On the edge of climate disaster

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A new United Nations Synthesis Report on climate change makes grim reading, and despite attempts by various governements to skew its findings, it is unambiguous in its conclusions.

November saw the publication of the Synthesis Report for the fifth Assessment Report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

This presents the conclusions and policy recommendations that arise from three earlier reports by working groups on the causes of global warming, its current and potential impacts, and suggested solutions.

It is the most comprehensive and authoritative document on the subject yet published. It is also the most forthright statement made by the panel on the reality and risks of climate change.

It states, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.”

It goes on to assess the degree of confidence with which specific weather and environmental changes can be attributed to human-induced climate change.

In addition, it points to the dangers that arise under various scenarios in terms of the extinction of plant and animal life, increasing food shortages, especially for the world’s poor, the greater likelihood of wars and regional conflicts, and the destabilisation of economic and social systems.

Its chief conclusion is that, unless there is a rapid and drastic reduction in C02 emissions, and their complete eradication by 2100, the global temperature increase will exceed the supposedly “safe” level of 2˚C above pre-industrial conditions and, in the worst case scenario, surface temperature increases could reach an unthinkable 7.8˚C by the end of the century.

Although greeted by commentators such as Lord Stern as the “most important assessment of climate change ever prepared”, the report will be read with mixed feelings by many climate activists.

One issue is that the laborious process by which the panel reviews the data from its scientists means that much of the information is out of date before it is published.

There is little in the report that we didn’t know already, and there’s much that has happened recently that isn’t in it.

One instance is its prediction of, with only “medium confidence”, a “nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer…before mid-century”.

Recent measurements by Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Oceans Physics Group at Cambridge University, suggest that the Arctic will be free of sea-ice in late summer possibly by next year.

The “tipping points” that open the way to irreversible and catastrophic climate change are approaching us much more, quickly than the report would seem to imply.

Another consideration is that the final report is the result of intense negotiations with the representatives of governments to ensure that its recommendations are compatible with their own vested interests.

We know, for example, that one section was dropped altogether at the insistence of Bolivia and Saudi Arabia.

An outcome of this is the report’s conclusion that climate change can be “mitigated” cheaply and easily without too much disruption to the workings of the capitalist system.

We can go on burning fossil fuels and still limit global warming to a “safe” 2˚C — possibly 1.5˚C — increase, it suggests, so long as we adopt Carbon Capture and Storage, a technology that is technically problematic, commercially unattractive and environmentally noxious.

If this is meant to reassure the coal, oil and gas corporations, the recent discovery by NASA of a 2,500 square mile cloud of methane above the south western US tells us that the extraction of fossil fuels is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions and that the real solution lies with renewables.

Despite these limitations, the report will be welcomed by environmentalists for the clarity of its central message: that governments must start to act more forcefully to reduce emissions.

Its huge mass of data and detailed charts and graphs will pull the rug from under the feet of the climate change deniers and concentrate the minds of the most sentient of the ruling class.

But that does not mean its recommendations will be accepted when it comes to the crucial COP talks in Paris in December 2015.

Press reports suggest that Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached some kind of agreement on emissions during their November summit. However, many observers believe that short-term commercial and political priorities will prevail at the Paris COP, and the best we can hope for is a broad agreement in principle.

All of that makes it more important than ever that, in the run-up to the COP, we mobilise the kind of mass demonstrations that took place during the UN climate talks in September.

In Britain it means building for the “Time to Act!” mobilisation in London on 7 March and taking the issue of climate change into the unions by pushing the new edition of the One Million Climate Jobs report.

US campaigner Bill McKibben has said that climate change is the biggest thing ever made by human beings. He went on to say that we now have to make something bigger — the movement that will stop it destroying us.

For more on the “Time to Act!” mobilisation in March go to www.campaigncc.org/TimetoAct

Copies of the One Million Climate Jobs report can be ordered through the link at www.campaigncc.org/greenjobs