Biosphere on the Precipice—The Last, Best Plan
Can socialism save civilization from environmental catastrophe?
While the environmental crisis and global warming have today become household concepts for most, the true significance of this threat is still lost in a haze of deception, green washing and political double-speak. Behind this veil of ignorance lies perhaps the grimmest reality humanity has ever faced. If not stopped very quickly, planetary over-heating—caused by industrial capitalism, and compounded by rapidly accelerating natural effects—will cause a level of destruction never before imagined. Scary as this sounds, the reality must be addressed with keen attention, if there is to be any chance of avoiding the mother of all catastrophes. But first, we need to look at some facts.
The 2007 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) details how atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases “have increased markedly as a result of human activities,” and “far exceed pre-industrial levels.” The report confirms with “very high confidence” that the “net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming.” The report goes further to state that a rise of about two degrees Centigrade—the threshold expected to bring severe drought, hunger, massive storms, and flooding—is “very unlikely” to be avoided; and it warns that governments had better start preparing to deal with these consequences.1
The “Change your light bulbs” approach
So far, however, what governments are doing is so inadequate as to be laughable. Behind the scenes, scientists are told to keep quiet about their findings, and politicians like Al Gore, whose warnings in An Inconvenient Truth reached many, nevertheless leaves corrective measures to individual conservation and belt-tightening—the “change your light bulbs” approach. Thus for many, the amount of warming so far—0.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages—still seems minor; and the visible and projected effects seem distant to many observers, even on the left. Life—exploited, violent, even crazed though it is—seems to go on more or less normally.
But this is the “normalcy” of Thelma and Louise barreling toward the cliff, with the accelerator glued to the floor. The reason lies in the increasing rate of change, and the feedback loops of natural effects compounding the human-caused warming with yet more warming. James E Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Science, and other scientists, suggest that the projections of the IPCC, grim as they are, are wildly optimistic. The geologic record does not suggest that the ice at the poles will melt at a gradual, linear fashion as the IPCC projects, but rather the opposite: it “flips” or “whipsaws” from one state to the other.2 The melting of summer sea ice in the Arctic, once projected to take a century, has leapt ahead of predictions: in a few short years, it’s shrunk to only 60 percent of the size, and 20 percent of the mass that it had in the mid 1990s, and is now expected to be gone completely as early as 2010. The 2002 collapse of the Larsen B, an ice shelf in Antarctica the size of Rhode Island, was “a big glaring clue,” said Hugh Ducklow, Director of Ecosystems for MBL Laboratories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “The geological evidence suggested that it was stable for at least 10,000 years... and it literally disintegrated in three weeks.”3
Open water means that the “albedo” effect, or reflectivity, of ice is lost. The dark water absorbs much more of the Sun’s heat, which in turn becomes a major accelerant of more ice melting, and of warming generally. Arctic water temperatures in autumn are now 6 to 10 degrees warmer than they were in the 1980s, and surface air temperature has also been going up faster than the rest of the planet. When Arctic summer ice disappears, the Greenland ice sheet will be next, and that means rising sea levels measured in meters, not inches. More than two trillion tons of land ice have already been lost in Greenland, Alaska and Antarctica since 2003, according to NASA satellite data.4
The Artic is the canary in the coal mine…and the canary has died
This problem goes way beyond stranded polar bears: “The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming,” says Dr Jay Zwally, a NASA glaciologist, “and now...the canary has died.”5 Hansen concludes that planet Earth is already on the precipice—at the “tipping point”—past which irreversible, cataclysmic processes are set in motion, without additional climate “forcing.”6 Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC, and British earth scientist James Lovelock, author of The Revenge of Gaia, agree.7
But this may just be the beginning. Fast feedbacks can produce further fast feedbacks, and the warming Arctic has brought a new issue into play. Buried in ice formations called hydrates under ocean floors throughout the world, and in the Arctic tundra (Siberia, Alaska) are billions of tons of methane, a gas that is 20 to 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Produced as a result of the decay of plant matter over tens or hundreds of thousands of years, methane is also given off as a result of bacterial action on more recent dead vegetation. And, it is known to be released through warming!
Methane has been slowly building up in the atmosphere in (relatively) small quantities, released from mainly human sources such as agricultural production, burning fossil fuels, etc.; as well as natural sources such as wetlands. But so far, it has been left out of IPCC modeling of global warming. In the Summer of 2008, a Swedish/Russian/American shipboard study of the Siberian Continental Shelf found that “massive deposits of subsea methane are bubbling to the surface,” including concentrations “up to 100 times background levels,” and “areas of sea foaming with gas bubbling up through ‘methane chimneys’.”8 In a paper presented to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco in December, lead scientist Igor Semiletov and others discussed the “potential for remobilization of old terrestrial carbon from thawing tundra permafrost and coastal ice complexes,” as well as the methane releases from subsea permafrost.9 Other scientists at the AGU documented methane releases from Arctic lakes and tundra, and argued strongly for its inclusion in warming calculations.
Global warming could “last longer than Stonehenge”
While methane may look like the mother of all feedback loops, there could be others. According to James Lovelock, if the global temperature increase reaches just three degrees above pre-industrial levels, and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rises to 500 parts per million (ppm) (it’s presently at a 650,000-year high of 387 ppm), the world’s oceans and rainforests could turn into net emitters of greenhouse gases instead of serving as sinks, as they do now. In that event, temperatures could sail up to six degrees over pre-industrial levels, which would make most of the earth uninhabitable, and raise sea levels by 25 meters (which would flood half the world’s major cities).10 One researcher has come to the conclusion that the oceans are already saturated with CO2, and that contrary to the common belief that the earth will restore itself once humans stop polluting it, the climate effects of added CO2 in the atmosphere “will last longer than Stonehenge.”11 One must ask, what is to stop runaway global warming once it starts (if it hasn’t already)? Is the earth likely to just keep heating up, eventually becoming unable to support any life, like the planet Venus, with its toxic atmosphere and surface temperatures in the thousands of degrees? We do know that earth has gone through radical swings, once being very hot and toxic to life, once being fully covered with ice, etc.
But one doesn’t have to project that far to see the dangers. With just the approximately two degree warming now considered virtually inevitable by the IPCC, massive, life-threatening changes will impact billions of people on all continents, thereby radically worsening already dire conditions caused by economic collapse, imperialism and war. Increased acidification of the oceans will compound the already increasing “dead zones” caused by pesticide runoff and other causes. Severe flooding will cause thousands, perhaps millions of refugees to flee low-lying areas. Drought and water shortages will devastate communities; perhaps threatening more than a billion people in the hardest hit areas alone (Asia and Africa). Agricultural crop yields will plummet in many areas, and though yields might improve in some northern climes, it would be a mistake to see that as a benefit. Animals are already losing ecological niches and moving northward; if we have to add people doing the same thing, on top of refugees in the millions or billions worldwide, the scale of disruption to human society is evident. Disease epidemics will of course spread uncontrollably in these conditions. Established capitalist governments are completely unequipped to handle this much devastation.
Devastation will happen unless something is done about it
Of course there are still some skeptics, even outside the Bush administration, who say this is all scare-mongering. One well known “progressive,” Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch, is among them, saying that rising CO2 is an effect, not a cause, of global warming.12 But humanity can’t afford to ignore these scientific warnings, almost universally subscribed to by climatologists, which are now backed up by so much melting ice and other evidence. For socialists, the task is to integrate an understanding of climate change and what to do about it, into a program to overthrow capitalism and revolutionize the world economy. The first step is to understand that catastrophic devastation will happen unless something is done about it (only touched on here: please review the sources given in the footnotes).
And the second step is to be clear that capitalism is incapable of making the necessary transformation. Mainstream environmental groups, capitalist governments in first-world countries (now including the incoming Obama administration in the U.S.), as well as the leading climatologists, all propose tinkering with the system. James Hansen, despite seeking an actual reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—not just reduced emissions—calls for measures such as carbon price and efficiency standards, use of biofuels, a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, and carbon sequestration for both coal and biofuel-powered plants. Obama also supports pricing carbon emissions (with a gradually tightening “cap”) and “clean coal.” Presumably Obama will also back long-range goals, featuring target dates such as 2030 and 2050 for emissions reductions, as European Union governments have done, only to sabotage their own plans.13 Mainstream environmental groups tend to focus on legislative reforms, enforcement of existing inadequate laws, or projecting magical technological remedies that can’t be quickly implemented (and in some cases might be worse).
Carbon sequestration (as in “clean coal”) is one of those. Based on capturing the carbon that would be released from power plants and burying it underground, it is an unproven technology, which cannot be retroactively applied to existing plants. It will take decades to implement; and satisfactory results, with no future leaking of CO2 (which could fatally poison nearby residents) are dubious. And biofuels are a possibly worse alternative. Hansen points out that even biofuel plants will require carbon sequestration; and he opposes ethanol because the energy emissions used in its production negate any benefit. But all other biofuel sources suffer the same problem!14 Even worse, biofuels are driving up prices on food crops, and big corporations are driving off small farmers to gobble up land in third world countries to produce it.
Needed: a program of revolutionary transformation
So what are the requirements to stabilize warming, and prevent the worst from happening? The global energy infrastructure needs to be transformed and based on renewables such as wind, solar and geothermal primarily, and possibly also tides, waves and ocean currents. This in turn will require both local initiatives, and a restructuring of the electricity grid to allow transport of renewable-based energy from optimum areas of production (e.g., windmills in the plains states) to population centers. Agriculture will need to be reorganized to follow sustainable principles, freed from dependence on fossil fuels, fertilizers and pesticides. Food production also needs to become more locally based, less dependent on long-range transportation. What’s left of rain forests and old growth forests must be preserved. And transportation will have to be rebuilt, emphasizing rail and public transport, and based on renewable-sourced electricity. Fossil fuel use will have to phased out very quickly, and all this will have to be done while making sure that the basic needs (food, clothes, housing, healthcare, etc.) of the world’s people are met.
Capitalist interests are going to have to be abolished
Right away we can see that the capitalist system can’t do this: what capitalist country has ever been able to fully meet the basic needs of its people, let alone totally abandon most of its most profitable industries and fundamentally transform itself? It’s not that capitalists are necessarily bad people (some invest in renewable energy, want to alleviate poverty, etc); it’s that the capitalist system is based on: 1) Production for profit, not for use; and, 2) A continual drive to expand in order to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This requires an endless cycle of accumulation of new wealth, finding new markets, imperialist conquests and wars, etc. An insatiable drive for power is inherent to the system.15 Rather than positive transformation, the capitalist “answer” to the developing catastrophe is much more likely to be regrouping the wealthy, together with selected middle-class elements, into fortress communities designed to monopolize what resources are left, and protecting themselves with mercenary armies like Blackwater.
No Obama, no Clinton, in fact no capitalist or reformist party (or environmentalist organization) is ever going to be able to change the fundamentals of the capitalist social order one iota. A recent Scientific American article on the ethics of climate change is instructive. Ethics, it seems, dictates that no one’s “interests” gets hurt too much in the course of solving global warming.16 This exactly describes how all politicians operate in a bourgeois “democracy”: representing “all the people” necessarily includes the most powerful interests, who never get hurt, and are always the first to be considered. This is how that $700 billion bailout of Wall Street bankers happened, despite an unprecedented outpouring of opposition from the people!
Local groups and initiatives around environmental issues are a vital component to any solution. But in order to fix the looming climate problem, as well as solve the recurring economic crises/depressions, capitalist “interests” are going to have to be abolished. Despite the disruptions presented by revolutionary change, only a socialist, globally planned economy, coordinating and working with local organizations, and squarely based on democratic workers’ institutions at all levels, is capable of the task at hand.
But can a socialist planned economy do the job? Despite being hobbled with a devastating civil war, and then by a deforming and undemocratic Stalinist bureaucracy, the Russian Soviet workers state was able in a couple decades to transform from a mostly rural, peasant-based economy into an industrial society that could both feed itself and beat the Germans in World War II. And Cuba, also a workers state with deformities and limited resources, essentially transformed itself twice, once after the revolution, and again after the fall of the Soviet Union. It both feeds its citizens, and exports doctors to needy places around the world.
Nothing is guaranteed, and the tasks are both enormous and urgent. But who else is capable of making the necessary transformation, if not the organized working people of the world, sweeping capitalism out of the way, and democratically running the world in our own interests?
Chris Kinder is an Oakland socialist and activists, and the coordinator of the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
January 2, 2009
1 “Summary for Policy Makers, IPCC Fourth Assessment Report,” November 2007, http://www.ipcc.ch. See also, IPCC: “Too Late To Avoid Dangerous Change,” www.heatisonline.org
2 Hansen et al, Climate Change and Trace Gases, http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/authors/jhansen.html#2007
3 “Melting Poles Augur No Happy Ending,” Washington Post, 22 October 2007.
4 “NASA Data Show 2 Trillion Tons of Land Ice Lost,” Associated Press, December 17, 2008
5 “What Most Politicians Won’t Talk About,” www.climatecodered.net
6 This means the effects are locked in even if no more greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere. James Hansen, Tipping Point, Perspective of a Climatologist, http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/authors/jhansen.html#2008
7 Ross Gelbspan, Beyond the Point of No Return, http://www.heatisonline.org (December 2008)
8 “Exclusive: The Methane Time Bomb,” (September 23), and “Hundreds of Methane ‘Plumes’ Discovered” (September 25, 2008), by Steve Connor, Science Editor, The Independent, www.independent.co.uk
9 Semiletov, I, “International Siberian Shelf Study” (ISSS-08), abstract, http://www.agu.org/meetings/fm08alf19.html
10 James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia, New York 2006
11 David Archer of Chicago University, quoted in “Greenhouse Gases Will Heat Up the Planet For Ever,” The Independent, November 30, 2008, www.independent.co.uk
12 The time lag for CO2 penetration of the atmosphere is well known by scientists, but does not apply to the historical period. See Cockburn’s articles at www.counterpunch.org, and for rebuttals, see columns of George Monbiot at www.monbiot.com</span>, and “How Do We Know That Recent CO2 Increases Are Due To Human Activities?” at www.realclimate.org
13 Germany is planning to replace nuclear power plants with coal, according to Hansen in Tipping Point (above); and see George Monbiot, “Whistling In the Wind,” (December 2, 2008) for a discussion of the latest British plan, at www.monbiot.com
14 See the discussion, sourced to recent articles in Science, in George Monbiot, “The Last Straw,” (February 12, 2008), www.monbiot.com
15 For a useful discussion of the conflict between capitalist growth and the need to drastically reduce emissions and transform economically, see Minqi Li, “Climate Change, Limits to Growth, and the Imperative for Socialism,” Monthly Review, July-August 2008.
16 “Ethics and Economics of Climate Change,” Scientific American, June 2008