Revolution #280, September 16, 2012
Climate Change: The Heat Wave, Extreme Weather and Future Storms
This summer has seen a scorching heat wave across the U.S. More than 40,000 individual high temperature records were set this summer. Cities like Atlanta and Nashville broke records for the highest temperatures ever. The first six months of this year in the U.S. were the warmest in 132 years of recorded history. Wildfires of size and intensity never before seen have scorched parts of Colorado and New Mexico. Drought has engulfed two-thirds of counties in the U.S. The devastation of corn and soybean crops has sent food prices skyrocketing. These price rises under the workings of this system create a real danger of another food crisis like the one of 2008 that caused massive suffering and hardship among the planet’s poorest people.
These events come after other massive heat waves in recent years—in the U.S. last summer, in Russia in 2010, etc. The Russian heat wave was the worst in 1,000 years of recorded history there, according to the Russian state weather ministry. It killed thousands of people and caused hundreds of damaging wildfires.
For years scientists have been predicting that, as the planet warms and the climate changes, there will be increasing extremes in weather, more destructive and frequent storms, and vast transformations in climate such as expanding drought. Now there is increasing evidence that these changes are already upon us. Climate change is caused by the warming of the earth from the build-up in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases that are produced by the burning of oil, coal, and gas and other practices that are rooted today in the functioning of the capitalist-imperialist system.
Increasing Weather Extremes and Events
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that of the 13 warmest years globally, 11 of them were the years 2001 to 2011.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by climatologists James Hansen and Makiko Sato points to evidence globally for the last 61 years showing that in the last three decades, as the average temperature of the globe has slowly risen, extreme weather events have soared and expanded to cover 10 percent of the globe. This is an increase of 50-100 times from the previous three decades. Speaking of the U.S. heat wave in 2011 and heat waves in Russia in 2010 and Europe in 2003, Hansen says, "These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are miniscule, vanishingly small." (Washington Post, August 3, 2012) While other scientists argue it is still not possible to say definitively these extremes could not have happened except as a result of global warming/climate change, it is clear there is an increasing trend of heat and drought extremes as the planet warms.
Things are happening in global climate that have never been seen before. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben pointed to a rainfall at 109 degrees F. that happened in Mecca, Saudi Arabia this year. He called this the "hottest rainfall in the history of earth. In his book Eaarth, McKibben lists other unprecedented storms. "In the last half decade we’ve seen the earliest forming Category 5 hurricane ever recorded (Emily 2005), and the first January tropical cyclone (Zeta 2006), the first known tropical cyclone in the South Atlantic (Catarina 2004) and the first known tropical storm ever to strike Spain (Vince 2005)." A New York Times op-ed article by Charles Blow ("Farewell, Fair Weather", New York Times, May 31, 2008) said "According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, there have been more than four times as many weather-related disasters in the last 30 years than in the previous 75 years."
These kinds of weather extremes—heat waves and droughts, flooding and monsoons and more devastating and more common storms—are disproportionately affecting people in the countries of the "Third World," those countries oppressed by capitalism-imperialism.
Global warming and climate change is transforming the face of the planet and causing increasing extinction of species. Polar ice is melting at a rate never before seen. Arctic sea ice was at the lowest level ever recorded in August of this year ("Arctic sea ice just hit a record low. Here’s why it matters," Brad Plumer, August 28, 2012, washingtonpost.com). 70-95% of the melt of the Arctic since 1979 was caused by human practices according to a new study in Environmental Research Letters. The melting of ice is already damaging a tremendously rich ecosystem that is important to life on the whole planet and threatening to destroy it over the next decades. The way of life for whole peoples in the Arctic ecosystem is being undermined. Melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica is raising sea levels with much greater damage to come unless there is a dramatic turn away from burning fossil fuels quickly. According to James Hansen (Storms of Our Grandchildren), the last time the Earth was 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer than today (and if business as usual continues predictions are that the temperature increase will go beyond, even quite a bit beyond that over the next century), the sea level was 25 meters (82 feet) higher than today. About a billion people now live at elevations of less than 25 meters, spread along the world’s coastlines and on islands.
Fight for the Future
These climate changes are part of an overall environmental emergency—the destruction of forests and other natural habitats and ecosystems, the extinction of species far above normal "background" rates, the acidification of the oceans and killing off of ocean life, pollution and degradation of air, water and soil, etc. Climate change is the leading edge of this, causing its own damage and also interacting with and making worse these other impacts. The hard truth is this is just the beginning.
An impending environmental catastrophe confronts the world. Without massive and urgent changes to drastically cut the burning of fossil fuels, climate change will become much more devastating and can become unstoppable. And yet the capitalist energy companies of the planet already have plans to extract and burn five times more oil, coal and gas in the reserves they already own than the upper limit set by climate scientists of what can be burned without causing truly devastating warming of the earth. McKibben points out, "Yes that coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground—it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony." These reserves are worth about $27 trillion. ("Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math," Rolling Stone, July 24, 2012)
This reality begins to point to the deeper dynamics of why capitalism-imperialism can do nothing to truly address and deal with this threat to the planet’s ecosystems and to humanity itself. It’s not just about money or greed or even "the corporations." The situation today is the inevitable outcome of a system whose whole heartbeat and functioning is based on approaching everything—all of the natural world and people—as commodities to be bought and sold or used to pour into more growth and production for profit. This drives a process of ruthless and relentless competition among all the capitalist powers to win out against the other, to grab, slash and burn before the "other guy" gets it.
More people are now recognizing the danger of climate change, and in a sense there is a moment to seize. But this needs to go a lot deeper. There is tremendous urgency to transform the situation so people are seriously facing up to the actual danger posed by climate change and the overall environmental emergency, and beginning to get clear on how the system is the source of this problem—and that things don’t have to be this way. Only revolution that defeats and sweeps aside the current ruling power, when conditions for doing that have been brought into being, and establishes a radically new socialist state power, can actually open up the way for dealing with the global environmental emergency for real. There is a great need for increased and more determined resistance on this front, and to link this resistance closely to building a movement for revolution that can bring actual hope of saving the planet from the most devastating changes to come. There is a viable way out, through the new synthesis of communist revolution brought forward by Bob Avakian and the principles for a new system and a new way of protecting the environment laid out in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). (Also check out online Revolution's special issue on the environment at revcom.us/environment.)
As BA puts it in his talk Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About, "This system and those who rule over it are not capable of carrying out economic development to meet the needs of the people now, while balancing that with the needs of future generations and requirements of safeguarding the environment. They care nothing for the rich diversity of the earth and its species, for the treasures this contains, except when and where they can turn this into profit for themselves…. These people are not fit to be the caretakers of the earth." (BAsics 1:29)
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