Letter from the US: Global Warning

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Mike Davis investigates Europe‘s deadly heatwave.

Europe‘s long, hot and tragic summer begs a little North American background.

In July 1995 the administration of Mayor Richard M Daley in Chicago was the accomplice in the murder of more than 700 of its senior citizens. As temperatures climbed above 40°C, the city‘s airless tenements and skidrow hotels became charnel houses. Thousands of poor, elderly, mainly black people were mortally stricken. By the second day of the heatwave, overcrowded hospitals were closing their doors to the critically ill, and paramedics were unable to respond to the deluge of emergency calls. Medical workers warned of a death epidemic and begged for help. But the Daley Jr machine bunkered itself into denial and inaction.

City Hall stonewalled the media: ’What disaster?‘ As bodies overflowed the morgue into the streets, the mayor complained to reporters. ’It‘s hot. But let‘s not blow it out of proportion ... Every day people die of natural causes.‘
The Chicago ’heat catastrophe‘, as it is now officially called, was of course anything but a ’natural‘ disaster. As radical sociologist Eric Klinenberg explains in a brilliant book published last year (Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago), ’These deaths were not an act of god.‘ He demonstrates, instead, that they were the preventable consequences of poverty, racism, social isolation and criminal civic negligence.

Klinenberg‘s approach is generally shared by public health analysts. Indeed, the lessons of Chicago 1995 were enshrined in authoritative studies published by the US Centre for Disease Control and the New England Journal of Medicine. These reports, now widely adopted in North American cities, advocate early warning systems, the immediate opening of neighborhood ’cooling centres‘, door to door searches for ill seniors, adequate summer staffing of hospitals, and the subsidisation of air conditioning in low income apartments.

This literature is well known to European professionals. The lesson of Chicago screams from the bookshelf. There was no excuse for not heeding it.

Yet this August the vulnerable poor were again massacred by analogous social conditions and Chicago-like responses. In France, for example, the right wing health minister Jean-Francois Mattei continued his vacation - ‘Tennis, anyone?‘ - while thousands of his fellow citizens perished. Heroic lethargy was also the response of the Berlusconi government in Italy, which lied to the press and suppressed heat death statistics.

The overall EU death toll is probably equivalent to five or more World Trade Centres - at least 20,000 victims. Official estimates are 11,400 in France, more than 4,000 in Italy, 1,400 in the Netherlands, 1,300 in Portugal, and some 900 in Britain. The Spanish figure of only 100 is hardly credible and should be the stuff of scandal.

While the Euro-right blames the 35-hour week and the collapse of family values for these atrocities, the left must be relentless in holding neoliberal policies accountable. Socialists must demand the kind of ’social autopsy‘ that lays bare the causative roles of poverty, unaffordable housing and underfunded public services.

In the face of this small mountain of corpses, it can no longer be taken for granted that European neoliberalism is actually more ’compassionate‘ than its more raptor-like American cousin. After all, it takes a pretty big hole in the vaunted social safety net for 20,000 people to fall through.

But what of the strange Augusts yet to come? How should socialist politics address the increasingly violent interaction between environmental change and the late capitalist city?

Firstly, there is growing evidence of a sinister synergy between heat stress, traffic and air pollution. The post-Chicago studies generally focused on hyperthermia and dehydration, paying little attention to air quality per se. But French scientists now believe that high ozone levels were a key factor in as many as 3,000 deaths. August holiday gridlock now may be deadly in a double sense. This is why groups like Greenpeace are renewing calls for temporary or permanent traffic moratoriums in major urban centres.

Secondly, August was a vivid illustration of the kind of ‘unnatural’ history that we must come to expect as the norm. This will not be a history slowly unreeling itself in tidy linear progression, as in biographies of Victorian liberals. More likely, the dialectic of global warming and neoliberalism - especially the Bushite doctrine of ‘consuming all the good things of the earth in our lifetime’ - will produce a non-linear rollercoaster ride between unpredictable disasters.

Let me share with you my summer nightmare. It is a much scarier story than any of those by Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King.

While the pavements were boiling in Paris this summer, Le Monde ran a cover story about the melting sea ice in the Arctic. The gist was simply that Norwegian polar researchers, tops in the field, were predicting that the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover would completely disappear by the middle of this century. Right now the Arctic ice is a huge mirror sending solar heat back to space; remove the ice, however, and the clear blue sea absorbs immense additional amounts of energy. Warming, as a result, will suddenly accelerate.

Paradoxically, this Arctic warming, by eventually melting ice caps and increasing river flows, might shut down the circulation of the Gulf Stream and turn northwestern Europe into an icebox.

Something like this actually happened 12,000 years ago - it was called the Younger Dryas Event. Incredibly this shift of global climate regimes took less than a decade to occur. Abrupt climate change is one of the fundamental scientific discoveries of our lifetime.

Global capitalism is the runaway train on which we’re all held hostage. And each extreme summer may be inching us closer to the precipice of catastrophic environmental change.