Revolution #108, November 11, 2007
Global Warming: The Earth Cries Out for Revolution
Hundreds of millions of people facing water and food shortages... the extinction of one-third of the species on the planet... flooding of heavily populated coastal areas... disappearing glaciers... These are some of the consequences of global warming that are predicted by scientists unless drastic changes are made—consequences which are already affecting people across the globe. Our planet faces massive destruction with devastating consequences for both humanity and for the natural environment.
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN organization charged with assessing scientific information on global warming, released a series of reports. A final synthesis report is due to be released on November 17.
According to the IPCC, there is no longer any doubt that global warming is happening—and it is all but certain that most of the increase in temperature is due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. (“Greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide are released when fossil fuels are burned. They trap the sun’s heat, raising global temperature.) The IPCC also concluded that hotter temperatures and rises in sea level "would continue for centuries" even if greenhouse gas levels are stabilized.
In many ways the United States is at the heart of the problem. With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush regime has worked overtime to suppress a scientific understanding of global warming and to resist even minimal steps to address the problem. When the IPCC issued its recent reports, the U.S. delegation pressed for the final version to avoid concluding that human activity is the main cause of global warming. In September, Bush refused to attend a summit on global warming at the U.N. and instead convened his own summit meeting in which the U.S. argued against setting any mandatory goals for greenhouse gas reduction. In October the White House censored a report to Congress by the head of the Centers for Disease Control on the public health effects of global warming (see box, “White House Censors While the Planet Burns”).
These actions of the Bush regime are criminal, but the Democratic Party leaders haven’t actually taken any serious action to deal with the problem either. When the Kyoto Protocol (an agreement by countries around the world to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions by 2012) was proposed in 1997, the U.S. Senate voted 97-0 urging President Clinton not to submit the treaty to the Senate (which would have made it binding on the U.S.). Al Gore, the Vice-President at the time, signed the treaty “symbolically” but said he agreed with not submitting it to the Senate.* By 2003, U.S. carbon emissions had climbed 18% over 1990 levels—despite pledges made by Clinton (while Gore was vice president) in the 1990s to cut emissions.
To get a basic sense of the kind of emissions cuts that are required—a statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists says, ‘To have a fighting chance to keep global warming within safe levels, countries like the U.S. must reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 80% below 2000 levels by 2050—and we must begin to make those reductions right away.’”
This capitalist-imperialist system we live under today is fundamentally incapable of addressing environmental issues and solving the problem of global warming. (See the excerpt from Raymond Lotta’s article “Capitalism, the Environment, and Ecology Under Socialism.”) Global warming must be addressed globally. Imperialism has produced a wasteful and destructive pattern of economic activity and industrial development. Eighty percent of the world’s resources are absorbed by the advanced capitalist countries, which make up only 15 percent of the world’s population. There is no way that the problem of global warming can be solved without breaking out of the capitalist-imperialist framework, with its unequal concentration of wealth and absorption of resources.
Individual energy-saving initiatives, like riding a bicycle and using low-watt light bulbs, are needed, but unless these things are in the context of much bigger and far-reaching changes in society, they just won’t solve the problem. The urgency of the situation calls for a complete change in the economic, political and social relations of society through revolution.
The system of capitalism has turned people’s productive abilities against the planet and humanity itself. The situation is very serious, but it’s not hopeless. The destruction of the earth is one possibility. Another possibility is the transformation of this planet into a different kind of world—if and only if we can achieve change as radical as the challenges we face. The very earth is crying out for revolution.
A recent study found more than a 20 percent reduction in the size of glaciers in the Himalaya region from 1962 to 2001. Parbati Glacier, one of the largest in the area, retreated by 170 feet a year during the 1990s. Similar losses are being seen around the world. At the current rate of retreat, all the glaciers in Glacier National Park in Montana will be gone by 2070. The disappearance of glaciers does not just mean that future generations may never see these beautiful formations. The Himalayan glaciers provide more than half of the drinking water for over 40% of the world’s population. Within the next 50 years, these people may face a massive drinking water shortage as well as food shortages.
Melting of Polar Ice
The pace of the melting of Arctic ice has startled many climate scientists. The ice is retreating at a rate of 10 percent per decade, or 28,000 square miles per year. Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center says, “The sea ice cover is in a downward spiral and may have passed the point of no return. As the years go by, we are losing more and more ice in summer, and growing back less and less ice in winter. We may well see an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer within our lifetimes.”
Rising Sea Levels
The melting of the glaciers and polar ice contributes to rising sea levels, which have increased by about 7 inches over the last 100 years. The IPCC reports say that “many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to rising sea levels by 2080.” The areas most affected will be the river delta areas of Asia and Africa where hundreds of millions live. Rising sea levels are already having an effect, especially in the island nations of the Pacific Ocean which are being ravaged as by floods, storms, erosions, and other coastal hazards. The government of Papua New Guinea has approved funds to relocate all 2,000 residents of the Cartaret Islands, which experts say might vanish completely by 2015. On Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific, low-lying areas are being evacuated.
According to a recent study in the journal Nature, by 2050 between 15 and 35 percent of all species—over one million species—could become extinct as a result of global warming. A commentary accompanying the study said, "The threat to life on Earth is not just a problem for the future. It is part of the here and now." Oceans are becoming more acidic because of increasing carbon dioxide in the air, and this is expected to cause extensive destruction to coral reefs and the species that depend on them. Polar bears are drowning because they have to swim longer distances to reach ice floes. The U.S. Geological Survey has predicted that two-thirds of the world's polar bear sub-populations will be extinct by mid-century due to melting of the Arctic ice cap.
Because of poverty caused by imperialist domination and its specific geographic features, Africa is one of the world’s regions most vulnerable to climate change. According to the recent report by IPCC, by 2020 between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa are projected to be exposed to water shortages. In a continent already suffering from food shortages and widespread starvation, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.
Human Health Risks
Global warming is estimated to contribute to more than 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses each year, according to the World Health Organization, a toll that could double by 2030. The WHO data, published in Nature, indicate that climate change is driving up rates of malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea throughout the world. Heat waves, like the one in Western Europe in 2003 which killed over 30,000 people, will become more severe and last for longer periods of time.
Hurricanes and Extreme Weather
Hurricanes get their power from warm ocean water. Recent studies show that the number of most destructive hurricanes—Category 4 and 5—around the world has doubled during the last 35 years. This is linked to rising sea surface temperatures caused by global warming. Areas not in hurricane zones will also be affected. For example, northeastern U.S. can expect more brutal wintertime storms. One scenario predicts that by 2080, intense storms that now hit New York every 100 years will occur every four years. With warmer temperatures, precipitation that would normally fall as snow is more likely to fall as rain, increasing the threat of heavy flooding.
It is not possible to say whether the wildfires sweeping Southern California were or were not caused by global warming—because it is impossible to attribute any individual event to global warming and also because diverse factors, including wind patterns and housing location, contributed to the fires and the extent of destruction. But studies have shown that hot drought conditions are becoming more common and increasing the number of fires. According to one projection, conditions as dry as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s could prevail in the U.S. Southwest by the middle of this century.
* In a correspondence to Revolution (“Problems with the Kyoto Protocol,” issue #53, online at revcom.us), a reader pointed out: “Even if successful [the Kyoto Protocol] is nowhere near what’s really necessary to significantly alter and turn around the growing danger of global warming. According to Greenpeace, the greenhouse gases already pumped into the atmosphere mean that a 2.2–4 degree F temperature rise is already unavoidable. Gases cause effects over decades, highlighting the need for massive cuts and quickly (which Kyoto doesn’t do).[back]
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