email info@socialistviewpoint.org

The Environment

Climate Change is Real and Getting Worse Fast

By Chris Kinder

With the already-happening warming of the planet, many disastrous outcomes threaten humanity. This fate for humanity is absolutely undeniable. The fact that humankind was destroying the conditions necessary for its own survival came to be recognized as far back as the 1970s. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) technical report on coal came to the conclusion that “continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about ‘significant and damaging’ changes in the global atmosphere,” according to a report in a special issue of the New York Times Magazine, in 2018. The article proclaimed, “Thirty years ago we could have saved the planet.”1

Slowly, some began to see that this was an existential threat to humanity. Carbon in the atmosphere would raise the heat on the planet. The rising heat would cause the polar and glacial ice to melt, which would raise sea levels. Increasing temperatures could double the temperatures that existed before the industrial age, and this might occur by the 2030s. And the world’s most advanced militaries (i.e., the U.S. military) could vastly increase the world’s carbon emissions. A report issued by the Department of Energy said that the rise in temperature rates could triple, and dust bowls would threaten North America, Africa and Asia, access to drinking water and agricultural production would fall, and ice melts would raise sea levels drastically. All of this would cause mass migrations on an unprecedented scale.

Many just do not get it.

The problem is growing rapidly, but much of humanity still doesn’t fully understand the threat to all life. Surprisingly, this applies to many scientists who have studied climate change in the past few decades, according to a recent article in Scientific American. Climate scientists have “downplayed” the projections of global warming through the use of averages and, to some extent, as the result of pressuring by prominent political figures who accuse scientists of “exaggerating” climate risks. But some recent observations, such as that by the Max Planck Institute Grand Ensemble, inform us that “the observed warming for 1979-2021 is entirely beyond” the average results of the scientific community. Another study showed that the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the earth as a whole. “Few climate models have predicted an effect this large.”2

Most of the capitalist class just doesn’t want to hear it, let alone do something about it. Yes, national, and local governments are talking about it and taking some short-term measures to protect the environment. For instance, New York City just announced a measure to ban the use of gas heating in new buildings, to promote electric power. That leaves existing buildings unaffected, but making such a change everywhere would require a huge industrial re-configuring. That, needless to say, would be fatal for big capital’s profits, which always dominates over everything else.

Fossil fuel companies are on a roll.

President Biden’s restructuring bill, which claimed “the biggest climate measures of any administration so far” was so whittled down by Congress that it now is virtually useless. The bill, now called the Inflation Reduction Act, requires federal lands and offshore waters utilized for renewable energy development to also be opened up for oil and gas drilling, thus negating environmental measures from the get-go. Also note that while the fossil fuels companies made some effort to look good for environmentalists in the late 1960s-early ’70s, they quickly brought an end to their nice talk, and are now plowing ahead with new drilling projects. They are not just driving us all to hell, they are in an escalating race to get there as fast as possible.

Take the Willow Project, for instance. Willow is a gigantic and very destructive plan by ConocoPhillips to drill for an expected half-a-billion barrels of oil on Alaska’s North Slope. This is one of the world’s most beautiful and most forested regions. A rich selection of migratory birds and other beings such as grizzlies, polar bears, wolves, foxes, shaggy musk oxen, and more than half-a-million caribou make their homes here. Now, after Biden’s signing off on this project in April of this year, they—and the human population of the world—are threatened with an expected 260 million metric tons of added carbon pollution in the air. ConocoPhillips has already started carving out dirt roads in the region, and other oil companies are crowding in to get a piece of the action.3

The Willow Project, large and devastating as it is, makes up just a third of the expected drilling projects in the U.S.—and the U.S. is just seventh on the world list of oil drilling projects in 30 countries that are expected to be, or have been approved in 2022 and 2023. Qatar tops the list with nearly seven million barrels expected—although the U.S. would top the list if fracking was included, according to a graphic depiction in the New York Times.4 And gas and oil companies in the U.S. have a lot more threats waiting to go through their pipelines.

A puppet pulled some strings.

One big one is the Mountain Valley Pipeline for gas in Virginia and West Virginia. This project is pushed by that fossil fuel puppet of West Virginia, Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, who often blocs Democratic bills with his critical vote in the Senate. Equitrans Midstream, the Pennsylvania-based company that is the project’s biggest shareholder, says construction is nearly complete. This pipeline will carry fracked gas over 303.5 miles, bulldozing and blasting its way through the Jefferson National Forest, and crossing several streams along the way, risking them with pollution. Should the pipeline deteriorate or get broken in an earthquake it could release thousands of tons of methane into the air, and even cause explosions. The pipeline also threatens many low-income, mixed-race communities that live in the region. The project has been mired in legal delays for years, but now the Biden administration has accepted the project as part of the negotiated deal on raising the debt limit, so its future is pretty much assured.

We Homo Sapiens have been living in relative comfort in a cool period known as the Holocene for 11,000 years. But this relatively stable epoch is a rarity in the planet’s history. Unlike previous epochs, the Holocene has supported a rapid proliferation and growth of humans. It allowed for the successful development of agriculture which in turn led to the acquisition of wealth by some who then turned into a ruling class. These developments led to cities, nations, empires—and to humans killing each other en masse in organized wars—in just a few thousand years. This is the blink of an eye in Earth time, and in our species as well.

From a free species to slaves of capitalism

The genus Homo, within which our Homo Sapien species emerged as its latest (and now only) iteration, have been living on earth without coming anywhere near developments such as this for two million years or more, and Homo Sapiens ourselves go back at least 20,000 years, or more. Our closest neighbor species, the Neanderthals, survived in the ice-age that preceded the Holocene for almost 100,000 years before their extinction around 35,000 years ago. Now, suddenly, we are facing a very sudden and dangerous new epoch called the Anthropocene, and we are not ready for it.

Despite the underplaying, what scientists are saying now is devastating. But who’s listening? Certainly not the short-term-profiting ruling class, and not most of the oppressed and exploited either. They are too busy dealing with surviving. Where is the next meal coming from, and can I afford it? Many people are either on the street or sleeping in doorways. Many are better off than this, of course. Workers are fighting back with their unions and spreading strikes at an increasing rate. Some are more secure in their housing than others. But the class struggle necessarily is dealing with what’s happening now, and this includes the critical fact that inflation is taking prices up much faster than wages. This has robbed working people of a solid one third of their purchasing power, thus upsetting family budgets big time. All this makes the climate change problem seem like a distant concern. But it is not, if you are at all worried about what the grandkids will be living with five or six decades from now.

In the snap of a finger

Climate change is coming fast. In geological time, it is the snap of a finger. Perhaps the most obvious sign of this is the rising level of global average temperature. Earth’s average land and ocean surface temperature in 2022 was 1.55 degrees F (0.86 of a degree C) above the 20th-century average of 57.0 degrees F (13.9 degrees C)—the sixth highest among all years in the 1880-2022 record. It also marked the 46th consecutive year with global temperatures rising above the 20th-century average. The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 2010, with the last nine years (2014-2022) among the ten-warmest.5

The same Scientific American article mentioned above ends with another observation that, in my opinion, seals the fate of the human race. We are all very aware that CO2 infecting the atmosphere is the result of the development of industry under capitalism, and that this is the on-going cause of the doubling the rate of warming of the global average temperature so far. And we know that this has to stop in order to preserve life on this planet. The fossil fuel industries must be replaced by green energy sources such as wind and solar. The hope was that ending the use of fossil fuels should be able to keep the temperature to a livable limit, such as a 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level by 2030. This was the conclusion of 196 UN member states at the Paris Climate Conference agreement of 2018.

Three problems mean runaway warming.

The problem with the assumption that fossil fuel usage could be slowed down to keep warming to this goal is three-fold. First, the fossil fuel industry remains strong and so far, very successful in ignoring, and fighting this conclusion, which means that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will keep rising, taking the temperature beyond 1.5 degrees. Scientists believe this is the threshold beyond which wildfires, floods, biodiversity, rising seas and human dislocation become significant and lead to an unlivable world. This industry must be stopped completely, and this will only happen through a workers’ revolution that overthrows capitalism. If that doesn’t happen, this industry and capitalism generally will take the world down with it, in a complete collapse of civil society due to the heat and everything else getting worse.

Secondly, there is enough CO2 in the atmosphere now to keep warming the Earth for a thousand years or more. It is possible that with the expropriation of fossil fuel companies and an end to fossil fuel usage that rising temperatures might level off at a livable point. We need that revolution now!

The third point is what kicks any doubt that temperatures will keep rising out the window. The emissions of carbon from industry are the source of all that is happening now concerning the climate, but it is not the only source of the pollutants that threaten life on this planet. There is a major secondary source, and that is carbon and methane trapped for now in major glaciers and polar ice sheets. These gases have been there for millions of years due to climate conditions in earlier epochs before the last ice age, or maybe from even earlier glacial ages (there were many.) Now, these ice sheets and polar ice are melting away, which over time will release these gasses into the atmosphere.

Organic carbon trapped in
permafrost.

A major example of this is the ice sheet in the Arctic. Scientists have underestimated the amounts of carbon contained in permafrost there. This could be “truly dire because the permafrost holds about 1.5 billion metric tons of organic carbon, twice as much as there is now in the atmosphere,” says Naomi Oreskes, in the Scientific American article mentioned above. This could cause a runaway greenhouse effect due to the release of vast amounts of methane as well as CO2. This carbon trapped in polar ice comes from previous epochs of Earth history in which the polar ice sheets were verdant. Greenland for instance was populated with plants and animals, some of which don’t exist anywhere today.

The fact that methane is a big component of these gases under melting ice is particularly threatening, because methane is twenty times more powerful than CO2 for warming. Methane lasts only about 20 years or so in the atmosphere, but this will not end its climate-warming because its release is an ongoing process. Its presence in the atmosphere will keep being renewed for an unpredictable length of time, even though fossil fuels use is stopped. The warming effect will be rolling on for as long as the gases are released from melting ice, and the more warming there is, the more ice melt will occur.

Antarctica also shows evidence of the presence of plants and animals in earlier epochs, which means these gases will be under that ice as well, and it is just starting to melt. Capitalism is releasing a curse on life on this planet from prehistoric times, much of it before genus homo even existed!

Ice will flow and seas will rise.

It is well known that the ice melt created by the warming of the planet will raise the sea level, but like other aspects of climate change, this too has been underestimated. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a yet to be published study by Sean Vitousek, a research oceanographer at U.S. Geological Survey, that by 2100 we are to expect sea-level rise of 1.6 to ten feet “...depending on how much humans reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”6 Even the loss a relatively small piece of the Antarctic polar ice cap that is “ready to flow” within a decade or so, could contribute to a sea-level rise of two to ten feet well before 2100.

It is granted that the Antarctic ice has been flowing into the ocean more slowly than other examples, but it holds a huge mass of ice. Scientists have recently been learning a great deal, confirming one report back in 1978, that the West Antarctic ice sheet represented a threat of disaster. “Antarctica’s ice sheet has consistently surprised those who study it,” says Douglas Fox in Scientific American. The Thwaites Glacier is being studied now. This glacier, about the size of Nebraska, flows into the Pine Island Bay, part of the Amundsen Sea. It is a small part of Antarctica, but important since it serves to hold back the entire West Antarctic glacier, which is already melting faster than anyone thought.7

The Thwaites Glacier has a “shelf” which floats on the Ocean and acts as a dam holding back the rest of the glacier, which in turn dams the huge West Antarctic Sheet. All of this ice rests on a downward slope of land underneath, and the shelf is wobbling, and ready to crumble. When it does, the whole Thwaites Glacier will go “a lot faster than we expected,” according to Erin Pettit, a scientist who studies glaciers. This in turn, will release the whole West Antarctic ice sheet, which alone will contribute a ten-foot rise in the ocean. Combined with the melt of the North Pole ice, Greenland and other sources, there is sure to be a much greater sea level rise than ten feet by 2100. Although it is not likely this century, in times long past, sea water levels have as been much as 200 feet higher than today. But just ten feet is enough to flood the coast and force residents to evacuate.

“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink?”

There is one approaching consequence of climate change that isn’t getting enough ink in my opinion, and that is the fate of fresh drinking water. Of all the water on Earth, fresh water is a small percentage, but of this, 68.7 percent is contained in ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow, according to a study published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) titled “Where is the Earth’s Water?” Much of the runoff from this ice goes straight into the oceans, but it also supplies rivers, which hold a small percent of freshwater. Lakes also contain a portion of fresh water.8 With the warming of the Earth in climate change, we are faced with the fact that ice caps, glaciers and even “permanent” snow are already melting at a higher than expected rate. It will still take a long time, but what will happen when these water sources are completely gone?

Climate change is not just about what will happen in 2030 or 2050. It is about the threat to the human race (and other animals) in this century and the next. When we add up the extreme heat and the lack of drinking water, we are looking at massive migration, a huge death rate and possible extinction. That will be the last act in this script, but we are already into the first act, because the planet is heating up, global fresh-water supply is already shrinking. This is seen first of all in the droughts and storm patterns in global weather that is upon us now.

In California, we went through conditions earlier this year that may seem to contradict this trend. January-February was marked by an invasion of “atmospheric rivers” coming in from the South Pacific. We were pelted with rainstorms which were big enough to cause above average snow in the mountains, full reservoirs, and overflowing rivers. It did temporarily ease the drought problem, but it didn’t much affect the drastically low level of ground water. Most of the rainwater in occasional storm fronts such as these runs into the ocean or into wastewater. Drought conditions are still in the pattern for California, and much of the south and southwest. The New York Times reports that 2022 was a disaster for upland cotton growers who lost 74 percent of their crop over six million acres because of heat and parched soil in a drought blamed largely on climate change.9 Water scarcities like these are happening over most of the world.

Fresh water is also frequently
poisoned.

In the U.S. particularly, there is another problem affecting the water supply—51 percent of rivers, and 55 percent of lakes in the U.S. are poisoned by chemical pollution, rendering them undrinkable, according to the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). The New York-based WaterKeeper Alliance conducted a survey in which 83 percent of the tested waters across the country are contaminated with highly toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as “forever chemicals” because some of them can take thousands of years to break down. The presence of these dangerous chemicals was confirmed in 2,858 sites in 50 states and two American territories.10

The New York Times seems to be looking for reasons not to blame climate change in an article titled “Drought in Argentina Not Linked to Warming.”11 The article blames lack of rainfall for the drought problem in both Argentina and Uruguay, although the article does admit that climate change is the reason for extreme heat in the region. Yet, lack of sufficient rainfall is very much a product of the climate change process. This reminds one of the downplaying of the problem, as well as the reluctance on the part of many to look much past 2050 for the long-term effects of warming, given the unrelenting fossil fuel use, poisoning of the atmosphere, and shrinking fresh water supply. The forecast looks terrifying, but it is always better to stay informed than to bury one’s head in the sand. We need a workers’ revolution, but the revolution needs the facts.



1 “Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet,” New York Times Magazine, August 5, 2018.

2 “Downplaying the Pace of Arctic Warming,” by Naomi Oreskes, Scientific American, November 2022.

3 “NRDC Litigation Alert: Willow Project,” Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), NRDC.org, undated, April 2023.

4 “Even as Nations Push Renewables, Oil and Gas Projects Come Roaring Back.” by Max Bearak, New York Times, April 7, 2023.

5 NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, January 12, 2023, at climate.gov.

6 “California coasts face perilous fate,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 28, 2023.

7 “Thwaites Glacier, Ready to Flow,” by Douglas Fox, Scientific American, November 2022.

8 No number is given for fresh water in lakes.

https://www.usgs.gov/special-topics/water-science-school

9 New York Times, February 19, 2023.

10 See waterkeeper.org.

11 New York Times, February 17, 2023