AnalysisClimate Crisis

Inaction from government as climate unravels coast to coast

While the western U.S. boils in its second heat wave within two weeks, the eastern part of the country got beaten by tornadoes and flash floods. Climate change is here and it’s unraveling faster than expected. Solutions exist but the capitalist system and its politicians are unwilling or unable to implement them, but that doesn’t mean we should give up hope. 

Every year temperatures are rising along with CO2 levels, and as each year goes by we are getting closer and closer to a runaway scenario. Last month was the fourth hottest June on record globally — and it was the hottest on record for North America. Heat waves now occur three times as often as they did in the 1960s and record-breaking hot months are occurring five times more often than they would without climate change. The seven warmest years on record have been the last seven, and 19 of the 20 hottest have occurred since the year 2000. 

The warming climate is causing more frequent extreme weather around the globe. Studies show that the likelihood that a tropical storm will become a Category 3 or greater hurricane has increased by 8% each decade. Hurricane season officially begins on June 1, but named storms this year began on May 23 marking the most active start of the season on record.

Tropical Storm Elsa, the Atlantic’s fifth named storm this year, made landfall in Florida on July 7 bringing tornadoes to the Georgia coast as it sped northward. The next day New York City was inundated by flash floods that submerged the streets and subways bringing transit to a halt. 

The number of acres burned in the western U.S. is now double what it would be without climate change. Currently there are over 1,400 active wildfires across the country, the vast majority of which are in the western states.

The heat dome over the western part of North America two weeks ago saw temperatures that were 11 degrees higher than previous records. In Siberia above the Arctic Circle, land surface temperature reached 118 degrees and Europe experienced its second warmest June on record, with above average temperatures also recorded in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. And another heatwave is again impacting the West this weekend, just two weeks later. 

In Madagascar, nearly half a million people are at risk of starvation due to dust storms, locusts and the worst drought in decades. Meanwhile in South Florida, a combination of sea level rise and capitalist greed, caused the deaths of possibly over 100 people in the condo collapse. 

A recent study by NASA and NOAA showed that the amount of heat the Earth traps has doubled since 2005, which is a much higher rate of warming than was expected. This is largely due to the loss of ice and cloud cover. As greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere, reflective ice melts and is replaced by dark waters that absorb heat, which is causing a shift in ocean currents and air currents, bringing prolonged heat waves and droughts to some areas, and polar vortexes, torrential rains and flooding to others. 

The weakening jet stream causes pressure systems to stall out and sit over regions, with high pressure systems in the western states creating drier and hotter conditions and low pressure systems in the eastern states causing wetter conditions. 

Heatwaves are becoming more dangerous for humans and all life. In the 2003 heatwave that hit Europe, 70,000 people died throughout the region when temperatures remained in the triple digits for eight days straight. Six hundred people died in the Pacific Northwest and Canada in the recent heatwave and the final count is expected to be higher. 

These prolonged high temperatures are also impacting mortality rates in other species. The recent heatwave killed over a billion creatures in intertidal zones of the Pacific NW and in another heatwave over the Pacific last year, one million seabirds of just one species died. These mass die offs have a chain reaction throughout the ecosystem impacting the entire food chain and overall climate resilience. (New York Times)

The warming climate, exacerbated by human encroachment on ecosystems and industrial agriculture, is fueling the megadrought that the western U.S. has been experiencing for the last two decades. Lake Mead on the Nevada/Arizona border provides water for the population of three states and Mexico and is currently at its lowest level since the 1930s. California rainfall this year was the lowest in 126 years. The state used to have snowpack through July but the reduced amount of snowfall as well and higher temperatures caused snow to completely melt this year by May 27. This not only exacerbates drought conditions, but also wildfire risk. 

California fire season, which historically began in July, now begins as early as April. Last year was the worst on record with 6 of the 7 largest fires in California history, with over 4 million acres burned across the state. In addition, there were record breaking fires across the Pacific North West, Siberia and Australia. 

Scientists, ecologists and indigenous communities have the answers and much can be done to reverse warming and mitigate the impacts we are experiencing globally. But we are seeing little to no action from our so-called “leaders” in government. 

First and foremost, we must immediately shift off fossil fuels to renewable wind, water and solar energy production. And then, implement ecological restoration and regenerative farming practices to draw down the carbon already in the atmosphere to cool the climate. 

Although the frequency of fires will continue to increase as the climate warms, controlled burns, if implemented in a systematic way, can help reduce the spread of wildfires when they occur. Although fires are an inherent aspect of a healthy forest ecosystem, fires now are so severe and widespread, on top of ongoing climate stressors, that ecosystems are struggling to recover in the aftermath. 

Development into wildland areas adds fire risk. Human activity can easily start fires, like in 2018 when a vehicle tow chain dragging on the road sparked a wildfire in Yosemite National Park. Also, buildings and housing tend to be more flammable than natural materials and aid in wildfire spread. 

There was a 41% growth in housing development in the wildland-urban interface between 1990 and 2010. Land use changes that prohibit building in these areas is another major step in reducing risk, as well as creating green belts that act as a buffer between developed areas and wildlands and slow the spread of fires.

To address the drought, the government tells us to take shorter showers and not wash our cars, rather than impede the profits of big agribusiness which is responsible for 80% of California’s water consumption. Almonds, which are a major cash crop produced in California for export, consume 10% of the state’s water. The highly profitable wine industry is also a huge drain on water resources. 

Industrial monoculture farming methods require intensive irrigation and deplete soil nutrients and moisture levels. Shifting to growing crops native to California, using regenerative methods, would greatly conserve water resources and actually cool air temperatures while capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Restoring native perennial grasslands and ecosystems, ending development into wildlands, and greening cities would also cool the climate. 

Highly profitable bottled water companies also drain precious water resources. Arrowhead (which is owned by Nestle) took an average of 62 million gallons of water from the San Bernardino Forest each year from 1947 to 2015 while paying only $524 annually in permit fees. In 2018, a new permit was issued by the US Forestry Service for an annual fee of only $2000. Despite protests, the environmental review process was skipped prior to issuing the permit, which would have shown the negative impacts on the watershed and wildlife. 

Nestle is currently fighting a cease and desist order that charged the company with extracting more water than permits allowed. Aquafina, Dasani, Pure Life and Crystal Geyser also bottle water in drought-stricken California. At the same time that these capitalist corporations profit off something that should be a human right provided for all rather than a commodity, working-class communities that rely on well-water in the Central Valley were forced to buy bottled water when their wells ran dry in the extreme drought conditions in 2015. 

Another way to conserve precious water resources would be a government-funded program to install grey water systems in all buildings to redirect wastewater from sinks and showers to toilets and irrigation systems. Lawns, which are the largest irrigated crop in the U.S., could be replaced by gardens with drought-tolerant native plants that could at the same time provide food for human residents and pollinators, while increasing biodiversity and conserving water.

What needs to happen to stem the climate crisis is clear, and could quickly be achieved under a socialist system. But under capitalism we fight for piecemeal solutions and minor changes to environmental regulations, wasting increasingly precious time, when what is needed is a societal transformation. 

Biden’s infrastructure proposal originally had some meager actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But even these sorely inadequate actions were dropped from the  plan in order to win over Republicans and centrist Democrats. If the Democrats were serious about passing progressive reforms, they could have eliminated the filibuster that requires a 60-vote majority to pass any legislation. But we must keep in mind that Biden has been a loyal servant of big business his entire 50+ year career. 

The Executive Orders that he announced in January reflected the power of public pressure for climate action rather than Biden’s desire to oppose fossil fuels. In fact even these orders will likely not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in any significant way and some are already being overturned. Biden’s executive order that put a pause on issuing new oil and gas drilling leases on federal lands was overturned by a federal judge last month saying that the halt on new leases would hurt government revenues. 

Biden has shown no support for the recent public power resolution by Cori Bush and the Squad to implement public ownership of energy utilities as a means to fast track the transition to renewables and address energy poverty in low-wealth communities and communities of color. 

The United States is responsible for 25 percent of cumulative emissions globally since 1870. And the energy sector is the largest source of GHG emissions, making up 74 percent of all U.S. emissions. Two thirds of this sector is under private ownership and the vast majority is powered by fossil fuels. 

Not only are these private entities refusing to make the shift to renewables within the timeframe needed, but are actively blocking renewable legislation. The public power resolution would allow for government takeover and local public control of any private utility that refused to make the transition to meet the goal of 0% GHGs by 2030. This wide-reaching progressive proposal has no chance of gaining traction in Congress — that is without massive pressure from below.  

We can see the gains that can happen through a sustained people’s struggle with Biden pulling the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and the subsequent canceling of the project by TC Energy last month. This victory was won due to the 13 year long struggle of Indigenous water protectors and other frontline communities and activists. But Biden has shown no sign of revoking the permits for the Dakota Access or Line 3 pipelines. Line 3 will also bring dirty tar sands crude from Canada through the tribal lands and sensitive wetland ecosystems of northern Minnesota, where thousands of protestors are currently blocking the pipeline construction. He also has shown no sign of blocking a Trump-era oil project on Alaska’s North Slope or reviving the Obama-era ban on federal coal sales. 

Two Dakota Access water protectors have just been sentenced to 8 years in prison and over $3 million in fines for blocking the pipeline construction. This is a perfect example of the irrationality of the capitalist system whose courts protect the rights of corporations above all logic. These protesters, who injured no one, will be imprisoned for hindering the profits of a fossil fuel company that is knowingly bringing humanity ever closer to extinction. 

We must continue to organize and demand immediate action from the capitalist government, and with enough pressure some gains can be won. That’s how progressive change has always come — by the people organizing and forcing concessions from the ruling class. 

But as we fight for reforms under capitalism, we must also fight for socialism, because that is the only system that can truly overcome the existential crisis we face and take the power from the billionaire class that is literally driving us off the cliff for their short term gain. 

With the wealth and resources that exist in the U.S., so much could be done to address all the symptoms of climate change and to stem the crisis, while building a better world for all. 

Tina Landis is the author of the book Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism

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