November 2018Strategy

IPCC rings alarm bells on climate

A few years ago, left-leaning author Naomi Klein titled her book on climate change “This Changes Everything.” On October 8, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report indicating that Klein was correct.

The special IPCC report addresses the case for keeping the total amount of global warming that has occurred since the 1850–1900 period, when reliable record keeping first occurred on a large scale, to no more than 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. It concludes that meeting such a 1.5 C target would be far preferable, for many reasons, to the more modest goal of keeping warming within the 2.0 C limit that an overwhelming majority of world’s governments agreed to under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Encouragingly, the special report concludes that meeting the 1.5 C target is technically feasible and that it’s compatible with sustainable efforts to eradicate poverty and raise human living standards in less-developed societies.

But it warns that staying within the limit “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” including “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land [use], energy, industry, buildings, transports and cities.” It further states that as of today, global average temperatures are on track to hit the 1.5 C limit by around 2040. To avoid going past this limit, net CO2 emissions from human societies need to fall by 45 percent below their 2010 levels by 2030 — just twelve years from now.

To reach this goal, however, global net CO2 emissions would need to fall 60 percent from their present level, observers outside the IPCC have noted, since the global economy in 2010 was struggling to recover from recession, and global use of fossil fuels has grown significantly since then.

By 2050, the special report states, global CO2 emissions need to hit “net zero.” Any emissions beyond that “need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air,” which would probably require a significant global reforestation effort and the use of technologies to suck CO2 from the air that haven’t been proven effective yet at large scales.

To avoid or minimize an overshoot of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, the special report further states, global use of coal to generate electricity must nearly cease by 2050. The generation of electricity from renewable energy sources must grow to as much as 67 percent, and nuclear energy production must increase significantly.

Failing to keep global warming within a 1.5 C limit, the special report states, will likely expose an extra 10 million people to coastal flooding. Letting average global temperatures rise to 2.0 C above pre-industrial levels will destroy an estimated 99 percent of the world’s coral reefs, expose an extra 450 million people to prolonged periods of extreme heat and double or triple threats to natural habitats important for the survival of insect and plant species. It also would cause the melting of permafrost across huge areas in northern Asia and North America and make the Arctic Ocean ice free in the summer at least once per decade rather than just once a century.

Since its release on October 8, the IPCC’s predictions have inspired a spate of alarming headlines in the mainstream media. However, some climate scientists and environmental journalists claim that they understate the risks of continued warming.

The reason is that at least two expected impacts of moving past a 1.5 C temperature rise — the melting of permafrost and the disappearance of Arctic sea ice in the summer — could set in motion positive feedbacks that accelerate climate change to the point where it grows beyond human control.

Arctic sea ice is far more reflective of sunlight than the dark ocean waters it covers. Therefore, when the ice disappears the Arctic Ocean (and the earth system) absorbs more solar energy than before, causing warming rates to increase.

Even more worrisome, because it is less reversible than ice melting, the melting of permafrost in Siberia and northern Canada and Alaska uncovers peat bogs. When the permafrost disappears these bogs release methane — a much more potent greenhouse gas in the short run than CO2 — into the atmosphere, potentially putting climate change into overdrive.

Primarily because of such feedback risks, environmental journalist Nafeez Ahmed concludes in an October 15 article in Motherboard /VICE that the IPCC report, while “devastating” in its own right, actually was too optimistic. Ahmed points out that the dean of climate researchers, former NASA scientist James Hansen, warned back in 2008 that as the world approached global average temperatures of just 1 C above pre-industrial levels, there already was a risk of “irreversible” ice sheet losses as well as increasing emissions of greenhouse gases from “from soils, tundra, or ocean sediments.”

A recent essay coauthored by Nobel-winning scientist Mario Molina in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists agrees that allowing climate change to proceed past the 1.5 C mark could set up “feedbacks that could fall like dangerous dominos, fundamentally destabilizing the planet,” Ahmed notes.

A number of those potential feedback mechanisms, including but not limited to melting permafrost and melting sea ice, were outlined recently in a somewhat technical paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers Will Steffen, Johann Rockstrom and others.

In “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” Steffen and colleagues argue that the 1.0 C rise in global average temperatures over pre-industrial levels we have already seen is currently placing the climate at the “upper limit of interglacial [i.e. non–Ice Age] conditions over the past 1.2 million years.” If the climate now continues to warm past certain tipping points, the authors state, higher temperatures could trigger at least six different feedback mechanisms that would push the higher temperatures beyond the ability of human civilization to halt or reverse, at least within realistic timeframes.

In addition to permafrost and sea ice melting, these feedback mechanisms might include the widespread destruction of the Amazon rainforest or the northern temperature forests, or their conversion into other ecological biomes (vegetation types) that will emit carbon dioxide rather than absorbing it, thus sending a huge slug of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The melting of frozen methane clathrates along the ocean floors, and their release of massive volumes of methane into the atmosphere, and excessive melting of the ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica could trigger other irreversible climate feedbacks. And according to Steffen and his colleagues, “we cannot exclude the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth System irreversibly into a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway,” making catastrophic long-term climate change virtually impossible to prevent.

An Ecosocialist Path Forward

What should DSA members and other ecosocialists be doing to head off such a planetary disaster?

An easy answer is “practically everything” — everything that can help human societies speed up the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions (including methane and nitrous oxide as well as CO2), everything that can accelerate the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation around the world and everything that can ramp up the development and deployment of renewable energy sources.

DSA’s national Ecosocialism Committee, in a recent statement to DSA members on the implications of the IPCC report, says “There is no one-size-fits all climate campaign for your community.” However, the Ecosocialism Committee statement adds:

“In our communities, we can demand climate action. [This] means local food production and community gardens; solar rooftops and grid modernization. It means remaking finance to flow through public banks and other institutions that can underwrite the clean-energy transition. It means leaving fossil fuels in the ground, building low- and no-carbon transit systems. Most of all, it means organizing with unions and with people’s movements all over the world.”

As the Ecosocialism Committee puts it, “Climate change is a systemic problem that requires many solutions; the IPCC report repeatedly calls for climate action to be fitted to national and local conditions. However, many organizations and coalitions already exist — you can work internally in your DSA chapter as well as build relationships with organizations and communities most affected by climate change.”

What else? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the Brooklyn-based democratic socialist who stunned the nation’s political establishment this past summer by winning a primary election against the fourth-most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, gained headlines this summer — both favorable and otherwise — by calling for a national “Green New Deal” to get climate change under control while creating good jobs for working people whose existing jobs might be affected by the rapid phasing out of carbon-based fuels.

More recently, following the publication of the IPCC special report, AOC compared the threat of runway climate change to the “existential threat” that Nazi Germany posed to the U.S. and other western societies during World War II. Along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, she has called for an emergency nationwide mobilization in the U.S. comparable to the one that the government undertook during the war to meet the Nazi challenge.

Essentially, AOC and Sanders are echoing what psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon, head of the activist organization The Climate Mobilization, has been stating on this subject for some time, as she did at Metro DC DSA’s panel discussion on “Building the Green Economy” that occurred on the eve of the National Climate March in April 2017.

In a similar but different vein, British climate scientist Kevin Anderson, chair of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, recently called for a “Global Marshall Plan” to meet the IPCC’s targets while addressing the social and economic needs of potentially impacted communities in an equitable fashion.

In an October 9 interview with Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now,” Anderson briefly summarized the scope of the reconstruction and redevelopment effort that the U.S. undertook in the late 1940s in Europe to address the situation of societies devastated by the impact of World War II — and although Anderson didn’t emphasize this in his interview, to keep Western Europe from falling under the influence of Communist parties at the beginning of the Cold War.

“I’m saying that that is probably the nearest metaphor, analogy we have to the scale of the challenge that we actually face to decarbonize, to shift away from a fossil fuel-based energy system to a zero-carbon energy system,” Anderson told Goodman, “and to do that within the wealthy parts of the world really within about two decades, and probably three or three-and-a-half decades for the slightly poorer parts of the world.”

Such a major, concerted effort is especially needed to address the social and economic needs of an estimated 80 percent of the world’s population in less-developed societies, who are responsible for only a small fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions while suffering disproportionately from the negative effects of climate change, Anderson said.

He went on: “We’re not going to do that through small price mechanisms, through just tweaking the markets. It is going to require strategic intervention by governments to make the necessary rates of change.”

Meeting the targets will be challenging, Anderson admitted, but on the positive side, “This transformation . . . to a zero-carbon energy system will come with lots of job opportunities, long-term, secure job opportunities, not just in building low-carbon power stations, but in the massive electrification program that will be necessary and in retrofitting — in other words, making our existing building infrastructure, which we will still be using for the next 20, 30, 40 years — to make that building infrastructure suitable for the 21st century.”

Veteran environmental reporter Tom Athanasiou, in a recent article in the Nation, struck a similar note on the urgent need to address questions of global equity and a just transition for people in communities economically dependent on carbon fuels as the world organizes to keep temperatures below the 1.5 C limit.

“Implicit but unmentioned in the IPCC report, and in most news coverage of it,” Athanasiou wrote, “is that holding the 1.5 C line will require not only a deep technological revolution but also a justice-led social transformation . . . workers and communities whose livelihoods currently rely on fossil fuels will need help transitioning to a clean-energy future. Since this transition must be global, less-developed countries will need financial and technical assistance to shun fossil fuels, deforestation, and other climate-destabilizing activities, not to mention to protect themselves against the harsher heat waves, droughts, storms and sea-level rise that even 1.5 C will deliver.”

“One can be forgiven these days for thinking that such a justice-led transformation isn’t on the agenda. Nevertheless, we had damn well better try to deliver it; in fact, it’s our only hope,” Athanasiou stated, adding that “the IPCC scientists agree, emphasizing that the reforms needed for a 1.5 C future can be compatible with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of reducing poverty and increasing health and education worldwide. Indeed, the closing pages of the policymaker summary are thick with talk of sustainable development, poverty alleviation, and the need to reduce inequality.”

Many progressive commentators on the IPCC’s findings, including Athanasiou, accept the idea that tackling the climate challenge in an equitable way will likely require significant cutbacks in average living standards, or at least in per capita energy consumption, among many people in the developed capitalist countries of the West. Some of the environmental and climate experts cited by Ahmed in his article for Motherboard / VICE argue that steep reductions in per capita energy use consumption will be required, perhaps in conjunction with a transition from growth-oriented capitalism to a no-growth economy.

However, Ahmed cites Metro DC DSA member David Schwartzman, who along with his son Peter has just published an ecosocialist book titled “The Earth Is Not for Sale,” as proposing a future high-energy economy, not a low-energy one, on the condition that the U.S. military-industrial complex can be shut down.

The military-industrial complex is the world’s biggest consumer of fossil fuels, the Schwartzman book notes, and phasing it out could free up significant amounts of energy for alternative uses in raising living standards in less-developed societies.

“If the goal of keeping warming under 1.5°C is achieved, which will require the virtual dissolution of the military-industrial complex, then a rapid transition to wind and solar power in a high, not low [net energy] future, is possible,” David Schwartzman told Ahmed in an interview. Such a transition could lead to “higher, not lower global energy use, especially for the global South.”

Some other commentators, while not negating what the IPCC report suggests about the need for efforts to end global industrial emissions of CO2 in ways that are equitable for the world’s least advantaged people, point to other aspects of the IPCC report that ecosocialists may find much less acceptable.

In the October 9 issue of Grist, Nathanael Johnson writes that the report includes “Something to Piss Everyone Off,” including an assumption that every path that the report has proposed as a possible way of meeting the 1.5 C target will involve some reliance on nuclear power and biofuels.

The IPCC report also explicitly calls for the use of carbon taxes at very high levels to drive rapid reductions in CO2 emissions. Some left commentators strongly object to carbon taxes as a new form of oppression for working people, and some climate analysts say that they are ineffective. A recent article in Jacobin by Scott Edwards of Food & Water Watch attacks carbon taxes on both counts. However, Jacobin also recently publicized a proposal by Anders Fremstad and Mark Paul, and backed by the People’s Policy Project, that endorsed carbon taxes as part of the solution.

Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell, whose work on the growing problem of sea level rise and coastal flooding was reviewed in the May 10 Washington Socialist, has written that the urgency of the IPCC’s message also raises at least two other issues many environmentalists may find disagreeable.

One is the need for activists to begin helping society adapt to climate change as well as fighting it. Many activists have strenuously insisted on the importance of halting climate change and have downplayed the idea of adapting to it as a dangerous diversion from the fight, Goodell notes. But even with just 1 degree C of warming, climate-related problems like sea level rise, bigger hurricane surges and more frequent wildfires already are doing extensive harm to many communities around the world (e.g., West Africa, Venice, and New Jersey to California).

Climate activists therefore need to work on making these places more resilient in the face of coming changes, through measures such as better land-use planning and, in some places, organizing a planned retreat of humans and the built environment from coasts that can’t be barricaded against heavier storms and higher waters.

A second distasteful necessity the world should or must consider, Goodell argues, involves technologies that might reduce warming that has already occurred, possibly through the use of geoengineering techniques that many activists vehemently reject on the grounds that they could inadvertently cause major damages to the Earth System through side effects no one has adequately charted yet.

Yet another question implicit in the IPCC report’s findings that ecosocialists in particular may find extremely troublesome concerns the role, if any, that “green capitalism” should or can plan in the global effort to keep global warming below the 1.5 C mark. Some if not all ecosocialists find green capitalism a dangerous diversion, at best, from the urgent need to build a socialist and yet sustainable global economy in our lifetimes. In the long run, many of us argue, green capitalism means continued dependence on a growth-addicted process of capitalist accumulation that is ecologically bankrupt.

Yet, some argue that if the assembled nations of the world have just 12 years to bring net CO2 emissions rates down 60 percent from their 2018 levels, while enormously increasing global deployment of renewable energy technologies and technologies facilitating energy conservation, there is not enough time to organize and carry off a global ecosocialist revolution before the 2030 deadline and global temperatures move past some dangerous tipping points.

At least in the near to mid-term future, it can be argued, even green socialists need to hope that the same “green” but enthusiastically capitalist corporations that have recently been making advances in the development of more efficient solar cells, more powerful wind turbines, electric and hybrid cars and more energy-efficient refrigerators will keep doing their work in revolutionizing the capitalist energy sector away from reliance on fossil fuels and toward a wholesale adoption of more climate-friendly and sustainable technologies.

How DSA members within the Metropolitan Washington DC local and other DSA chapters nationwide come to grips with issues like these in coming months and years remains to be seen. For now, however, the special IPCC report and the extensive media coverage it has garnered — at least until the next Donald Trump outrage and the next public scandal over racial and sexual oppression erupt in the media — should provide DSA ecosocialists and many other DSA members with an important impetus for social and environmental organizing and activism.

The National DSA Ecosocialist Working Group’s report on and analysis of the IPCC report is here.

See more in categoryReturn to Issue