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Letter from Reader:

The New UN Climate Change Report:
A More Rigorous, A More Alarming Wake-Up Call



The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released its sixth assessment report (AR6) on August 9. The IPCC is the United Nations (UN) body that assesses climate change-related science. As the IPCC says about its work: “[T]he objective of the IPCC is to provide governments at all levels with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies. IPCC reports are also a key input into international climate change negotiations. The IPCC is an organization of governments that are members of the United Nations or WMO [World Meteorological Organization]...."

Hundreds of scientists from all over the world contributed to this latest report of the IPCC. It is an extremely important report that represents an advance in the scientific understanding and modeling of climate change in its many dimensions. In many ways, it offers an even more dire warning and “wake-up call” regarding the crisis of climate change.

The report is sober and sobering. It makes it very clear that the planet is careening, if current trends continue, towards a catastrophic situation. At the same time, the authors of the report also indicate that real and meaningful measures could be taken to avert some of the worst case scenarios of runaway global warming. However—and this is where we revolutionaries applying the new communism to this unprecedented problem for human society and the planet bring clarity and conviction—it is vital that this hope be on a scientific basis. People need to break with the delusion and self-delusion that the climate emergency can be addressed with “business as usual,” or through merely pressuring this system’s leaders to do the right thing. Only through revolution—through the forcible overthrow of this system and the construction of a new, socialist system—can capitalism’s unrelenting war on the planet be brought to an end, and an ecologically sustainable system be established in its place.

Climate Change—A Primer

A basic understanding of how global warming works—what causes it and why—has been widely understood and agreed upon by scientists and experts for decades. The burning of greenhouse gases (GHG), particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) but also methane, among others, causes a change in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere’s gases. As GHGs concentrate in the atmosphere, it strengthens the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect—meaning it traps heat from being released back into space. This causes the planet to heat up, like a greenhouse. It has other negative effects as well—for example, many ecosystems like the oceans naturally absorb carbon dioxide emissions, and as the amount of CO2 emitted increases, it changes the chemical composition (making it more acidic) of the oceans as well, making it a less habitable environment for the many marine-dwelling species. Further, as the oceans get warmer, this causes the water molecules to expand, leading to (along with the melting of ice sheets and glaciers) sea level rise.

The origins of climate change/global warming can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 19th century, and the transition to coal as the main source of energy for industry. Coal, like petroleum (oil) and natural gas, is a fossil fuel. Burning these fuels releases CO2, and is the primary source of global warming. As the use of fossil fuels expanded globally—and particularly with the invention of the combustion engine, the automobile, and the widespread use of petroleum as a source of fuel—the rate of GHG combustion rose dramatically.

While knowledge of the greenhouse effect, and the role of burning fossil fuels in this, has been known for over a century, and in the 1960s and 1970s people were beginning to sound the alarm around this issue, it was in 1988 that the issue of anthropogenic (meaning caused by humans) climate change became front page news. Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, stated in a Congressional testimony that “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming… In my opinion, the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” In the ensuing 33 years, there has been little other than hand-wringing, empty promises, and an acceleration of the rate of fossil fuel combustion from this system’s politicians and the capitalist class.

The IPCC Report: What Is New

With this basic history of climate change in mind, there are some important developments in the scientific understanding that are concentrated in this report:

*For one thing, the direct attribution of the source of climate change has been strengthened. In other words, while it was already well known that human activity—specifically the burning of fossil fuels, among other activities like deforestation and industrial farming—was the main culprit, this conclusion was strengthened scientifically, as was the ability to directly attribute a certain amount of warming with a certain amount of GHG emissions. The report was direct and unambiguous in attributing the rise in global average temperatures to GHG emissions, and in attributing virtually all of the 1.1 degrees Celsius increase above pre-industrial global average temperature to human activity.

*Also new in this report is an appraisal of the (lack of) progress since the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, in which nations agreed to a non-binding commitment to reduce their CO2 emissions. Every signatory nation is far from meeting its goals of reducing their emissions. The world has been going in precisely the wrong direction, with virtually no progress in terms of reducing overall GHG emissions.

*Further, the report is clear that climate change is happening NOW, its effects are already quite bad, and can be observed in every region of the world. Many of these changes—the melting of polar ice caps, sea level rise—are already irreversible, and will continue to occur over the next several thousand years. There are other changes—for example, the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere—that are unprecedented. These levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher than they’ve been in 800,000 years.

Some of the effects of climate change that are already being widely experienced include heavy rainfall and flooding, droughts, deadly heat waves, and tropical cyclones (source: IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report [AR6] Summary for Policymakers [SPM], p. 10). And one of the important insights of the report is the phenomenon of “compound effects” of global warming on life and ecosystems of the planet—for instance the combination of rising temperatures and droughts.

Thousands of people have fled their homes on the Greek island of Evia as wildfires burned uncontrolled August 8, 2021. Photo: AP

Importantly, the direct link between many of these effects listed above and human-caused climate change is significantly stronger in this report as compared to prior scientific assessments. The science, modeling, and sources of evidence have all strengthened in the last seven years (since the last report), allowing scientists to more accurately (with a smaller margin of error) estimate not only the the amount of warming caused by humans, but also attribute local weather events to climate change, as well as predict future warming and other impacts. While it is difficult to claim that any individual storm or extreme weather event is directly caused by global warming, the report very clearly attributes the greater frequency of heatwaves, rainfall, and tropical storms to the burning of fossil fuels.

There is greater certainty here in attributing responsibility for the array of dangerous and deadly extreme weather events to the emission of heat-trapping GHGs. Every additional increment of global warming results in ever-greater dangers to life on the planet.

What Can and What Can’t Be Changed; How It Can and How It Can’t Be Changed

Finally, this report more clearly and accurately isolates what cannot be changed—the amount of global warming and its effects that are already “baked in” based on the amount of emissions already released—from what can be changed, if emissions are rapidly reduced and brought to net zero by 2050. In considering five different possible future scenarios—based on whether emissions are increased, decreased, or remain steady—a global average temperature increase above pre-industrial levels of 1.5 degrees Celsius is very likely to occur in the next couple of decades in each of these scenarios.

Let’s be clear: 1.5 degrees of warming would be a disaster for the planet and humanity. Life-threatening heat waves may become a permanent fact of life for hundreds of millions of people; many plant and animal species will be wiped out for good; water shortages from chronic droughts would affect large sections of humanity. However, the report also emphasizes that there is still a real possibility of preventing further temperature rise (beyond 1.5 degrees) if we act now! But this is premised on immediate, rapid, and coordinated action to reduce carbon emissions on a massive scale. And here the science of global warming runs up against the truth that this kind of restructuring of society and economy is utterly at odds with how the world imperialist system functions: ...a system organized around production for profit; a system in which the great imperial powers compete and contend with each other for global control and influence; a system that is leading to ever-widening social inequalities between the rich capitalist-imperialist countries and the poor countries of the global South that are suffering the greatest consequences of global warming.

Which brings us back to this new UN climate report: time is running out and things are going in the wrong direction. Those who care about the planet must confront the reality that to deal with climate change, we need system change. And that requires a real revolution to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a socialist system. Only a genuinely socialist system can meet the needs of humanity and unleash the creativity, knowledge, and determination of people who agonize over this crisis to go to work on it... and create a society and world that could interact with nature in a sustainable way.

I invite readers to make use of the climate emergency page on revcom.us for deep and continuing analysis of how capitalism-imperialism is the cause of global warming—and to study the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America authored by Bob Avakian and the companion “Some Key Principles of Socialist Sustainable Development” to see how a liberatory socialism would actually function.

Some Key Takeaways from the New UN Climate Change Report

  1. There is virtually NO doubt that human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, is warming the planet.
  2. This warming is causing far-reaching and significant changes in the land, sea, and atmosphere of our planet.
  3. These changes are truly unprecedented—the planet has not seen these kinds of changes occur at this rate in thousands of years.
  4. EVERY part of the planet is already affected by climate change. There is evidence of an increase in extreme weather events, and of their direct connection to climate change. This direct linking of extreme weather events and climate change has been strengthened by scientists.
  5. The ability of scientists to model potential future outcomes based on the amount of future warming has also been strengthened. The difference between 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels would be very significant. Scenarios that are unlikely with 1.5 degrees of warming—such as irreversible ice sheet melting that leads to low-lying regions of the world, where hundreds of millions of people live, becoming uninhabitable—become likely with 2 degrees of warming.

“...we have two choices: either, live with all this—and condemn future generations to the same, or worse, if they have a future at all—or, make revolution!”

—Bob Avakian

Visit the Climate Emergency Resource Page



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