According to the annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are at an all-time high with the concentration of carbon dioxide at 142 percent of pre-industrial era levels while methane is at 253 percent and nitrous oxide at 121 percent.
The analysis shows that between 2012 and 2013 CO2 levels increased more than in any other year since 1984.
Climate scientists every day discover new dangers facing humanity and all life on Earth.
The scientific community today speaks unanimously: climate change is a fact, people have caused it, and unless immediate, comprehensive action is taken, all life is under threat.
The environmental crisis is not just about the catastrophic problems that could come in the future but the very real catastrophes that are already unfolding.
A recent study in the July issue of Science shows plant and animal species are dying off in historically alarming numbers.
Over-fishing, changes in species distributions, and other disruptions in food webs have placed up to one-third of animal life in danger of extinction, in addition to the hundreds of species which have already gone extinct since the beginnings of climate change.
The authors concluded that the changes in the global ecosystem are so severe that a mass extinction now looms.
The combined loss of species would lead to a domino effect, leaving some species without food while others explode in numbers, depleting key resources.
The effect would be the “sixth mass extinction” in Earth’s history, following the last which led half of all life to die off.
Decade after decade’s worth of over-fishing and pollution has devastated the Earth’s oceans. Fishermen have been pointing out the decreasing availability of fish, as historically rich waters now resemble backyard pools, starkly devoid of life.
Over-fishing has become so extreme that ocean ecosystems—larger than whole countries—are missing key species of fish—which keep those ecosystems in balance by providing food for some species and acting as predators for others.
Disrupting oceans is particularly concerning given their importance to the global climate. In particular, oceans are the planet’s largest carbon sinks, accounting for about half of all the carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere. While forests and jungles make up a significant part of the process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transforming it into oxygen, the ocean’s sheer size allows it to host staggering amounts of photo synthetic life.
Phytoplankton play a key role in the global carbon cycle but are declining in rapid numbers—as much as a 40 percent decline since 1950 —due to changes in ocean chemistry.
‘Runaway’ climate change
Ocean acidification has thrown food webs off balance and ocean temperatures have risen. Declining populations of phytoplankton risk turning the oceans from a massive absorbent of carbon dioxide into a massive emitter of carbon dioxide.
In that event, climate change would become “runaway,” or virtually impossible to stop or reverse.
The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations would lead to such rapid warming that the ice caps would melt almost completely. Since water absorbs more heat than ice, the rise in sea levels would massively amplify this warming effect.
Yesterday, this story came out about how 35,000 walruses have come ashore in Alaska. Normally they are out on sea ice where the females give birth and feed. Walruses can’t swim indefinitely like seals, so without the ice they need to find land. Large herds such as this pose a grave danger to their young. When scared by a predator or airplane, the walrus stampede and trample the young. In such an incident in 2009, over 130 juvenile walruses were killed.
The present rise in sea levels is already a grave problem. Glaciers dating back to the last ice age get smaller every year, and many have already disappeared completely. Melting polar ice caps have followed a similar trend: Greenland’s ice coverage reached record lows for the last two summers, reaching almost 50 percent below average coverage rates in the summer of 2013.
Recession of ice leads to both rising sea levels and droughts, rendering agriculture difficult, expensive or impossible. Already, the resulting rise in sea levels is causing drastic problems.
First climate refugees
Earlier this year, the people of the Carteret Islands became the first climate refugees as the islands became completely submerged by the ocean.
A recent UNESCO-funded report cites the challenges facing relocation of climate refugees. After an initial attempt in the 1980s at relocating 10 families from Carteret to a neighboring island, the families returned due to civil conflict which was the result of lack of infrastructure to support the increased population.
The report points out: “It is important to understand that relocation is much more than simply providing a house and land. It is a comprehensive economic, social and cultural change.”
The population of the Carteret Islands is only 1,700. The International Organization for Migration predicts the number of people displaced by environmental changes will grow to 200 million by 2050, though estimates range from 50 million to 1 billion.
The people of the Pacific Islands recently held protests for the Pacific Warrior Day of Action stating: “We do not want to be refugees because refugees are people who are marginalized and in desperation depend on handouts. We don’t want that. We want to stay [in our home countries].” They are demanding: Number one that there be investment in mitigation and climate change adaptation so people can stay. Number two that there be a plan for climate change adaptation so that human mobility is factored in.
If capitalism can’t even manage to successfully relocate 10 families from Carteret, imagine how it will deal with hundreds of millions.
Public health impacts
Climate change also brings a wide range of public health impacts, such as heat stroke, increased illness and death from chronic cardiovascular and respiratory disease, increased health and mental health conditions exacerbated by failure of infrastructure as a result of extreme weather events, and health effects of food insecurity and lack of clean water as a result of drought and sea level rise.
Warmer weather and longer growing seasons are also increasing pollen production and exacerbating allergic and respiratory disease and the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
Here in the western United States, there has been an extreme rise in cases of valley fever, which is a chronic respiratory infection caused by a fungus that is carried in soil in dry climates. A 2013 AP report states: “A potentially lethal but often misdiagnosed disease infecting more and more people across the nation has been on the rise as a warming climate and drought have kicked up the dust that spreads it. Nationwide, the number of valley fever cases rose by more than 850 percent from 1998 through 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, there were more than 20,400 cases, with most reported in California and Arizona.
California is facing the most severe drought on record. A recent Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society is one of the most comprehensive studies to investigate the link between climate change and California’s ongoing drought.
“Our research finds that extreme atmospheric high pressure in this region—which is strongly linked to unusually low precipitation in California—is much more likely to occur today than prior to the emission of greenhouse gases that began during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s,”
Agricultural production affected
With the rise of extreme weather and drought, agricultural production is also affected.
CGIAR crop research centers, which study food insecurity, said: “Food production will have to rise 60% by 2050 just to keep pace with expected global population increase and changing demand. Climate change comes on top of that. The annual production gains we have come to expect … will be taken away by climate change. Critical thresholds are already being exceeded. Many regions will experience declines in crop and livestock production from increased stress due to weeds, diseases, insect pests and other climate change-induced stresses.
“Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the recent past and are projected to increase further. In 2010, climate-driven factors led to a 33% drop in wheat production in Russia and a 19% drop in Ukraine. Separate climate events in each case led to a 14% drop in Canada’s wheat output, and a 9% drop in Australia.”
As a human species, we need to drastically curtail our extraction and use of fossil fuels, as well as make other systemic changes that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If this doesn’t happen, we are facing disaster.
Obama administration policies
In June, the Obama administration announced new EPA guidelines, which are intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent by the year 2030. This may sound like progress, but it’s really more like a Band-aid on a gushing wound. Power plant emissions make up only about a third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Since the plan would reduce that third by 30 percent, it would cut back total greenhouse gas emissions by about 10 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration and Congress have continued construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which will transport tar sands from Canada to ports in the Gulf. Extracting tar sands and turning bitumen into crude oil uses vast amounts of energy and water, and causes significant air and water pollution, and three times the global warming pollution of conventional crude production.
The government also supports the expansion of fracking. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that each well, per frack, will require 2.4 to 7.8 million gallons of water, which does not take into account the contamination of ground water that often results from fracking or the release of large amounts of methane in the process.
An article from Oil Change International describes a 2013 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that assigned a “carbon budget” for our atmosphere telling the world how much carbon we can afford to burn if we want to avoid a truly catastrophic climate crisis. Their report states: “We have already taken up a huge amount of our global budget for greenhouse gas emissions, and we have very little room left if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change.”
There is no reason for continued exploration. Current reserves of fossil fuels contain roughly 3 trillion tons of carbon dioxide. That means that we must keep roughly two-thirds of proven reserves in the ground if we want a decent shot at avoiding catastrophe.
But what do our so-called leaders do? They refuse to act and instead are aggressively expanding extraction of some of the dirtiest fossil fuels. The U.S. has dragged its feet on meaningful change, choosing instead to point the finger at China, a comparatively poor country in the process of development. As one of only a handful of countries which never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the United States has no ground to stand on in claiming international leadership in responding to climate change.
While China may be the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses today, it only assumed that role recently and is also one of the world’s largest investors in clean energy. The United States has been a leading polluter since it industrialized over 100 years ago.
A 2010 Stanford study by Mark Jacobson shows that with current technology we can provide all the energy needs of the planet using wind, water and solar power. The report states: “Climate change, pollution, and energy insecurity are among the greatest problems of our time. Addressing them requires major changes in our energy infrastructure. Here, we analyze the feasibility of providing worldwide energy for all purposes (electric power, transportation, heating/cooling, etc.) from wind, water, and sunlight.
“Such a WWS infrastructure reduces world power demand by 30% and requires only 0.41% and 0.59% more of the world’s land for foot print and spacing, respectively. We suggest producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic.”
Capitalism can’t seriously address the crisis
Government agencies that deal with air pollution have no control over how many cars are on the road, accessibility to public transit, smart growth with affordable housing built close to jobs, all things that play into the need for individuals to drive cars.
They have no control over the auto manufacturing companies and the affordability of electric vehicles.
They don’t even have the power to shut down the refineries after major accidents like the fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., in 2012 that sent 25,000 residents to the hospital. While many well-meaning and capable people work at these agencies, their hands are tied by the system that they operate within. This is just one example of how capitalism is completely incapable of truly addressing the crisis.
Put plainly, climate catastrophe has begun, and a revolution is therefore overdue in how production is organized.
The opening for incremental changes and modest regulations ended decades ago. Over those decades, the corporations which mine and burn coal and oil, and which dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere using antiquated production techniques, have been unresponsive to calls to transform, to do anything that could damage their “competitive edge.”
Incremental changes are now too little and too late. Reason in revolt now thunders. Will humanity be caught staring into the headlights of a speeding climate catastrophe? Or will we seize the moment to reorganize society?
Our hopes cannot lie in the politicians to save us or that the 1% will have a change of heart and stop being greedy. Our hope lies in ourselves, in the global working class. United we have the power and the skills to reorganize society in a sustainable way. We need a socialist system that utilizes the world’s resources to sustain and improve life for everyone on the planet, that puts life over profit. We need to build a people’s movement to shut down this system and create a new one. If you agree, join us.