effects are rarely captured in economic models of climate impacts. And this set of known omissions does not, of course, include additional risks that we may have failed to have identified.”

(Anthony D. Barnosky and Elizabeth A. Hadly have devoted an entire book to the subject: Tipping Points for Planet Earth: How Close are We to the Edge.)

International efforts to address the climate crisis fail

2015-2019

Representatives of the world’s nations came together at the U.N. Paris Climate meeting back in December 2015 and not only acknowledged the reality of the global reality of the climate crisis but, for the first time, pledged to cut their respective carbon emissions enough by 2030 to keep the world’s average temperature under 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2 degrees Celsius). Climate scientists James Hansen has observed, as quoted by Nathaniel Rich (Losing Earth: A Recent History, p. 4), that a 2-degree warming is “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Overall, however, the nations have failed to live up to their pledges and the crisis has worsened.

Georgina Gustin writes that there is a “dangerous lack of urgency” in the implementation of the 2015 UN Paris Climate agreement, that their pledges to reduce carbon emissions are failing, and that, if the nations are to have any meaningful effect in next few decades, emissions will have to be effectively reduced at rates more than before (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/07112019/paris-climate-agreement-pledges-lack-urgency-ipcc-timeline-warning). Gustin quotes former IPCC Chair Robert Watson (i.e., International Panel on Climate Change): “The current pledges, even if fully implemented, are placing us on a pathway to a world 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer—a world that would have devastating impacts on food and water security, human health, displacement of people, and loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services.” In early November 2019, Gustin notes, 11,000 scientists signed a report published in the journal BioScience, noting that “climate researchers have been warning of the effects of climate change since the 1970s,” that “emissions are still rapidly rising, and that the problem is being compounded by “subsidies for oil, air travel, population growth, and meat consumption.”

Unfortunately, in the four years since 2015, investments and use of fossil fuels have increased. Consider these facts as reported by Robert Hunziker for Counter Punch (https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/12/19/biosphere-collapses).

“Global banks have invested $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel projects.” The US, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, Canada, and Australia are among the countries where governments “plan to increase fossil fuels by 120% by 2030.” China “has added enough new coal-based power generation (43GW) to power 31 million new homes…. [and] plans on adding another 148GW of coal-based power, which will equal the total current coal generating capacity of the EU.” In India, coal-fired power capacity has already “increased its coal-fired power capacity by 74% over the past 7 years…. [and] expects to further increase coal-generated capacity by another 22% over the next 3 years.” China is also “financing 25% of all new worldwide coal plant construction outside of its borders, e.g., South Africa, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. [And] kissing goodbye to its commitment to cut emissions, cuts renewable power subsidies by 30%.” In the United States, “Trump proposes slashing renewable budget items, as his administration rebrands fossil fuels ‘Molecules of U.S. Freedom.’ (Forbes, May 30, 2019).” To all this, Hunziker adds: “the Stockholm Environment Institute claims the world is on a pathway to 3C[elsius] pre-industrial, probably ‘locked-in’ because of fossil fuel expansion across the globe,” which, as Nathaniel Rich writes, is a “prescription for short-term disaster: forests sprouting in the Arctic, the abandonment of most coastal cities, mass starvation.”

In the meantime, Hunziker reports, “all three major greenhouse gas concentrations, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are accelerating. It means we are on a trend for total planetary catastrophe. We are on a trend for biosphere collapse.” In an interview with climate scientist Dr. Peter Carter, the scientist said that “Carbon dioxide is on a rate exceeding anything over the past millions of years. We are at 412 ppm [carbon dioxide in the atmosphere]. To put that into context, we have an ice core that goes back 2.2 million years. The highest CO2 over that period is 300 ppm.” (Carter)

In December 2019, the world’s nations gathered in Madrid, Spain, for another round of climate negotiations

Against the grim backdrop of a world awash in fossil fuels, 25,000 participants from countries of the world gathered again in Madrid, Span, in December 2019, to discuss their progress in setting and adjusting national goals for reducing carbon emissions and, as a secondary issue, for making financial contributions to a fund to assist poor countries in meeting their energy needs without adding to the climate crisis. In the end, though, the meeting has universally been considered a failure, in large part because the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait blocked “the science from the negotiations.”

Reporting for the New York Times, Somini Sengupta quotes the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, who “offered an unusually blunt assessment of the 25th annual climate negotiations, formally known as the Conference of Parties. ‘I am disappointed with the results of #COP25,’ he said on Twitter. ‘The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis’(https://nytimes.com/2019/12/15/climate/cop25-un-climate-talks-madrid.html).

During the meeting, “there was a push from both rich and poor countries to commit, at least on paper, to ramping up climate-action targets next year.” In the end, there was “no agreement on even that.” Sengupta writes: “The final declaration included what counts as exceptionally weak diplomatic language, saying only that there was an ‘urgent need’ to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.” However, “[o]n their current trajectory, average global temperatures are on pace to increase to levels where heat waves would be very likely to intensify, storms to become more severe and coastal cities to be at risk of drowning, according to the scientific consensus.”

There was opposition, but not among the key negotiators. Julia Conley reports that close to “100 civil society organizations…released a joint statement condemning the US. Australia, the E.U., and other wealthy countries that emit much of the carbon that’s warming the planet, for insisting on a deal ‘only for the corporate elites, while damning [ignoring the plight of] people and the planet” (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/12/14/final-hours-cop-25-denounced-utter-failure-deal-stripped-ambitions-and-us-refuses).

Why does the US continue as a reactionary and obstructionist force on the climate crisis?

The systemic need for growth and fossil fuels.

Most fundamentally, as many have cogently argued, the US corporate-dominated capitalist system must continuously expand in ways that are incompatible with more and more of the earth’s ecosystems (e.g., John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism). This system, as currently organized, requires in turn continuous access to fossil fuels and other natural resources (e.g., Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left). But the extraction, processing, and transportation of fossil fuels and other natural resources are environmentally devastating and contribute significantly to the climate crisis. As the economy grows, the environmental devastation grows along with it. The economic power of the corporate elites and rich are at the center of the climate crisis, but they are hardly alone. And it is rare for members of the corporate elite and rich to call for significant government action on the climate crisis.

The existence of a grand right-wing alliance.

In the US, there are, obviously, powerful forces arrayed against any action or policy that include but go beyond but include what Trump has unleashed. These forces are connected variously in an opportunistic alliance that includes most notably Trump, his hand-picked advisers and administrators, all levels of the Republican Party, most of the corporate community which pours money into candidate selection and lobbying, right-wing media, right-wing think tanks, ideological compliant “experts,” as well as tens of millions of apparently stalwart, often single-issue, followers.

The incipient rise of this right-wing alliance can be traced back to corporate elites who opposed the 1930s’ New Deal, and it has never gone away and has always been organized around corporate elites and supportive political regimes. This alliance gained momentum with the further politicization of the corporate community in the 1970s. The Reagan administration boosted its legitimacy and expansion in the 1980s. The alliance expanded through subsequent administrations, especially but not only Republican ones. It is based on the propositions that include but go beyond energy policies, though energy policies are critical to any understanding of the climate crisis. Now the culmination of this process is embodied in the current President.

Amidst all of Trump’s blustering about how good the economy, amidst his lies and stream of tweeting, he is filling regulatory agencies like the EPA with people who deny or dismiss the climate crisis, introducing or eliminating regulations designed to reign in greenhouse gas emissions (see: https://environmentalintegrity.org/trump-watch-epa/regulatory-rollbacks), withdrawing from the UN climate agreement, pushing pro-coal proposals, opening up more public land – onshore, offshore, in the Arctic- to drilling, and continuing a foreign policy based significantly on the protection and access to oil and other vital minerals. Indeed, Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan argue that Trump’s climate policies are criminal and “his most impeachable offenses” (https://commondreams.org/views/2019/11/19/trumps-climate-crimes-are-his-most-impleachable-offenses?cd-origin=rss&utm_term=AO&utm_campaign=Dailey%20Newsletter&utm_medium=Email).

What are the prospects for radical change in the US?

It may be that there will be a growing number of Americans who recognize that the carbon-soaked, exploitative, endless-growth system cannot be sustained without contaminating the air, water, and soils, and without increasing the catastrophic events that accompany the climate crisis. And, at some point, more and more of people will be forced to grips with the reality that there must be extensive structural changes in the economic, political, energy, and social systems. The Democratic victories in the 2018 elections may be a precursor of what is to come, though the elections did not end Republican control of Trump and the Senate and the federal judiciary and Supreme court have been filling up with right-wing justices. Thus, a lot is at stake in the upcoming 2020 elections. Given the dire state of the climate crisis, it will not be enough to displace Republicans with centrist, moderate Democrats who limit their agenda to incremental changes and hope of achieving bipartisanship in the Senate and House. There is a need for radical, systemic, structural changes in US energy policy, and other policies that negatively affect the environment and spur the climate crisis. Proposals for a New Green Deal provide a framework for a process of changes that go in a desirable direction. Though Arn Menconi points out that there is still not any bill in the US Congress, even in the House, related to the Green New Deal (https://consortiumnews.com/2019/11/21/theres-still-no-green-new-deal-bill-in-congress).

Outside of electoral politics, Naomi Klein (On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal) and Bill McKibben (Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself out) are among the brilliant analysts and activists who been leaders in the efforts and struggles to mobilize people to phase out fossil fuels and restructure the society on a sustainable basis. Many authors have written books and articles on what such a sustainable society would look like (e.g., Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, Creating an Ecological Society: toward a revolutionary transformation; ). Economists like Robert Pollin offer details on how to create a sustainable economy (Greening the Global Economy). A Stanford report charts a path for 143 nations to implement a “green new deal” (https://phys.org/2019-12-country-green-stanford-paths-countries.html). Then there are writers who offer a case for being optimistic. Jeremy Brecher writes a book Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual. Wendy Becktold , from the Sierra Club, offers “10 Reasons to Feel Hopeful About Climate Change in 2019”(https://sierraclub.org/series/10-reasons-feel-hopeful-about-climate-change-2019). There is an unknown number of activists and organizers working for ecologically-sound solutions (https://popularresistance.org/social-ecology-radicalizing-the-climate-movement). Some cities are committed to achieving zero-carbon emissions within a few decades. Greta Thornburg has helped to ignite a global movement of young people and has done as much as or more than anyone to bring the world’s attention to the climate crisis.

There are other difficult challenges. Robert Jensen points to two that are overlooked by proponents of a Green New Deal such as Naomi Klein. He writes that societies like the US have to be re-organized, so they consume much less than they do presently. And a sustainable world cannot become ecologically sustainable with close to 8 billion people. On the first point, he writes: “There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult.” And on the second point: There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine. What then to do? Jensen answers: “Such challenges may not be overcome, but Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.”

Near the end of his journeys to climate engendered devastated places around the world, Dahr Jamail gives his thoughts near the end of his brilliant book, “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, on how to live without hope but without giving up.

“A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation, however calamitous it is. Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things. Grief is also a way to honor what we are losing…. My acceptance of our probably decline opens into a more intimate and heartfelt union with life itself….Falling in love with the Earth in a way I never though possible…to reach a place of acceptance and inner peace, while enduring the grief and suffering that are inevitable as the biosphere declines.”

He has learned from the wisdom on indigenous cultures that teach “obligations to those who came before, to those who will come after, and to the Earth itself. When I orient my self around the question ‘what are my obligations,’ the deeper question immediately arises: ‘From this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life?

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