Climate change: it’s even worse than we thought

Issue: 137
Posted: 9 January 13

Martin Empson

Whatever else it is remembered for, 2012 is likely to go down in history as the year when climate change began noticeably to change the face of the planet. The trends we are beginning to see mean that global warming is going to get far worse, far quicker than anyone expected.

Most obviously this was seen in the polar north. The summer of 2012 saw a record low in Arctic ice levels which fell to a fifth of what they were 30 years ago. The Arctic Ocean is likely to be ice free in the summer within the next decade, 80 years earlier than expected.1 Because there is less ice and snow, less solar energy is reflected back into space. This accelerates the warming and the Arctic is now warming twice as fast as any other region of the planet.2

Such effects, when global warming leads to accelerated warming, are known as feedback mechanisms and they are one of the reasons that older models of climate change are proving inadequate to explain the rate at which changes are taking place on the planet.

The melting of the Arctic is a symbol of a rapidly warming world. But it also has far reaching consequences. One of these is more extreme weather in the northern hemisphere as ocean currents, wind patterns and temperatures change. As the Arctic warms it encourages melting elsewhere. The frozen permafrost around the Arctic Circle has begun to warm, releasing greenhouse gases that have been trapped there for thousands of years. Greenland’s ice cap is also melting at an increased rate. Unlike Arctic ice that floats on water, melt water from Greenland causes sea levels to rise. This rise is now taking place at an accelerating rate. “Most glaciologists now think that sea levels will rise by at least a metre by 2100, and possibly by as much as two metres”, though some scientists think the situation might be far worse. Studies show that the rate of melting is currently doubling every decade.3

Weather and climate

As the world warms extreme weather events will become more common. The world’s weather will also become even more unpredictable. Hurricane Sandy is a poignant reminder of what this might mean in the future. It is very difficult, though not always impossible, to link a particular weather event to global warming. So we cannot say with any certainty that Sandy was directly linked to climate change. But again trends are that extreme weather is getting more common:

Work by researchers from Taiwan and China found that the increase in rainfall intensity over the past three decades has been an entire order of magnitude greater than global climate models predict. As for extraordinary heatwaves such as those in Europe in 2003 and 2010, events so far from the norm were only projected to occur towards the end of this century.4

In 2012 the US saw its worst and most widespread drought since the mid-1950s. In July around 80 percent of the country was considered “abnormally dry”.5 The US National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration reported that “June 2012 also marks the 36th consecutive June and 328th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average”.6

The US drought destroyed crops across extensive areas of the US. This has helped to increase prices of food, though climate change is only exacerbating a problem caused by banks and multinationals speculating in food prices. But as climate change causes crops to fail possible price rises make price speculation even more attractive to companies and banks.

Early climate models, including those used by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) discussed below, tended to predict that some global warming would be good for crop yields. Higher levels of carbon dioxide can act as a fertiliser for plants in some conditions. In 2007 the IPCC predicted that yields of crops would increase unless warming exceeded 3.5°C, when they would drop. While scientists are still debating the exact impact of global warming on agriculture, some studies show that the IPCC were over-optimistic in their predictions.

A 2011 study from Stanford University “looked at global production of wheat, maize, rice and soybeans—crops that provide three quarters of humanity’s calories—from 1980 to 2008. Based on what we know about how temperature, rainfall and CO2 levels affect growth, the analysis suggests that average yields are now more than 1 percent lower than they would have been with no warming. Without the fertilising effect of increased CO2, they would have been 3 percent lower”.7

As the world warms, dry regions are likely to become drier, making it harder to irrigate crops. Extreme and unpredictable weather will cause more and more failures. The future for the world’s farmers is likely to be much harder. In particular, those working family farms or smallholdings are less likely to be able to survive the financial crises caused by failed crops.

Emissions and global response

We have seen that many of the predictions made in the recent past about the effects of global warming are inadequate. There are a number of reasons for this. The IPCC, for instance, produces reports based on the collaboration of hundreds of scientists from many different disciplines. Out of necessity the reports are based on consensus which tends to discourage more extreme predictions.

Another problem is that, as one climate scientist has put it, “most scientists have underplayed the significance of the emissions story to make their message politically more acceptable”.8 Unfortunately, despite overwhelming evidence that global warming is far worse than expected, the emissions of greenhouse gases that are the root cause of the problem are rising rapidly.

The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011. Figures for 2012 are not yet available, but are likely to be higher still. The UN World Meteorological Organisation points out that between 1990 and 2011 there was a 30 percent increase in the warming effect on our climate because of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.9 Despite the economic recession which caused a slight dip in emissions after 2008, global emissions are rising faster than ever. In fact they are close to the IPCC’s worst case scenario.

The last IPCC report was published in 2007. Then the IPCC concluded that with current emissions levels we would see a 4°C rise in average global temperatures by 2100. But more recent computer modelling has demonstrated that the IPCC predictions were too low. Now “best estimates” are that there will be a 5°C or 6°C rise by 2100 and approximately a 10 percent chance that the rise will be 7°C by the end of this century. This means that many of the readers of this journal will live to see “severe” climate change.10

In his 2007 book Six Degrees Mark Lynas painted an apocalyptic picture of a world four degrees hotter than the pre-industrial era. Heat waves ravage Europe, even in winter months killing thousands. Sudden temperature fluctuations cause enormous floods as mountain snows melt. In the summer rivers dry up completely limiting agriculture still further and rendering hydro-electric power a thing of the past. Millions of people become refugees from flooding and rising sea levels and cities like New York and London require billions of pounds to be spent on flood defences.11

A November 2012 report by the World Bank concludes that:

A 4°C world will pose unprecedented challenges to humanity…the picture that emerges challenges an often-implicit assumption that climate change will not significantly undermine economic growth. It seems clear that climate change in a 4°C world could seriously undermine poverty alleviation in many regions. This is supported by past observations of the negative effects of climate change on economic growth in developing countries. While developed countries have been and are projected to be adversely affected by impacts resulting from climate change, adaptive capacities in developing regions are weaker. The burden of climate change in the future will very likely be borne differentially by those in regions already highly vulnerable to climate change and variability. Given that it remains uncertain whether adaptation and further progress toward development goals will be possible at this level of climate change, the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur.12

Yet despite these warnings politicians fail to agree to action on climate change. In June 2012 Rio de Janeiro hosted the UN conference on Sustainable Development. Marking 20 years since the very first “Earth Summit” the Rio event was designed to showcase global action on environmental questions. Prior to Rio recent UN conferences on climate change had ended in failure. Most importantly, in 2009 the Copenhagen conference had ended in chaos as President Obama led the leaders of China, Brazil, India and South Africa in passing a White House written accord that offered no action.

Desperate to avoid a similar debacle in Rio, the Brazilian hosts worked hard to produce a document that would be acceptable to all parties. As a result it contained nothing of substance other than committing governments to action at some indeterminate point in the future.13 In a post-conference statement Oxfam described the event as a “hoax” and declared that participants were “paralysed by inertia and in hock to vested interests; too many are unable to join up the dots and solve the connected crises of environment, equity and economy… The poorest people on earth are paying the highest price”.14

This year the UN climate conference takes place far from any criticism in the oil-rich state of Qatar. Ahead of the conference there is little expectation of an outcome that will lead to serious action being taken on climate change.

The British coalition government, despite promises to be the “greenest ever”, is increasingly split over its environmental policies. The Tory energy minister John Hayes described wind farms as “a bourgeois left article of faith” and committed himself to making sure that only a minority of onshore wind farms that are currently at the planning stage get built. While attitudes towards renewable energy are creating tensions with their coalition partners, there is wider agreement between David Cameron and Nick Clegg that the free market can solve the environmental crisis.

At the Rio conference Nick Clegg spoke at the “Natural Capital Conference” and made clear the British government’s commitment to an environmental strategy that is based on putting a price on nature in order to give business an incentive to protect it. Such ideas are rooted in a belief that capitalism can save the planet. Yet market solutions have simply failed to reduce emissions. The environmental problems we face are caused by an economic system where the blind accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation is the driving force of production. One example of this is the World Bank itself. On the one hand it produces a report on the threat from climate change and on the other it continues to invest in fossil fuel intensive plants around the globe. In 2010 World Bank funding for coal plants hit a record $4.4 billion, according to Christian Aid.

The current economic crisis offers opportunities for socialists to link the question of climate change to the wider struggle against austerity. We can argue that, rather than relying on the free market, there should be investment in jobs and industry that can reduce emissions and help mitigate the effects of global warming. But such arguments are also a stepping stone towards a radically different way of organising society. Capitalism will always cause environmental destruction. At a time when the system is failing to deal with one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced, the argument for an alternative socialist society can make sense to millions of people.


Notes

1: Kerr, 2012.

2: Le Page, 2012, pp34-35.

3: Le Page, 2012, p37.

4: Le Page, 2012, p36.

5: BBC, 16 July 2012, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18864753

6: NOAA, 2012

7: Le Page, 2012, pp36-37.

8: Le Page, 2012, pp38-39.

9: WMO, 2012.

10: Le Page, 2012, pp38-39.

11: Lynas, 2007, pp173-204.

12: World Bank, 2012, p64.

13: I have written more about the failure of the Rio Summit in Empson, 2012.

14: www.oxfam.org/en/grow/pressroom/reactions/oxfam-final-statement-rio20-rio-will-go-down-hoax-summit


References

Empson, 2012, “Fiddling while Rome Burns: A Report from Rio”, Irish Marxist Review, volume 1, number 3, www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/32

Kerr, Richard, 2012, “Ice-Free Arctic Sea May Be Years, Not Decades, Away”, Science (28 September).

Le Page, Michel, 2012, “Climate Change: It’s even worse than we thought”, New Scientist (4 November), www.newscientist.com/special/worse-climate

Lynas, Mark, 2007, “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet” (Fourth Estate)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2012, “State of the Climate: Global Analysis” (June), www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/2012/6

World Bank, 2012, “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided”, http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf

World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), “Greenhouse Gas Concentrations Reach New Record” (20 November), www.wmo.int/pages/mediacentre/press_releases/pr_965_en.html