Aerial view of flood damage shot from an helicopter during humanitarian assistance efforts in the southern Pakistan region. Aerial view of flood damage shot from an helicopter during humanitarian assistance efforts in the southern Pakistan region. Source: DVIDSHUB - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

The impact of climate crisis is already playing out across the fault lines of global and social inequality, and working-class movements must respond  accordingly, argues John Clarke

The impacts of intensifying climate catastrophe are unfolding all across the planet. This month, wildfires ‘have reached record-breaking levels in Canada, causing towns to be evacuated and smoke to turn the U.S. Northeast region’s skies into something out of Blade Runner.’

As vast areas of forest burned and North American cities were shrouded in smoke, nearly a hundred people were killed, and thousands displaced by flooding in impoverished Haiti. ‘The floods are the latest calamity to strike a country with already weak infrastructure.’ At the same time, ‘at least ‘96 people died in two of India’s most populous states over the last several days, officials said Sunday, with swaths of the country reeling from a sweltering heat wave.

There have been several recent indicators of the accelerating climate change that is driving these terrible effects. ‘The first 11 days of June were the hottest on record for this time of year, the European earth observation programme, Copernicus, reported.’ The earth has already ‘warmed on average 1.1C since industrial times began, largely due to burning fossil fuels’ but this was the first time in June that the 1.5C global mean temperature threshold has been breached.

Hannah Cloke, a hydrology professor from the University of Reading, noted that each ‘time we tip over 1.5 degrees with increasing regularity, it is a worrying sign that we are getting closer to a point of no return. There is nowhere on earth to escape from this global heating.’ She also observed that every ‘fraction of a degree of warming means significant impacts on people and communities now and in the future.’

The 2015 ‘Paris Agreement to hold global temperature rise to 1.5C – or at least well below 2C – in an effort to stave off a catastrophic climate crisis’ is fast becoming a forlorn hope. As if to drive home this point, we now learn that oil giant Shell plans to boost fossil-fuel production. The company’s CEO, Wael Sawan, ‘said his company is taking a “pragmatic” approach when it comes to the transition to cleaner forms of energy that is underway across the globe.’

Despite vague assurances of an eventual phase-out of fossil fuels, Sawan left no doubt as to Shell’s intentions when he warned against an overly hasty ‘dismantling the current energy’ and defiantly asserted that: ‘Oil and gas will continue to play a crucial role in the energy system for a long time to come.

Warming planet

In April, the rapid warming of the world’s oceans caused considerable alarm in scientific circles. A month-long spike in temperatures ‘led to scientists stating the Earth has reached “uncharted territory” in the climate crisis.’ Though the full significance of the sudden increase has yet to be assessed, this ‘is heading in an unprecedented direction, and could be taking us into uncharted territory.’

The warming of the oceans is a particularly dreadful development for several reasons. They ‘have acted as a kind of global buffer to the climate crisis over recent decades, both by absorbing vast amounts of the carbon dioxide that we have poured into the atmosphere, and by storing about 90% of the excess energy and heat this has created, dampening some of the impacts of global heating on land.’

Beyond this, warming water takes up more space, thereby raising sea levels, which would accelerate the melting polar icecaps and ‘be dire for marine ecosystems.’ Quite apart from the recent spike in temperatures, each of the last four years have ‘hit their warmest levels on record’ for the world’s oceans.

This month brought to light the clearest possible evidence of the advancing climate crisis. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration ‘announced that the carbon dioxide level measured in May in Hawaii averaged 424 parts per million. That’s 3 parts per million more than last year’s May average and 51% higher than pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm.’

Not only is this a new record, but it also represents one of the largest yearly increases that have ever been measured. ‘Carbon dioxide levels in the air are now the highest they’ve been in more than 4 million years because of the burning of oil coal and gas.’

We have reached a point where it can’t be seriously disputed that we are staring environmental catastrophe in the face. Though the question of how severe it will become is undecided, we are clearly past the point where it can be avoided. These considerations have the most enormous implications for the socialist left, in terms of our perspectives and the approaches that we take.

In light of the situation that is unfolding, the need for forms of struggle that correspond to its seriousness can’t be overstated. It is utterly essential that carbon emissions be drastically reduced and other forms of environmentally destructive behaviour be curtailed. Mass action directed at fossil-fuel interests and political decision-makers will be needed for such vital gains to be made.

It is also evident that the impacts of climate change are already impacting the lives of hundreds of millions of people and that this will greatly intensify. These impacts, moreover, will play out along the fault lines of social and global inequality. Their effects will be so pervasive and drastic that the struggle to survive in the face of the environmental crisis will shape our movements and the struggles they take up.

Some climate impacts, like wildfires, storms, and floods, will be devastatingly destructive in an immediate sense. Others, like recurring heatwaves and sustained droughts, will have a more chronic and incremental effect. They all, however, will mean an increased need for systems of physical infrastructure and social protection that have been substantially weakened by austerity measures.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the UK ‘is very much not adapted to climate change and not prepared.’ It pointed to the risk of flooding, especially in coastal areas, and the intensifying impacts of extreme heat as examples of developing threats that were being disregarded. These ‘will strain housing, agriculture, transport, and supply chains – little of which was built with such pressure in mind.’ It is clear that serious measures to deal with such effects will be put in place only to the extent that we fight for them.

Disruptive impacts

Following the pandemic, the global economy experienced a series of supply shocks and the disruptive impacts of these contributed greatly to a major round of inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. The response of those in power to this situation has been to drive up interest rates, in an effort to impose the burden on working-class populations. It is easy to imagine that the economically disruptive impacts of climate change will far exceed those of the pandemic and the working-class struggles that have emerged in response to the present inflationary episode are likely to be a sign of bigger things to come.

The impacts that poor countries face in this situation are severe and dreadful. Pakistan, for example, is now struggling to deal with the results of the massive flooding it faced last year. ‘The floods not only inundated one-third of the country but also claimed the lives of 1,730 people, uprooted 33 million people, killed 1.16m livestock, and destroyed precious infrastructure including schools, bridges, roads, health facilities, and community-service buildings.’ The World Bank reports that nine million will be pushed below the poverty line as a result of the floods.

Yet, quite astoundingly, despite such desperate suffering, ‘Pakistan needs to repay a whopping USD 77.5 billion in external debt from April 2023 to June 2026.’ This massive injustice is only one expression of a debt crisis facing poor countries that are struggling to deal with climate impacts they had little to do with creating. Global debt has increased massively since the pandemic and recently ‘debt in emerging markets hit a new record high of more than $100 trillion, around 250% of GDP, up from $75 trillion in 2019.’

The impacts of climate change will give new urgency to the demand for debt cancellation and for real measures to ensure poor countries have the resources needed to deal with such impacts. The unfolding crisis will also greatly increase the scale on which people become ‘climate refugees’ and international solidarity in the face of this development will be a vital question. A World Bank report suggests that ‘more than 200 million people are likely to migrate over the next three decades because of extreme weather events or the slow degradation of their environments.’

Capitalism’s assault on nature has already reached critical levels and the situation can only become more dire and pressing with each passing year. Our lives and struggles will now unfold along lines that are determined by that dreadful reality.

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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.