New reports warn global warming threatens human extinction

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“An important biological species – humankind – is at risk of disappearing, due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat. We are becoming aware of this problem when it is almost too late to prevent it. It must be said that consumer societies – the offspring of imperial policies – are chiefly responsible for this appalling environmental destruction.” – Fidel Castro, Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992

A new climate change report has warned that humanity is heading towards extinction by ecocide if the required action to slash carbon dioxide emissions isn’t taken immediately. Drawing on a number of studies, How Climate Change is Tearing the Planet Apart,1 by Will Denayer for Flashback Economics, states that ‘we are currently experiencing change 200 to 300 times faster than any of the previous major extinction events’.

Previous studies have estimated that the world is on course for a cataclysmic 5-6C temperature rise by the end of the century. However, this paper warns that a 3.5C increase is ‘considered to be the extinction point’, because ‘the food chain collapses, oceanic plankton dies off, and terrestrial vegetation is severely limited. The grasslands we use for agriculture are threatened the most. The extinction of species will create chaos. For example, the disappearance of bees will create enormous problems with pollination. The acidification of the oceans [caused by the rising absorption of carbon dioxide] depletes the oxygen in the waters. Temperatures higher than the extinction point are being predicted, not by crackpots, ideologues or sci-fi writers, but by serious scientists…A scientific report published last year revealed that in the near-term, Earth’s climate will change 10 times faster than at any other moment in the past 65 million years.’

The claims seem to be backed up by another report from the end of August by NASA, which said that – based on analysis of ice cores and sediments – the planet is warming at a pace not experienced ‘in at least the past 1,000 years’.2 Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said: ‘In the past 30 years we’ve really moved into exceptional territory. There’s no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century, in terms of the inclination [of temperatures]. Maintaining temperatures below the 1.5C guard rail requires significant and very rapid cuts in carbon dioxide emissions or co-ordinated geo-engineering. That is very unlikely. We are not even yet making emissions cuts commensurate with keeping warming below 2C.’

The world’s average temperature in 2016 peaked at 1.38C above levels experienced in the 19th century, already perilously close to the 1.5C target. Schmidt said that climate change deniers who attributed the 2016 heatwave purely down to the ‘El Niño’ effect – eastward equatorial shifts in warm water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean, towards the coast of South America – were ‘viewing the world through rose-tinted spectacles’.

Behind the acceleration of global warming is the runaway global capitalism seen since the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and the defeat of the socialist bloc, borne out by the staggering estimate, according to Denayer’s report, that ‘63%of all human-generated carbon emissions have been produced in the past 25 years’. The report continues to paint a starkly bleak future with the explanation that ‘a 40-year time lag between global emissions and climate impacts… means that we have not even started to experience the consequences of our growing emissions’.

Denayer points out that a recent study by 18 scientists, including the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, showed that ‘the long-held, internationally agreed target to limit rises in global average temperatures to 2C was in error’ and should have been set at a 1C ‘to avoid the effects of catastrophic climate change’. That 1C threshold was surpassed in 2015, with Hansen’s warning arguably demonstrated by the severe effects already being felt in the hottest parts of the world and seen in the rapidly melting Arctic sea ice, which last year dipped to record lows.

Denayer continues: ‘An increasing number of climate change scientists now fear that our situation is already so serious, and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play, that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Some are convinced that we will run into major problems in the course of just a few decades. Climate change is creating an emergency situation. Action needs to be taken immediately. And it needs to be the right action.’

But the ‘right action’ Denayer suggests, having grasped the critical need to act immediately, is frustratingly familiar. ‘No carbon trading markets, no bowing to corporate power. Steep carbon taxes are essential.’ Lamenting the ‘pathetic failures’ of all 21 global climate conferences, Denayer correctly says that the ‘nonsense’ of markets and their upholders ‘will never be part of any solution’, but adds: ‘The key to addressing climate change is to win elections and break the deadlock of corporate power. No economic, social and technological solution is possible without it.’

But a reformist or electoral solution under capitalism is impossible. As James Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics recently put it in the Guardian3, an economy that depends on infinite growth can only further exacerbate both global warming and ecological destruction at ever-faster rates: ‘The root problem is the fact that our economic system demands ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. Our politicians tell us that we need to keep the global economy growing at more than 3% each year – the minimum necessary for large firms to make aggregate profits. That means every 20 years we need to double the size of the global economy – double the cars, double the fishing, double the mining, double the McFlurries and double the iPads. And then double them again over the next 20 years from their already doubled state.’

The urgent question is how to rid ourselves of this destructive and unsustainable economic system before it is too late, and replace it with a planned, ecosocialist one that serves the needs of the planet and its people. It is a fantasy to think that corporate power might acquiesce to a ‘democracy’ which it controls. Corporate power must be smashed. We are already on the brink of the 11th hour. The time is far past overdue to recognise that the future of all humanity is inextricably tied to the interests of working class power. The fight for human survival is a fight to overthrow capitalism. As Marx said: ‘Revolution or ruin!’

by Barny Philips