The IPCC climate change report grabbed headlines with the notion that we have 12 years to avert climate crisis. We would be better served by recognising that the crisis is happening now, writes Martin Empson.
The publication of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report in October provoked major discussion. Headline writers seized on a figure that suggested we have 12 years to prevent catastrophe.
Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the IPCC’s working group on impacts, used similarly apocalyptic language: “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now… This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.”
The context for the report is a worsening environmental situation. Scientists and environmental activists have always warned that climate change would lead to a situation where a warming world made extreme weather more intense, more frequent and more prolonged.
The last two years have seen unprecedented storms, drought, flooding and other crises. Millions of people have been affected. The IPCC acknowledge this, and point out that the poorest are the worst hit.
There have been “profound alterations to human and natural systems, bringing increases in some types of extreme weather, droughts, floods, sea level rise and biodiversity loss, and causing unprecedented risks to vulnerable persons and populations…
“The most affected people live in low and middle income countries, some of which have already experienced a decline in food security, linked in turn to rising migration and poverty… Small islands, megacities, coastal regions and high mountain ranges are likewise among the most affected.”
The summer of 2018 saw the biggest heatwave in recorded history. From North America to Scandinavia, through Africa and Asia, temperature records were broken. There were forest fires inside the Arctic Circle in Sweden, the highest ever recorded temperature in Africa of 51.3 degrees celsius and thousands of people hospitalised or killed by the heat.
Even Japan, a highly developed economy, saw thousands in hospital and 30 deaths as a result of the heat.
In the UK there were frequent comparisons to the famed heatwave of 1976, but the context is very different. Over 40 years later the world is a much warmer place and the IPCC point out that such heatwaves will become longer and more frequent.
This is why I’m wary of the “12 years till doom” narrative. Already millions of people are suffering the direct or indirect effects of global warming. Climate change is not an event that will take place in the future; it is a process that began when capitalism adopted fossil fuels on a mass scale.
That process, and other associated environmental impacts such as ocean acidification or biodiversity loss, has accelerated in the post-war era and the temperature rises that we face are, in part, a result of economic and political choices made in the past.
If we are to avoid the catastrophic change the IPCC are worried about, we need a fundamental break from the policies that got us into the mess in the first place.
For me, the contradiction was summed up by the IPCC’s Debra Roberts whom I quoted earlier. In a brief video published on the IPCC’s twitter feed, she explained what she thought must be done:
“Each one of us as individuals can make choices about the energy we use…about dietary choices that impact on land use, it tells us that we can change the way we interact with the world’s cities through the transport we choose…we have power as consumers in terms of directing where industry goes.”
But this simply fails to challenge the root causes of climate change. A small number of corporations are responsible for the vast majority of emissions — mostly fossil fuel corporations — and capitalism’s economic system is wedded to those fuels.
We see this very clearly in the UK where, despite Tory plans announced in January for a 25 year environmental plan, Heathrow airport expansion has been given the green light and fracking is being driven forward.
The state made it very clear whose side it was on in this environmental battle when three non-violent protesters received unprecedented sentences for their role in trying to stop drilling. The judge, whose family has links to the fossil fuel industry, highlighted the costs to the fracking firms of the protest. Little was said about the impact upon the environment.
The IPCC hope that their report will shift political opinion. But with a climate denier in the White House and right wing politicians from Australia to Brazil showing little sign of pro-environmental policies, we need a mass movement more than ever.
The worsening situation and the scientific consensus outlined in the IPCC report provide an opportunity for socialists and environmentalists to build that movement; challenging the fossil fuel corporations and arguing for fundamental change. But political inaction in the face of the threat makes it clear that we also need to fight for a world where the economy is not drive by profit, but by democratically planned production made in the interest of people and planet.
Protest on Saturday 1 December at the start of the UN climate talks, outside the Polish embassy in central London