Three or four years ago, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report as shocking as the one published this week may have dominated the news agenda. With its claims that many of global heating’s impacts are now irreversible, it stands up to the great reports of 2018 warning of just twelve years left to save the planet and the threat of a Hothouse Earth.
Instead, in 2022, the IPCC’s latest report is understandably drowned out of the news cycle by war in Ukraine and a cost of living crisis. Furthermore, after several years of groups like Extinction Rebellion ‘raising the alarm’, the terrifying realities and future threats of climate change detailed may no longer have the same shock factor.
This is the second instalment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment report. The first, published in August, updated ‘the physical science basis’ of climate change. The second details climate impacts, possibilities for adaptation, and levels of vulnerability. The main takeaway: the situation is already really bad, and it’s going to get much worse.
As with other such reports, the theme continues that the more investigation scientists conduct, the more they find that climate impacts appear to be harsher and arriving faster than first predicted. In many ways, this is ‘the science’ catching up to what plenty already knew. For years there have been warnings that climate science is conservative in its assessment: the Guardian reported that Madeleine Diouf Sarr, the Senegalese Chair of the Least Developed Countries Group, said, ‘I read this report with a great deal of fear and sadness, but not surprise.’
Of the extreme weather we are now accustomed to listing in relation to global heating—heatwave, drought, wildfires, flooding, storms—much in the future is now irreversible. We are locked into some amount of sea level rises essentially guaranteeing existential threat to some small islands. Key economic infrastructure is also certain to be damaged. Many ports and coastal regions are guaranteed to be hit hard in the coming years. For the rest of this century, between $7.9 trillion and $12.7 trillion in global assets and over one billion people will be at risk on coastal floodplains.
The report further states that at 1.7 and 1.8oC degrees of warming, half of the total human population will be exposed to life-threatening heat and humidity. Predictably, it is the people and nations who have contributed least to global emissions that will experience climate impacts first and worst. At 1.6oC of warming, 8% of farmland will not be useable. This will lead to even greater food insecurity, poverty, and stunting in the Global South. The list, of current and future impacts, could go on.
Amid everything else, these stark warnings did not inspire response from Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer in the UK, or Joe Biden in the US. That was left to their designated climate surrogates. John Kerry, the US’ Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, said the report ‘paints a dire picture’ and describes ‘the terrible risks to our planet if we continue to ignore science’. Alok Sharma, the Tory government’s President of COP26, said: ‘Countries need to take action now.’
The publication of these reports has become a ritualistic opportunity for representatives of the ruling class to bolster their eco-reputations while doing nothing. We are patronised with solemn words about the threats we face, hypocritical calls to ‘action’, and the unconvincing proclamations about the need for ‘hope’.
These hollow words come from individuals with a disproportionate amount of governmental power to stop ignoring the science and take the action needed. They are the ‘representatives’ who cheer net-zero targets (like the UK’s) which guarantee mass death. They are from the Western governments which have refused to provide adequate finance for poorer countries struggling to mitigate and adapt. The IPCC report itself declares that the availability of such finance is ‘insufficient’. The US contested the inclusion in the report of the phrase ‘loss and damage’ because they believe it put them too squarely on the hook for international financial compensation.
With meagre levels of investment, a cosy relationship with the fossil fuel industry, and a reliance on markets, these ‘leaders’ show that their primary concern is not averting climate catastrophe but maintaining the profitability of the status quo. Ed Miliband, Labour’s Shadow Climate and Net Zero Secretary, was bolder in his response to the report, tweeting: ‘Business as usual means catastrophe in a rapidly warming world.’ He’s right, but is Labour or any other major party really serious about what departing from ‘business as usual’ would mean?
The IPCC report warns that there is short window left to avoid the very worst of the crisis. The question of time is crucially important, but so too the too often neglected questions of power. It matters little how quickly we try to ‘act’ if we remain within an economic system which presents structural barriers to both mitigation and adaptation.
Capitalism’s profit motive has made it impossible to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy on the timeline required. The sunken costs of private investors in polluting infrastructure create an incentive to continue extracting. The political class has been resolutely captured by capital. Climate change is a crisis fully of capitalism’s making but, unlike the financial crises of the last century, not one it is able to resolve itself.
If it wasn’t obvious already, the combination of warm words and persistent inaction over recent years underlines that the current political elite are not going to do what’s necessary to resolve the crisis. Instead, we need a mass movement taking transformation into its own hands. We must recognise the roots of climate change in the global imposition of capitalist markets through colonialism.
The IPCC report goes some way to recognise that climate change is linked to other social issues, but we should go beyond simply understanding ‘interconnectedness’ and embrace a whole-systems rejection of capitalism. This doesn’t mean we have to wait for a total supplanting of the system to decarbonise, but it does mean that climate justice will come through socialist transformations to the status quo.
If this latest report makes anything clear, it’s the importance of international solidarity. Our solidarity cannot afford to be just defensive against tragedies as they occur. It must be proactive, seeking to build a new global settlement which re-empowers the Global South and disempowers capital in favour of labour globally.
We need to create a new global political economy which structures our dependence on polluting resources and incentivises cooperation and ecological justice. We should reject a faux-internationalism of military intervention and selective aid in favour of a socialist internationalism of equality, justice, and collective transformation.