The United Nations International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth Assessment Report (AR6) in August. This is a reworked and an updated version of their last report AR5 published in 2013. It is much more confident in its assessments and its summary for policy makers is clearly intended to shock countries into promising drastic reductions in their emissions of Green House Gases (GHGs) at the international climate conference, the Conference of the Parties (COP 26), to be held in Glasgow in November. When one understands that such reductions are very unlikely to happen the report reads like a death sentence, a harbinger of a new mass extinction.
It makes clear that human activity over the last five decades has altered the climate of the planet to an unprecedented degree and at an unprecedented rate. The GHGs already released into the atmosphere will take centuries or even millennia to be reduced and their effects will continue for a similar timescale. Polar ice caps and glaciers will continue to melt, sea level will continue to rise, sea acidity will increase, deserts will extend and violent changes in the climate will increase in frequency. The UN general secretary Antonio Guterres, who, together with UK Prime Minister Johnson, is hosting COP26, said:
“The world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7 0C of heating.”(1)
What he means is that the present rate of GHG emissions is leading to an increase in global Mean Average Temperature (MAT) of 2.70C above the average temperature in the period 1850 to 1900. Mean Average Temperature (MAT), which is the temperature of land and sea averaged over the globe, will rise to about 16.450C. This is well outside the climate niche of 11 to 150C in which humans have survived and grown crops throughout their history. In fact, Guterres is being optimistic and the more realistic assessment provided by AR6 is a 3.60C rise. Land temperatures are often double the MAT and hence billions of people will be subject to continuous temperatures of around 290C or more which make life unsustainable. Crops will fail and billions will be forced to try and migrate to higher latitudes leading to starvation wars and a breakdown of civilisation. All this will occur if the capitalist system of production remains the global system of production. But, of course, the UN and the IPCC will never say this. Their advice is based on the fundamental assumption that the capitalist system continues in one way or another. Under this assumption, the IPCC have produced an underestimate of what lies ahead since they admit that future increases in carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) from wildfires, permafrost thaw and wetlands have not been taken into account.(2)
AR6 is, however, categorical that climate change is caused by human activity. What they do not specify, and indeed what all mainstream commentators on climate change dare not mention, is that it is not human activity as such, it is precisely human activity under capitalist production relations which is the direct cause of this catastrophe. Capitalist production relations of the last 200 years are the direct cause of climate change. As we say in our initial assessment of the report:
“…the problem is systemic and structurally intrinsic to capitalism itself.”(3)
If anything needs to be categorically stated it is that the climate disaster cannot be overcome while capitalism remains the world system of production. Capitalism needs to be replaced by a system of cooperative production for human needs before any reversal of the path to impending catastrophe can be achieved.
We intend to review the evidence presented by AR6 before considering how such a reversal could be brought about.
As is now well understood, human-generated, or anthropogenic, global warming is caused by emissions of GHGs, mainly CO2 but also CH4 and some other minor gases. These gases, because of their molecular structure, reflect long wave radiation from the earth’s surface back to earth in a process called “radiative forcing” thereby interfering with the earth’s ability to cool itself from the radiation received from the sun. Once this occurs the earth enters a state of energy imbalance and tends to heat up increasing radiation from the earth’s surface until a new balance is reached. Radiative forcing is a natural process which has kept the earth warm enough for human life to evolve. Atmospheric water vapour, clouds and GHGs reflect long wave radiation back to earth’s surface keeping the earth about 330C warmer than it would otherwise be.(4) Water vapour accounts for about 60%(5) of radiative forcing but the amount in the atmosphere is dependent on temperature which in turn is dependent on GHGs. Concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere have varied in the past and the climate has changed in response, but the present rate of change is completely unprecedented. Until approximately the Second World War the natural carbon sinks, particularly the oceans, and terrestrial sinks such as forests, kept the man-made GHGs in check. However, the rapid advance of capitalist production across the globe following the Second World Wa has produced a similarly rapid increase in the amount of GHGs human activity has added to the atmosphere. Since the 1970s this process has now become critical as emission of GHGs continues to increase. The radiative forcing from anthropogenic GHGs has increased by 18% since 2013.(6) The graph below shows the relentless increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. What it also shows is that all the COP conferences, from their start 26 years ago, and all the IPCC reports have produced no reduction whatsoever in the rate of increase in CO2 concentration.
This graph shows only CO2 which is equivalent to only 74.4% of the total GHGs. Other GHGs, such as methane which itself makes up 17.3% of the total, are all much more potent reflectors of long wave radiation. Methane, over a 20 year period is 84 times as potent as CO2. If the other gases effects are converted into CO2 equivalent and added to the CO2 emissions a similar trend emerges. In 1990, 35 Giga tonnes (Gt) of CO2 equivalent were released and today the figure is approximately 50Gt; a 42% increase. The release of GHGs is directly related to the growth of the world economy. The figures for the growth of the global economy provided by the World Bank in constant 2010 $ are shown below.
Capitalism requires continual accumulation of capital to enable the system to keep functioning and this is recorded in growth of the world economy. While the global population has more or less doubled since 1970, going from 3.7bn to 7.79bn, the global GDP has increased by a factor of four (300%) as shown on the graph above. The increase in GHGs is directly related to the increase in global output, which, in turn, depends on energy and consequently CO2 production. The table below shows the increases in production in physical measures, not currency, of some of the main GHG emitting products in the period 1970 to 2020.
The average increase of these five products in the period is 240%. The Financial Times reports that we are now using three times the amount of energy we used in the 70s, a 200% increase which is not far distant from the average increase of the five products listed above.(7) Even in 2020, after all the hype about renewables, 84% of the global energy still came from fossil fuels.(8) It is hardly surprising that, in the same period, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has risen from 327ppm to 420ppm, a rise of 29%.
The graphs reproduced from AR6 SPM.1 below illustrate clearly two things. The first graph, which plots the rise in surface temperature in in the timespan of 2000 years of human civilization, shows unequivocally how the dramatic rise in surface temperature coincides exactly with the period in which capitalism becomes the dominant global system of production, 1850 to 2020. As we point out above, it is not human activity as such which is leading to an inferno on earth, it is precisely activity under the capitalist production system which is doing this. The second graph shows how this process has really accelerated with the massive growth since 1970 spurred by the increased globalization of the system. This was the response to falling profit rates which in turn led to the breakdown of the post-Second World War international financial system which had linked all currencies to the dollar and tied the dollar to gold. The resulting floatation of currencies and liberalisation of capital movements allowed capital to scour the globe for cheaper labour power. The strategy finally arrived at was the restructuring of Western economies which turned them into predominantly service economies. Production of many industrial goods was transferred to areas which used even more fossil fuels to produce them. The output of CO2 was also increased by the long lines of transport to get those goods to the richer markets in the USA and Europe. Since the 1970s, global trade has increased massively. According to the World Bank merchandise exports, in current US dollars, have gone from $302 billion to $17.69 trillion in the period 1970 to 2020!(9)
So, what of the future?
AR6 analyses five, what it calls, Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) with differing rates of increase or reduction in GHGs leading to different levels of radiative forcing in the year 2100. The very high emissions pathway (SSP5-8.5) sees emissions doubling from the present level by 2050 and the high (SSP3-7.0) sees emissions doubling by 2100. An intermediate pathway (SSP2-4.5) has emissions remaining more or less constant until 2060 and then declining to about a quarter of the present level by 2100. There are 2 low emission pathways (SSP1-2.6) and (SSP1-1.9) which see emissions falling from the present to zero by 2080 and 2060 respectively and thereafter going negative via carbon capture. None of these pathways achieve the Paris goal of zero emissions by 2050.
Which pathway are we on?
A UN report published in mid-September showed that the pledges made at the Paris Conference, put the world on course to increase emissions by 16% (compared to 2010) by 2030 whereas climate scientists calculate that emissions must fall by 45% by 2030 if warming is to be limited to 1.50C by 2100.(10) The bulk of new energy investment in the coming period is going into fossil fuels. The US, for example, has allowed drilling for oil offshore in Alaskan waters with approximately $323bn to be spent on this in the next 4 years, the UK has sold drilling licences for the Cambo field north west of the Shetland Islands, whose emissions are calculated to be equivalent to 16 coal fired stations(11), meanwhile China is planning 43 new coal fired power plants,(12) India is opening new coal mines and so on. In the year 2020 the IMF reported that the fossil fuels industry was subsidized to the tune of $16.1bn every day or $5.9tn for the year!(13) In the period 2020 to 2021 the G7 countries spent only $147bn on renewables.(14) In short, there has been no halt to existing extraction and planned future extraction and use of fossil fuels since all the famous pledges were made in Paris in 2016. This is despite the International Energy Agency (IEA) pronouncement that:
“No new oil, gas or coal fields should be tapped if the world is to stay within the 1.50C this century.”
Fatih Birol, the executive director of the IEA, said:
“This is shocking and very disturbing. On the one hand, governments today are saying climate change is their priority. But on the other hand, we are seeing the second biggest emissions rise in history. It’s really disappointing.”(15)
All this indicates that the two low emissions pathways, SSP1-2.6 and SSP-1.9, are simply wishful thinking and quite unachievable. This has been recognised by the UN Secretary General, Guterres, when he said that the world was on course to 2.7 0C of heating which is the intermediate SSP2-4.5 pathway. As we have indicated above there is absolutely no indication of emissions being stabilized at the present levels as this pathway assumes, in fact they are being increased at almost the same rate as over the last two decades. The intermediate pathway therefore also appears to be wishful thinking. We are more likely headed on one of the higher pathways, most likely SSP3-7.0 with a catastrophic 3.60C warming by the end of the century. AR6 has tabulated the pathways and the predicted temperature rise in a table SPM 1 which we reproduce below.
The report states there is a linear relationship between CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and surface temperature. Each 1000Gt of CO2 raises the temperature by 0.450C. However, if tipping points are crossed, the amount of GHGs could rise exponentially as the increased temperature releases more GHGs and the carbon sinks collapse, in turn reducing sequestration of carbon. Tipping points represent the stage at which a process fuels itself and becomes irreversible. One tipping point is likely to trigger another. Tipping points which already appear to have been passed today include the melting of both Arctic ice and the west Antarctic ice sheet and the bleaching of coral reefs. Melting of polar ice leads to greater adsorption of solar radiation due to reduced reflection from the ice and hence greater warming. This in turn leads to thawing of the permafrost and release of stored methane which in turn makes for further temperature rise. It is easy to see how this process leads to exponential runaway heating.
Some organisations consider the IPCC is painting a deceptively over optimistic picture of the situation. Job One for Humanity, whose diagram of interacting tipping points we reproduce above, estimates that the temperature increase of 1.50C is already locked in because of the concentration of CO2 and other GHGs already released. They calculate that if we go into the range of CO2 concentrations between 425ppm and 450ppm we are on a path to between 20C and 2.70C warming. This is actually the IPCC pathway SSP2-4.5, the intermediate pathway. If the world enters this pathway we will encounter catastrophic consequences over which we have no control.(16) There will be massive climate disruptions, crop failures, attempted migrations and the death of billions of people. All we could do at that stage is to try and adapt to the mess capitalist production has created. As we are now at a CO2 concentration of approximately 420 we have only a few years to avoid this. If we do not, as seems likely, we are heading for a sixth mass extinction.(17)
As mentioned above, capitalism requires continual accumulation of capital to continue to operate. At its heart, capitalism is a system based on maximising profit, calculated in financial terms. This translates into a constant drive to cheapen the cost of raw materials, lower the cost of labour power (wages), increase the productivity rate (output per ‘man’ hour), and increase the amount produced. All this is in the wider context of constant competition to increase ‘market share’ as well as creating ‘new markets’. This translates into ‘growth’, even though at this stage in capitalism’s present accumulation cycle an increasing part of this growth is simply financial and it does not mean overall growth in wages. A global growth rate of 3% leads to a doubling of the global economy in 25 years and a doubling of that again in the next 25 years. In fact this is what has happened in the last 50 years; the global GDP has increased by a factor of four. The capitalist system requires perpetual growth yet the resources of the planet are finite. You don’t have to be a climate scientist to see that this is just not sustainable. The latest calculation is that global capitalism now requires 1.75 planets to sustain its annual use of the earth’s replaceable resources. Capitalism’s relationship with nature is like a vast Ponzi scheme, using up resources which cannot be replaced to enable profit making to continue. Marine and terrestrial ecosystems are the sole sinks for anthropogenic carbon emissions, but capitalist growth is destroying these faster than ever before.
The oceans form the largest eco-system on earth and are responsible for removal of over 30% of the CO2 produced and generate the same percentage of the oxygen in the atmosphere. However, the dumping of municipal and chemical waste and plastics into the sea is destroying marine life and causing the oceans to become more acidic. In 1940 the ocean pH (the logarithmic measure of acidity) was 8.2 and it is now 8.04 which is a nearly 50% increase in acidity. This is not simply destroying corals it is destroying planktonic animals and plants which regulate the planet. Since the 1940s, 50% of all this marine life has been destroyed! Marine life removes carbon from the atmosphere by converting dissolved CO2 into calcium carbonate (chalk) which sinks to the ocean floor when the animals die. Destruction of planktonic life prevents this process and allows the dissolved CO2 to remain as carbonic acid lowering the pH and killing more marine life and so increasing the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere. The Global Oceanic Environmental Survey team calculates that, if the pH drops to 7.95, a tipping point will be reached which will destroy 80% of planktonic animals and plants. This will have devastating consequences, increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, driving up global heating, reducing concentration of oxygen and consequently threatening most life on earth.(18)
The destruction of animals and plants on land is more widely reported than those of the oceans but also more or less ignored by our rulers. Global warming is, however, destroying land eco-systems at an unprecedented rate. Plants and habitats for animals and insects on which our lives are dependent are daily vanishing. Already we are seeing massive problems building up. An example is the Amazon rainforest, which for centuries has been a major sink for carbon, has now become a net emitter of CO2 because of forest clearance and fires.(19)
The UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reports that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction and climate change is one of the main reasons.(20) The World Wildlife Fund reports that the extinction rate is now between 1,000 and 10,000 times faster than the natural extinction rate, and between 200 and 2,000 species are going extinct every year. What is not known is the rate of extinction of insect species but it is clear that insecticides and industrial farming are killing off insects, notably bees. 75% of the world’s food crops depend on insect pollinators and 23% of this crop is at risk from lack of pollinators.(21) As with climate change itself the rate of extinction is unprecedented. While, on the one hand, global warming is altering temperatures and weather patterns preventing us from growing food, on the other, killing off the insect pollinators makes crops which do grow fail to yield food. Mankind is a part of nature and destruction of the ecosystems in which we live and extinction of natural species would inevitably lead to the extinction of Homo sapiens itself. It is as if we are on a juggernaut heading for a cliff.
Capitalism is a class divided society in which the aim of production is profit. The bourgeoisie, who control this society, understand that reversing global warming is equal to massively reducing profits. Their basic premise is that capitalism will continue since it is the natural order of things and any mitigation of global warming can only be made within the logic of capitalist production. The unspoken view of our leaders is that reversing global warming is simply too expensive to undertake. Hence the succession of COP conferences serve only to provide camouflage for this position while emissions steadily rise and the average temperature increases. Though our bourgeois leaders are both corrupt and liars, it is not because they are corrupt and liars that they do the opposite of what their scientists advise. It is the way the system operates which compels them to act in this way. The system requires both profit and continual accumulation of capital demanding, continual expansion of the production of commodities, and our leaders are simply doing what the system demands. Since it is the system itself which is driving this process, we can see why attempts to reform it via Green New Deals or civil protests and disruption as pursued by Extinction Rebellion in the UK will also fail. As long as global capitalism rules the world, we will continue the headlong route to the inferno and mass extinction. To avert this, we need a change of historical proportions. The historical alternative is basically: either the breakdown of capitalist civilization, through global warming or war, leading to massive destruction of human life, with a few isolated human communities remaining thus bringing about a new form of barbarism, or, alternatively, the replacement of capitalist production by a higher form of production and a new form of social organisation. How can the second alternative be achieved?
As in all class divided societies the ruling bourgeois class will defend the basis of their wealth and the privileges it brings them to the bitter end. The only class able to overthrow the system is the exploited class, the working class, whose labour supports the entire system. Capitalism has created a world economy with a global working class whose collective social labour also provides the outlines of a new society. The new society will be one of freely associated producers where the means of production are socialized and production is for human needs. It will be a global society without classes, without wage labor, without countries and without the need for profit and for accumulation of capital. We call such a society a genuine communist society but it has nothing whatsoever in common with the version of capitalism which existed in Russia until 1991 where, as we state in our document For Communism:
“Capitalist categories like wage labour, money and exploitation persisted. A new ruling class … subjected the proletariat to brutal exploitation. The myth that the USSR was ‘socialist’ and that statifcation equals socialism was one of the enduring illusions of the epoch.”(22)
A communist society will be a society of abundance where all human needs are met, but this will only be achieved after a period of transition in which the disastrous legacies of capitalism are eliminated. To achieve satisfaction of the world population’s needs some production sectors will need to grow while others, the useless, wasteful or positively harmful production sectors of capitalism, like armaments, are eliminated or turned to useful production.(23) At present about a third of the world’s population, many of them living in the so-called richer countries, lack even the basics needs of life such as food security, housing, energy, clear water and sanitation. The entire global economy will be reoriented to satisfy these needs. Instead of profit, human need will be the watchword. Obviously some growth will be required for this but the elimination or redirection of the useless and waste sectors will enable this to be achieved without increases in GHG emissions. This reorientation of the global economy will provide the basis for a sustainable relationship with nature and enable the climate crisis to be seriously tackled. The question we are often asked is, “how can the exploited working class become a revolutionary class fighting for such a higher form of social organisation?” Here we can only outline the main lines of development along which we see this developing.
The climate crisis comes on top of the long running economic crisis caused by falling profit rates, which has already reduced working class consumption and living conditions. The ruling class’ response to the climate crisis is to argue that individual cuts in consumption and higher energy costs are required. This inevitably pushes up food and other prices. This is the inexorable logic of capitalism. What it amounts to is loading the costs of the climate crisis onto the shoulders of the working class in the hope that this will solve the problem. As our living conditions become ever more intolerable, the material basis for a fightback will mature. The climate crisis will inevitably lead to more class struggle. We argue that a fight for basic living conditions, which capitalism cannot grant, will be the basis on which the consciousness of the need to overthrow the system itself will develop. The contradictions of the system will develop in all their fullness. Unemployment and immiseration of workers will coincide with massive productivity increases which could provide for the needs of all. Food shortages will exist while crops are left to rot or fed to animals. This will generate a situation of class war. However, for economic struggles against the effects of the system to be successful they need to take an anti-capitalist direction and question the whole rotten system. The working class needs to be conscious of its history and to have a programme for the creation of the new society. To achieve this a revolutionary political organisation, rooted in the working class, which can operate as a guide to a new society is required. While we cannot control the material conditions which precipitate future struggles, we can direct our efforts to forming a class political organisation. This is the key issue today. It is also the only hope for a successful fight against the climate crisis.
The efforts of those fighting global warming will inevitably fail as long as capitalism remains the global system of production. Hence, the only effective fight against the climate crisis is the fight to build a genuine communist society and a political organisation to assist in the overthrow of the present system. This is what the Internationalist Communist Tendency is fighting to do and it is the only way through which we have a hope of reversing the horrendous damage capitalism is inflicting on planet earth.
CP (Communist Workers’ Organisation)
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(1) Quoted in _Guardian_ 17/9/21 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/17/us-and-eu-pledge-30-…
(2) See AR6 paragraph B4.3
(3) See http://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2021-09-21/climate-production-capital
(4) Without this process average temperatures would be 330C cooler. See: Proof of the Atmospheric Greenhouse Effect Arthur P. Smith∗ American Physical Society, 1 Research Road, Ridge NY, 11961
(5) See https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/climatescience/climatesciencenarrativ…
(6) AR6 gives present anthropogenic radiative forcing as 2.72 watts/metre2. This is an increase of 0.43w/m2 since 2013.
(7) See _Financial Times_ 25/9/21
(8) See _Forbes_ https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2020/06/20/bp-review-new-highs-in-g…
(9) See World Bank data: https://data.worldbank.org/topic/21
(10) Reported in _Guardian_ 17/09/21 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/17/us-and-eu-pledge-30-…
(11) Calculation by Friends of the Earth reported in Guardian https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-57762927
(12) See https://time.com/6090732/china-coal-power-plants-emissions/
(13) Reported in _Guardian_ 6/10/21
(14) Reported in _Guardian_ 2/06/21
(15) Speaking to _Guardian_ 20/04/21
(17) See https://www.joboneforhumanity.org/the_4_most_critical_global_warming_dea…
(18) A mass extinction is defined as the extinction of 75% of life on earth. There have been 5 mass extinctions since the explosion of life on earth in the Cambrian geological period. The last was the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.
(19) See https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3860950 This report also states that even if the unlikely goal of zero CO2 emissions by 2045 is achieved this will not stop the tipping point being reached. It is vital that we stop polluting the oceans and allow planktonic life to regenerate. Again something very unlikely under capitalism.
(20) Reported in _Guardian_ https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/14/amazon-rainforest-no…
(21) See https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/ipbes_7_10_add.1_en_1.pdf
(22) See https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/ipbes_7_10_add.1_en_1.pdf
(23) See https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2013-10-24/for-communism
(24) It is estimated that the US military produces the same amount of GHGs as a medium sized country about the size of Portugal.