I’ve tried to write about other things. But my mind keeps coming back to the one thing which has haunted me. Something which I said I wouldn’t write about, because it was just too damn depressing. Climate change.
The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC was released two weeks ago, chronicling in exhaustive detail the impacts of worldwide studies on the impact of climate change. The relative impacts of holding warming to 1.5ºC instead of 2. Projected pathways to get there, and how many magic beans would be needed to keep us there. The long and the short of it is – we’re fucked.
If all countries meet their Paris agreement targets, we’ll see a temperature rise above 3ºC by 2100. It would take ‘systems transitions unprecedented in terms of scale’ to limit warming to 1.5ºC. Even most of the IPCC’s more optimistic scenarios see us rising above that level by 2050 and then bringing it back down with the magic beans of biofuel and carbon capture, somehow achieiving negative emissions.
Those kinds of temperature rise will wreak absolute havoc on our ecosystems. 13% of the Earth’s land area will undergo a change of ecosystem in the event of a 2ºC rise. 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates will lose more than half their range, accounting for temperature driven changes alone. If we’re also bulldozing their habitats to make way for masses of biofuels, then those numbers could get much worse.
In the oceans, we’re already facing the consequences. We’re changing the oceans’ chemistry, which is already affecting the pteropods and krill at the base of the food chain. Even if we summon up the magic beans to keep the increase to 1.5ºC, we’ll still lose 70-90% of the planet’s coral. The Arctic Ocean would be free of sea ice once every ten years in a 2ºC scenario.
As I mentioned earlier, the Paris commitments track towards a 3.2ºC rise. The scale of action required is probably best demonstrated visually – if we’re to have a good shot at avoiding too much overshoot (before the magic beans kick in), we need to reach zero net emissions by 2040:
And what’s that little dip halfway through the steady rise between 2000 and 2020? Not carbon pricing, not renewable energy subsidies, but the GFC. Even a worldwide economic crash hardly put a dent our emissions growth, and the sustainability actions we’ve taken under capitalist auspices have failed to even slow their climb.
Now, after decades of inaction, we’re somehow supposed to careen into reverse, having showed no previous signs of it even being possible? A carbon tax isn’t going to drive those kind of reductions. A paltry renewable energy target isn’t going to make a blip (particularly because zero emissions means more than decarbonising the grid – livestock and transport are both their own kinds of problems).
Hell, even a worldwide eco-socialist revolution would struggle to make the kinds of drastic changes in society needed to make such rapid, deep cuts. Without such a change in economic systems, I struggle to see us escaping with less than a 2.5 degree rise. Perhaps, with some good luck, good politics and a red wave, 2ºC might be possible. If we all pull together and face up to the international catastophe we have set in motion.
The more likely scenario sees the politics of Hungary and eastern Europe deployed on a global scale. Climate refugees starving on the wrong side of border walls; wealthy nations looking for scapegoats to justify their own autarchy.
The seeds of a new fascism are already being sown. Bannon’s Goebbelsque gaslighting. Revanchist masculinity, threatened by any limits on its power. The west’s aging population, looking back to the halcyon days of their youth. Today’s youth with a hopeless future. An economic recovery which, for regular people, never was. A ready made enemy in Islam, already dehumanised for the last 20 years. Politics as an aesthetic – MAGA hats and Pepe memes. Strongmen who make their own laws.
Throw the food insecurities caused by climate change into the mix. The IPCC reckon that 150 million people could be driven into protein deficiency by 2050. But their report doesn’t consider the aligned impacts. If we need to reforest areas as carbon sinks, that’ll have to come from somewhere. If we need to grow tons of biofuel, that’ll have to come from somewhere. Most likely from existing farmland, because there aren’t many other choices that don’t distend more carbon into the atmosphere in the process. If that farmland is put to other uses, then even more will starve.
I fear that between the starving of poor countries and rich countries refusing to sacrifice their living standards, our already fragile international cooperation will be shattered. Climate change is already exacerbating wars, but once the nation unable to feed itself is Italy or Spain, instead of Somalia or the CAR, the conflicts will take on a whole different scale. Each nation will retreat within themselves, luxuriating in tradition and denial. As with all declining empires, they’ll look to either mysticism or nationalism. Neither has any solution.
The deaths of those outside our gilded walls will be written off as those of subhumans. We don’t have to look far back to find people entirely dehumanised based on any perceived difference. Jews. Blacks. Refugees. Irish. Indians. Aboriginal Australians. The old canards of ‘race science’, biologically coded IQ, social darwinism and ‘Western Civilisation’ are already being deployed.
The socialist, internationalist, probably 2ºC, maybe not entirely fucked option is still on the table, for now. But the world is already turning towards the other, darker path. A system based on infinite growth cannot hold on a finite planet. Capitalism will either be superseded, or it will decay once again into fascism. This time, the cancer could be terminal. Will we reach out to our comrades-across-the-sea with the open hand of solidarity, or the clenched fist of reaction?