School students striking for climate justice, Westminster, February 2019. Photo: Facebook/Nottingham People’s Assembly School students striking for climate justice, Westminster, February 2019. Photo: Facebook/Nottingham People’s Assembly

CEOs state outright that profit must come first, even as this year’s deadly heat waves providing worrying evidence of the rising climate emergency, reports John Clarke

A new report has been issued by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) group, a scientific body that ‘conducts rapid-attribution studies on weather events around the world to look at the role climate change has played in their severity.’ After comparing the extreme heat that occurred in the US, Mexico and Central America between May and early June with ‘models of what would have likely occurred in a world not subjected to human-induced global warming,’ the report arrives at some deeply disturbing conclusions.

The WWA suggests that ‘climate change made [this] extreme heat … around 35 times more likely’ and that ‘such a heatwave was now four times more likely than it was in the year 2000, driven by planet-warming emissions.’ The drafters of the report also inform us that potentially ‘deadly and record-breaking temperatures are occurring more and more frequently in the US, Mexico and Central America due to climate change.’

During the heatwave, ‘the hottest five-day stretch across the region in June was made about 1.4C warmer by climate change.’ Based on this, Karina Izquierdo, Urban Advisor for the Latin American and Caribbean region at Red Cross Climate Centre, warned that the ‘additional 1.4C of heat caused by climate change would have been the difference between life and death for many people during May and June.’

In this regard, ‘Mexican officials have linked the heatwave to the deaths of scores of people’ and the WWA points out that the situation is especially dangerous when temperatures remain exceptionally high at night, since ‘the body does not have time to rest and recover.’ The WWA warns that as ‘long as humans fill the atmosphere with fossil fuel emissions, the heat will only get worse – vulnerable people will continue to die and the cost of living will continue to increase.’

Supercharged conditions

This particular episode of extreme heat took place within the broader context of prolonged drought and greatly disturbed weather patterns, as developments in June in the US state of New Mexico demonstrate all too convincingly. The Guardian reports that just ‘days after a pair of fast-moving fires roared across drought-stricken landscapes and into communities, a tropical storm swirled north, unleashing downpours and golf-ball-sized hail over scorched slopes that had only just burned.’

While it is true that ‘weather patterns like these aren’t unheard of … the climate crisis has supercharged extreme conditions, setting the stage for new types of catastrophes that are increasing in both intensity and frequency.’ Indeed, even as emergency crews in New Mexico struggled to deal with the combination of fire and flood, ‘the gusty winds kicked up a wall of dust that stretched hundreds of miles long’ and that led to a multiple car pile-up.

Ali Rye, the state director of New Mexico’s department of homeland security and emergency management, noted that ‘the number of state-declared disasters in New Mexico has quadrupled since 2019.’ She told the Guardian that ‘We are seeing an increase in the impacts to our state in various ways and it has become increasingly challenging over the last couple of years [and] we are not out of the clear yet.

WWA has also reported on the extreme heat that was already impacting a large swathe of Asia from ‘Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, in the West, to Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines in the East’ in May of this year. It notes that while the ‘death toll [from heatwaves] is often underreported, hundreds of deaths have been reported already in most of the affected countries …The heat also had a large impact on agriculture, causing crop damage and reduced yields, as well as on education, with holidays having to be extended and schools closed in several countries, affecting millions of students.’

The WWA’s findings on the situation in Asia were consistent with the conclusions it drew in the case of the US, Mexico and Central America. It notes that in ‘terms of intensity, we estimate that a heatwave such as this one in West Asia is today about 1.7°C warmer than it would have been without the burning of fossil fuels.’ Moreover, ‘we observe a strong climate change signal in the 2024 April mean temperature. We find that these extreme temperatures are now about 45 times more likely and 0.85ºC hotter. These results align with our previous studies, where we found that climate change made the extreme heat about 30 times more likely and 1ºC hotter.’

There is no question that intensifying episodes of extreme heat are a particularly deadly manifestation of the climate disaster. The CBC reports that we’re ‘only halfway through 2024, yet the global death toll from surging temperatures has been staggering, and a clearer picture is now emerging of extreme heat as one of the deadly emergencies facing regions around the world.’ It further notes that, in a twelve-month period up until May of this year, ‘6.3 billion people — roughly 78 per cent of the population — experienced at least 31 days of extreme heat that were “made at least two times more likely due to human-caused climate change’’.’

As these terrible impacts take their toll, the ‘world’s consumption of fossil fuels climbed to a record high last year, driving emissions to more than 40 gigatonnes of CO2 for the first time, according to a global energy report.’ In addition to this, we learn that ‘fossil fuels made up 81.5% of the world’s primary energy last year, down only marginally from 82% the year before.’ Despite dire warnings from scientists and an abundance of empty promises from political leaders, a peak in global carbon emissions has not yet occurred.

A series of Marxist writers have noted that the competitive drive to accumulate that is fundamental to capitalism is at odds with the containment of fossil-fuel use and the goal of a sustainable relationship with the natural world. Michael Roberts has commented recently on the threat to profit making that a transfer to renewable-energy sources represents. The titans of fossil-fuel capitalism are well aware of this.

Roberts points out that JP Morgan bank economists have suggested that transition to renewable energy ‘is a process that should be measured in decades, or generations, not years.’ This is because such a transition to sustainable alternatives ‘currently offers subpar returns.’ Shell CEO, Wael Sawan, put things as clearly as possible with his defiant declaration that ‘we will drive for strong returns in any business we go into … Our shareholders deserve [this] … Absolutely, we want to continue to go for lower and lower and lower carbon, but it has to be profitable.’

Role of the state

If fossil-fuel capitalists and bankers are going to place profits ahead of preserving the conditions that sustain life on this planet, it might be wondered if those who wield state power can be trusted to protect capitalism from its own worst instincts by ensuring that carbon emissions are brought under control. It is true that the state sometimes restrains the most reckless and damaging conduct of capitalists and grants limited rights and protections to workers, tenants, consumers, etc. However, the last few years have produced some sobering evidence as to how far state power will actually be used to put social well-being above profit making.

During the Covid pandemic, notions of creating ‘herd immunity’ by allowing the population to become widely infected, proved unsustainable and lockdowns became unavoidable. Yet, despite evidence that longer-term economic stability required sustained measures to preserve public health, the Boris Johnson ‘let the bodies pile high’ approach to preserving short-term profits asserted itself again and again at a terrible cost. Similarly, the most powerful Western governments protected the interests of Big Pharma by ensuring that no patent waiver would be implemented to provide adequate access to vaccines in the Global South.

The same consideration is at work, on an even more catastrophic scale, when it comes to the mounting impacts of climate change. The increase in episodes of extreme heat is only one particularly lethal expression of the effects of carbon emissions. Yet, in the face of this dreadful situation, ‘world leaders’ gather at one international summit after another to mouth empty platitudes about the need to transition to sustainable forms of economic activity. As they do so, far from the drastic reductions in emissions that are desperately needed, they actually continue to increase.

It is abundantly clear that placing hopes on the ‘self-regulating’ efforts of fossil-fuel interests and expecting responsible conduct on the part of those in power is a failed strategy. Powerful and united mass action is the only means of curtailing carbon emissions and ensuring that populations aren’t abandoned as the impacts of the climate crisis continue to intensify.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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