Global capitalism’s race to the bottom (and for the bottom line) is not only generating runaway economic inequalities, social unrest, and political dysfunctionality, but also a race off the ecological cliff in the near future.
A study that looked at average temperature and precipitation changes only, excluding the most extreme impacts, found that At least 85% of the world’s population has experienced climate change-induced weather events and that 80% of the world’s land area has been affected as well. One must live a life of complete isolation and ignorance not to have seen terrifying images of wildfires in California, record-breaking heatwaves in Canada and Italy, deadly floods in Germany, China, South Sudan, of New Yorkers drowning in their own homes, and so on. Nearly half a million people have died across the world during 1999-2018, including at least $3.5 trillion of economic costs incurred. Heatwaves have killed hundreds of people this summer in usually temperate regions of the world, such as the Pacific Northwest. More than a million people in Madagascar, the same study reports, are facing starvation “as a historic drought morphs into a climate-induced famine.”
“The climate crisis is the single biggest health threat facing humanity” states an open letter to world leaders by over 3,400 individuals from 102 countries from over 450 organizations representing 45 million health-care workers. Global warming “could be far more catastrophic and enduring than the COVID-19 pandemic” as it increases the risk of many health issues, including breathing problems, mental illness, insect-borne diseases, deaths from heart disease, etc.
The short-term central task of any movement for the future is to figure out how to compel the recalcitrant political and economic forces that dominate the state and society today to act decisively to reverse the accelerating trends towards ecological catastrophe. The crucial long-term task is to altogether dismantle the institutional structure of global capitalism, a system most directly responsible for the present global ecological emergency, and replace it with a radically different socioeconomic order. Naming the system and identifying the capitalist logic that governs it is absolutely necessary for the liberatory project, the movement for going beyond it in the long-term and constraining it in the near-term.
We cannot expect anything beyond fragmentary and inadequate measures to combat climate crisis from the political system as it is presently constituted. At best it may combat some of the symptoms of the ecological crisis but not the root causes and thereby it will be complicit in the ecological disasters that have already begun to affect all life on this planet. This fact alone should suffice to convince rational people of the dysfunctionality of politics as presently constituted. The case of the state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is instructive in this regard as well, given the focus on rolling out a vaccine mostly in the Global North and barely any consideration of the sources of the pandemic, such as the economic structures that propel deforestation. Indeed, one could reasonably ask whether the ruling class is even aware of the root cause(s) of the climate crisis. Its failure to manage the system’s trajectory should leave no doubt as to its ability to stabilize the climate in the near future.
Fortunately, a global consensus in climate science opinion has emerged that leaves very little doubt about the sources and the nature of the climate crisis and the need to act decisively to reverse the ecocidal trends. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Reports reflect this consensus. The IPCC was created in 1988 to act as a clearinghouse for synthesizing the relevant scientific literature and to provide policymakers with regular up to date scientific knowledge about climate change.
On August 9, 2021, the IPCC released its latest Report (the first portion of its Sixth Assessment Report on climate change) issuing what the UN Secretary General described as a “code red” warning to humanity. It states: the “scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole … are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years;” that “Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades;” that “Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level;” that “Low-likelihood outcomes, such as ice sheet collapse, abrupt ocean circulation changes, some compound extreme events and warming substantially larger than the assessed very likely range of future warming cannot be ruled out and are part of risk assessment;” and that “limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions.”
Furthermore, the atmospheric CO2 levels in 2019 were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years; since the last 2,000 years, in no other 50-year period did the earth’s average surface temperature rise faster than during the period 1970-2020; since at least the last 3,000 years, in no other century did the global average sea level rise faster than it did during the 20th century.
Another welcome development is that the proportion of people in the US who express concern about the warming of the planet has reached an-all-time high of 70%. That is enough support for the political class to do the right thing had its politics not been tied to the fossil fuel industry in particular and the capitalist class in general and had the US not have a dysfunctional political system. Still, only one in five persons in the US are at all aware that more than nine out of ten climate scientists concur with the consensus of scientific opinion about the climate crisis.
Of course, an overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion about climate change and its catastrophic consequences does not mean there is certainty that the latter will come to pass nor that everyone will be on board for decisive actions. But here the logic of insurance option should apply: i.e., one doesn’t require 100% certainty in order to take out insurance against the remote possibilities of personal catastrophes such as traffic accidents, home fires and so on. The precautionary principle is also relevant here: it states that if a high risk is suspected in an action or concerning a policy and so on, one should take protective measures even before complete scientific proof exists.
There is also the little discussed matter of the growing feelings of hopelessness, despair and anguish especially among the younger generations whose lives will be most affected and unfairly burdened by climate disruptions that threaten human survival as well as the survival of other species, a dreadful legacy of the older generations. For example, a new international survey of 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 in 10 different countries, which included the US, India, Nigeria, Australia and the Philippines, found that three out of four believe “The future is frightening,” while 45% are experiencing “high levels of psychological distress” from climate disruption and lack of governmental action to deal effectively with the growing crisis.
None of the above developments are sufficient in themselves to bring about the necessary changes. The rising public concerns about the warming planet and the extreme anxiety of the young adults have as yet to move the ruling class to act responsibly. The IPCC Reports inform, advise, and urge policymakers to take decisive mitigating actions. Sharing the scientific insights with the public is a component of the fight for climate justice, but climate science literacy isn’t sufficient by itself. Nor can we rely on all scientists to act politically. What matters most are (a) a broad and popular movement for a livable future that adopts disruptive forms of politics; (b) a revitalized labor movement that’s willing to withdraw labor from the fossil fuel and fossil-fuel-dependent sectors of the economy; and (c) a broader movement to ensure that workers’ climate activism and refusal to work do not lower their standard of living. Social imagination is more critical than simply delivering scientific data to the public. Poverty of imagination means our collective inability to envision and bring about an ecological society based on use value and opposed to the domination of exchange value, the logic of capital accumulation, exploitation of labor and expropriation of nature at the expense of life itself. The window of opportunity is closing and is confined to the present decade only.
In the US, the Party that loudly proclaimed its belief in science (the Democrats) during the years of Trump as president is now in power, but it is nowhere near taking seriously the latest scientific consensus on climate disruption. No doubt, the Biden administration’s climate policy is preferable to Trump’s direct assault on the environment. In fact, it’s likely the best on offer so far by any previous administration. But, the fact remains that it’s far from what is required to avert ecological calamities in the near future. Indeed, the day after the IPCC report, Biden called on OPEC and and its allies to increase oil production, to ensure lower fuel prices as we approach the mid-term US elections. The believe-in-science proclamations by the liberal class were, and continue to be, more rhetoric than reality, even as the latest IPCC Report issues a “code red” warning to humanity and urges decisive measures to avoid irreversible and catastrophic consequences. Furthermore, as mentioned above, it does not help either that we are asked to rely on a political system that failed miserably to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic at home with more than 700,000 deaths at the time of writing.
A serious politics will:
- identify the institutional structure of global capitalist order and the unconstrained logic of capital as factors most responsible for destroying the environmental basis of organized human life;
- expose capital’s tendency to subsume science under its own narrow logic of accumulation based on exploitation of human labor and nature and thus challenges the instrumentalization of science in service to capital;
- strive to make more people aware of the overwhelming climate science consensus and its implications for the rule of capital;
- combat the fossil fuel industry’s projects of denialism by means of which it raises doubts about the dire warnings of the scientific community;
- mobilize the public to engage in disruptive mass actions against the business-as-usual politics and destructive corporate practices;
- challenge empire and militarism, including converting military production to green production; and
- build a labor movement that challenges both the rule of capital and fights for a sustainable, ecological society.
Placing people and the planet above profits-for-the-few demands nothing less.
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