ZNet, February 25, 2015. Slowly but surely and at an ever-accelerating pace, the leading issue of our or any time – anthropogenic global warming (AGW) – shapes our experience and limits our future. Don’t kid yourself (no pun intended): things don’t look good for your grandchildren at the current pace of relentless capitalist carbon emission, but significant negative climate changes are underway right now, not just in some distant dystopian future.
Buried in Snow in New England
Look at the off-the-charts snowfall in New England this winter. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, the record winter precipitation in the Northeast is a predictable outcome of global warming. The temperature measures on the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean are balmier than ever, something that carries huge atmospheric significance. As Penn State climate researcher Michael Mann recently told the Washington Post, “Sea surface temperatures off the coast of New England right now are at record levels, 11.5C (21F) warmer than normal in some locations… There is [a] direct relationship” Mann noted, “between the surface warmth of the ocean and the amount of moisture in the air. What that means is that this storm will be feeding off these very warm seas, producing very large amounts of snow as spiraling winds of the storm squeeze that moisture out of the air, cool, it, and deposit it as snow inland.” At the same time, a warmer ocean raises the temperature contrasts that winter storms encounter when they hit the East Coast, something that increases their strength.
Record snowfalls might seem to suggest a world getting colder but the opposite is actually true. Good luck trying to explain that to one of the many Americans who have been conditioned to respond with instantaneous and idiotic skepticism towards the findings of climate science.
Weakened Polar Vortex and Wavy Jet Streams
It gets even more directly counter-intuitive. Consider also the prolonged episodes of extreme Arctic cold that have broken out in recent winters across North America, Europe, and Asia. (Washington DC recently set new records for cold, as did many other cities across the US South.) Recent climate-science suggests that these “polar vortex” incidents are actually an ironic form of collateral damage from global warming. Here’s how it works: abnormally warm waters in the tropical Atlantic migrate via the Gulf Stream toward Europe in the late summer and fall. This produces the radical melting of sea ice in the Barents and Kara Seas north of Scandinavia and Russia. Open water there releases warmth into the air in November and December, creating an extended warm blocking pattern over the Ural Mountains. By midwinter, as more and more heat is being transferred to the Arctic, the “polar vortex” (an area of very low pressure marked by very low temperatures that spins over the North Pole during the winter) is destabilized, weakening the planet’s great northern jet streams and sending giant waves of cold air southward.
Then there’s the sinking of Miami. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that oceans could rise more than three feet by 2100, creating water-logged cities around the world, if humanity does not drastically cut carbon emissions. The process is already underway in Miami. At the University of Miami’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences last week, researchers reported that sea levels around the Miami coast have already gone up 3.7 inches just over the last 19 years. Worse, the sea-level rise is accelerating faster than the IPCC has projected. Predictions about daily tide levels are less accurate than ever, endangering Miami’s capacity to prepare for extreme weather events. Beyond the certainty of increased flooding, the sea-level rise is already creating saltwater intrusions into the region’s freshwater aquifers – no small hazard to a metropolitan area containing 5.5 million people.
Escape From New York?
Miami is just one of numerous US and global coastal cities threatened with inundation and other grave risks linked to global warming in coming decades. The New York City Panel on Climate Change (a committee of scientific experts convened by former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg) recently issued a report warning of dire consequences for the nation’s leading city by 2100 if AGW goes unchecked: a six foot rise in the sea-levels; massive flooding every 8 years; an increase of the city’s flood zone to 99 square miles; a 13% increase in rainfall; an average temperature increase of 9 degrees Fahrenheit; seven major heat waves per year; repeated incidents of extreme precipitation. It’s a future likely to make Hurricane Sandy (Mother Nature’s futile attempt to interject climate change into the 2012 presidential election “debates”) look like a mild event.
Beyond the Dust Bowl
There’s also a recent study suggesting that the recent and ongoing drought in California and the Southwestern US is going to look like a little dry spell compared to what’s due later this century in much of the Central and Western US. According to leading climate scientists, the US Southwest and Great Plains has an 80 percent chance of experiencing a “megadrought” worse than anything seen over the last 1000 years between 2050 and 2100. Think of the 1930s Dust Bowl over three to four decades, with dire implications for food supplies. The dry conditions will be “driven primarily” by AGW, the scientists said.
To the Brink of Collapse
Things are much worse in the global South, where drought and water shortages and food crises related to AGW are already an established fact of life. In the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, currently experiencing a third consecutive year of soaring temperatures and drastically reduced rainfall, “the main water reservoirs are are operating at their lowest capacity. The Cantareira reservoir system, which serves more than nine million people in the state, is only 5% full,” The Guardian reports. “At the Alto Tietê reservoir network, which supplies three million people in greater Sao Paulo, water levels are below 15%. State officials recently announced a potential rationing program of five days without water and two days with, in case the February and March rains do not refill the reservoirs.” An “extreme climate scenario” has “combined with a series of management flaws, political negligence and a culture of waste and pollution” to “bring…the largest metropolitan region of Brazil to the brink of collapse,” the Guardian concludes.
An Unsustainable Future
I could go on with numerous other examples of the catastrophic – yes, catastrophic – change that is coming and that is already underway to some degree. It’s all part of a much bigger Eco-exterminist story. As Naomi Klein notes in her important new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate:
“We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about world. Major cities will very likely drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas, and there is a very high chance that our children will spend a great deal of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts…the World Bank [warns]…that ‘we’re on track for a 4 degrees Celsius warmer world [by century’s end] marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening seal level rise.’…Major cities likely in jeopardy include Boston, New York, greater Los Angeles, Vancouver, London, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Shanghai…Meanwhile, brutal heatwaves that can kill tens of thousands of people, even in wealthy countries, would become entirely unremarkable summer events on every continent but Antarctica. The heat would also cause staple crops to suffer dramatic yield losses across the globe…When you add ruinous hurricanes, raging wildfires, fisheries collapses, widespread disruptions to water supplies, extinctions, and globe-trotting diseases to the mix, it indeed becomes difficult to imagine that a peaceful, ordered society could be sustained…” (Klein, This Changes, pp. 4, 13-14)
“Ill fares the land,” Oliver Goldsmith wrote in 1775, “to hastening ills a prey. Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”
The Really Inconvenient Truth
Solutions? A path beyond the malignant decay and death of land, water, air, and humanity? They absolutely exist. What’s clearly and urgently required is a gigantic “Marshall Plan for the Earth” (Klein’s phrase) – one that “mobilize[s] financing and technology transfer on scales never seen before. It must get technology onto the ground in every country to ensure we reduce emissions while raising people’s quality of life. We have only a decade” (Klein, This Changes, p.5).
The solution (the US-specific version of which is what the US Green Party calls “The Green New Deal”) must not, Klein wisely counsels, be framed in terms of the stern demand that people “make do with less.” The command reinforces the neoliberal austerity that has been advanced by financial and corporate elites and their many agents in state power for the last three-plus decades. It’s hard to expect calls for a more austere lifestyle to be received favorably by a working class majority whose standard of living has been relentlessly assaulted for more than a generation. Mass and wasteful consumerism is a giant problem, but the point is not to call for more mass self-denial. It’s not about more versus less; it’s about better versus worse. The task is to create qualitatively different and better material and social lives beyond the authoritarian and ecocidal rule of capital.
The good news is that the technology to save livable ecology without undermining mass life quality and living standards exists and is fully viable. Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and University of California-Davis research scientist Mark Delucchi have shown that humanity could convert to a completely renewable-based energy system by 2030 if nations would rely on technologies vetted by scientists rather than those promoted by industries. Jacobson and Delucchi’s plan to have 100% of the world’s energy supplied by wind, water, and solar (WWS) sources by 2030 calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations. “The numbers are large,” they write, “but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle: society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled its automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956, the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”
The chief barrier is social and political: the global rule of a highly organized, wealthy and plutocratic capitalist corporate and financial elite that can brook no serious public and populace interference with the unfettered reign of the so-called free market, even where and when such interference is desperately and urgently required to save prospects for a decent human future.
Klein is right. “The really inconvenient truth,” she writes, “is that [global warming] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism.” Klein hedges her argument a bit with qualifications, suggesting that the problem is “unregulated capitalism” and “free market fundamentalism” and the like. In reality, through the problem is in fact chaotic, competitive, global, and growth-, really accumulation- and profit-addicted capitalism itself.
Beyond Letter Grades
This is no time for Mandarin-like historical patience. There’s no more room for waiting like some kind of dispassionate academic observer for Karl Marx’s supposed iron “laws of history” (always a great Hegelian myth) to show us how “capitalism is the midwife of socialism.” Capitalism is cancer, literally and figuratively: an eco-exterminist system of endless upward wealth and power accumulation that is literally wired to destroy life on Earth. And things are moving far too quickly and dangerously to knowingly entertain analogies and reflections on how many centuries it took for Europe to make the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Comrades: capitalism is transitioning humanity and countless other living things into extinction over a shockingly short period of time.
If I’m right about that (I am) and if Klein (reflecting the conclusions of many top climate scientists) is right about us having “a decade” (she probably is) to make the leap, then (considering that Klein published This Changes Everything last year) we have nine years to make an international radical-environmentalist anti-capitalist revolution to preserve the chances for a decent future. We are beyond letter grades and gaining a few yards on a flat field of history at this stage. We’re in pass-fail territory now. We either leap across the chasm or we fall into an abyss. Call me a “catastrophist,” but, to paraphrase Che Guevara, it’s not my fault that reality is urgently Eco-Socialist.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).