The heatwave seems to be over, but with floods in Kerala to wildfires in California making history, capitalism still can’t fix climate change, writes Elaine Graham-Leigh
We’re used to pointing out that individual weather events do not prove or disprove the reality of climate change, particularly when a few days of cold winter weather wake up the ‘global warming is a hoax’ brigade. Weather is not climate, we say. That’s still true, but the weather this summer has been a pretty good demonstration of the changing climate we’re facing.
From the worst heatwave and drought in 40 years in northern Europe to devastatingly high temperatures across Asia – from India and Pakistan to Japan – there seem few places in the northern hemisphere that haven’t been affected.
With the extreme weather have come the major disasters: the ongoing catastrophic flooding in Kerala, which at time of writing has killed 370 and displaced two million people, the historic wildfires in California and Sweden, the killer wildfires in Greece. While the headlines have been about the northern summer, the southern hemisphere has also been affected, with parts of Australia for example being hit by a devastating drought.
It is not so much that these were directly caused by climate change (in the sense that they would have been impossible in pre-climate change eras) but that in a warming world, they are much more likely.
The death toll from the weather should emphasise that there are no upsides to climate change. There can be a tendency to reason from the assumption that everyone finds British summers too cold and wet that a bit more sun would be a good thing. It was in this vein that Michael Gove told farmers recently that higher temperatures would be an opportunity for the English wine industry. This ignorance of what climate change really means is a little worrying, to say the least, in the Environment Secretary.
Leaving aside the obvious point that an increase in summer temperatures could make some of the most populous parts of the planet literally uninhabitable, climate change doesn’t just mean hotter summers. A warmer climate will be a more extreme, less predictable one, with potentially more episodes of intense cold and heavy rainfall, as well as heatwaves.
In fact, unchecked climate change risks setting up feedback loops which would plunge us into major changes unknown since at least the last Ice Age.
Climate scientists have already noted a weakening of weather transmissions systems, like the Jet Stream, as a result of higher temperatures in the Arctic and therefore less difference between these and temperatures further south. This means that weather patterns can get stuck, as we saw with high pressure over Scandinavia this summer, so hot weather becomes a heatwave, rainy weather becomes floods, and so on.
Disruption like this to the Gulf Stream, which keeps northern Europe temperate, could completely transform the climate we are used to into one of exceptionally severe winters as well as punishing summers. This would not be particularly conducive to the wine industry... let alone all the more essential crops.
The obvious, necessary response to all this is to make immediate, significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. This isn’t a matter of waiting for new technologies to be invented but of implementing the technologies we have now, to, for example, switch to renewable energy.
The problem is that now decades of trying to deliver environmental outcomes through market mechanisms have shown that the market can only deliver profit and loss. Capitalism is the problem, not the answer to climate change.
Implementing major green infrastructure change requires government action and public funding, which we aren’t going to get from a government ideologically wedded to private capital.
What this summer has also shown is that as well as the urgent action needed to avert even more catastrophic climate change, we need to plan to deal with the changed climate we have now.
Since the mid-1990s, a comparatively cool cycle in the world’s climate has been sheltering us from the worst effects of climate change by limiting the palpable effects of the warming. Although we still saw record hot years, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was still just about possible to talk about climate change as something that would happen in the future unless we prevented it.
That is no longer the case. We still have the job of prevention, and we have to live in the climate that is becoming the new normal.
From California to Greece, the evidence has been horribly clear that just as neoliberalism has no mechanism for addressing climate change, it also can’t keep us safe in the face of extreme weather.
So many people died in the wildfires in Greece because of austerity-driven cuts to the fire service. Government failures to stop private companies from illegal stone quarrying and development have been implicated in the rising death toll from the floods in Kerala. As the collapse of the Genoa motorway bridge has shown, cuts to public expenditure and the maintenance of public infrastructure are incompatible, but climate change makes that infrastructure spending all the more necessary.
In neoliberal, free-market thinking, the weather is just one of a long list of external circumstances which people are expected to deal with themselves. Don’t like the temperature? Get air conditioning! Can’t afford that? Tough luck then!
It will however only be possible to adapt to the twin necessities of preventing more climate change and dealing with the climate we have through collective action.
Getting rid of a government whose Secretary of State for the Environment thinks a historic heatwave is a cause for celebration would be a step in the right direction to make that collective action possible.
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.
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