US and Canada heat map, 1 July US and Canada heat map, 1 July. Photo: European Space Agency / Flickr / contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2021), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, license linked at bottom of article

The record-breaking heatwave in the US and Canada is the latest example of the deadly consequences of climate change and the urgent need for systemic change, argues John Clarke

The ‘world’s most extreme heatwave in modern history’ struck the western part of North America in June, shattering previous records and coming far earlier in the season than could have been expected. Throughout western Canada, some 103 heat records were broken during the five days of extreme weather. Canada’s previous record of 45C, set in 1937, was exceeded throughout British Columbia, with the village of Lytton reaching 47.9C on June 28. The hot weather brought with it a great fire risk and 136 active wildfires were reported across the province, one of which actually destroyed the community of Lytton. It is estimated that, throughout BC, the soaring temperatures may have claimed as many as 500 lives.

In the US, 40 million people between California and Montana faced temperatures above 38C, with 50 million ‘under excessive heat warnings and heat advisories.’ Power systems were thrown into crisis, with the California governor having to declare an ‘extreme heat peril’ so as to allow power stations to take the extraordinary measures necessary to meet the increased demand for energy, as air conditioning systems were pushed to the limit. The heat also added to urban smog problems, with Phoenix experiencing its worst air quality since recordings were first taken in 1980.

The heatwave struck a part of the US already experiencing conditions of mega-drought that have reduced water levels in rivers and lakes. As temperatures rose, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, was at its lowest level since it was first filled in the 1930s.  Conditions of drought have also impacted two thirds of Mexico, threatening water supply shortages and crop damage. An analysis put out by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, stated that “Currently, climate change has caused rare heatwaves to be 3 to 5 degrees warmer over most of the United States,” and predicted that this trend is only going to get worse.

Climate and capitalism

These conditions in North America are, of course, part of a global pattern. Heat records have been shattered in Siberia and, horribly, in Antarctica. In the face of such a situation, overt climate denial, such as Exxon has engaged in for decades, has ceased to be an effective means of holding back the truth. Today, the UN openly acknowledges that humanity faces a climate crisis and that this is linked to broader ecological threats, such a massive loss of habitat and a rampant destruction of species. Report after report details the unfolding global disaster, as world leaders wring their hands and promise to deal with the existential danger. They regularly gather to offer inadequate measures which they then fail to deliver on. In Canada, Justin Trudeau poses as a climate warrior, even as his government pours billions into supporting fossil fuel pipelines.

All officially approved warnings on the seriousness of the climate crisis, no matter how frank and clear they may be, share a failure to properly address the source of the problem. They all present it as a question of ‘human activity’ and fail to acknowledge the social and economic system that organises and directs that activity. We are facing intensifying heatwaves, droughts and wildfires for the same reason we are living through a global pandemic. It is because capitalism has developed a productive and technological capacity of enormous power without the means of subjecting this to rational planning and development. A system based on the pursuit of short term profits is simply incapable of developing a sustainable relationship with nature. “You can’t make the decisions necessary for the health of the environment on the basis of profit calculations.”

The glaring threat to life on the planet that now manifests itself in the form of intensifying extreme weather, poses huge challenges and urgent imperatives for working class movements. By the time the contradictions of capitalism had produced the great slaughter of the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg was ready to conclude that “This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization.” To-day, in the era of pandemics, with ecological catastrophe looming over us, the situation is even more stark and the stakes even higher than when Luxemburg set out that choice between socialism and barbarism.

The pressing issue before us, however, is the horrible immediacy of the climate crisis. A major portion of the North American continent has just experienced a heatwave that broke all previous records by an unprecedented margin. Yet, even as the heatwave took hundreds of lives and set off wildfires, footage emerged of ExxonMobil lobbyists boasting about their ability to thwart effective efforts to respond to the climate crisis. There is an urgent need to win the kind of measures of environmental protection that this company and others like it want to prevent. It is also vital that workers and communities are not left to the mercies of the rapidly worsening impacts of the crisis, while those responsible escape in their private jets.

Solidarity for survival

It is abundantly clear, that the accelerating ecological disaster we are facing will play out along already existing lines of social, racial and global inequality. The massively uneven impacts of the pandemic have driven that home with stark clarity. Whether it is a question of devastating heatwaves, winter storms produced by the polar vortex, floods or wildfires, poor and working class people will have nowhere to go and few protections available to them. If they are forced to uproot and seek safety elsewhere, they will find that climate refugees will be as unwelcome as those who presently try to escape repression or economic hardship.

The government of British Columbia is in the hands of Canada’s social democratic party, the NDP. Yet the Premier of that province, John Horgan, responded to initial reports of the deaths caused by the heatwave by asserting that people had a ‘level of responsibility’ to take care of themselves and that, as far as he was concerned, ‘fatalities are a part of life.’ As the leader of a government that spent $1.3 billion on fossil fuel subsidies last year, Horgan’s attitude really isn’t very different to that of Sajid Javid, who is quite comfortable with a dramatic increase in Covid cases in England, provided the flow of profits can be restored.

Such social abandonment in the face of the climate disaster, requires bold demands and mass action. Workers and communities that are under attack must develop solidarity for survival in the face of the crisis and its worsening effects. In a situation like the recent heatwave, it’s necessary to ensure that plans are laid and resources are in place to ensure that effective emergency responses are ready to function. There must be cooling centres able to provide safe shelter. Vulnerable people must have all the additional supports they will need. Public services, especially healthcare systems must be able to withstand the increased loads that will be placed on them. It simply won’t do to let these predictable events strike and take their terrible toll only to have some indifferent political mouthpiece of corporate interests assert that nothing more could have been done.

Above all else, the time when we could present questions of ‘social justice’ and ‘climate justice’ as separate concerns has now come to an end. Shocking climate events like the heatwave in western Canada and the US make it clear that no just society can fail to develop a sustainable relationship with nature and that we can’t achieve that unless we defeat the profit driven system that is now frying the planet on which we live.

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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.