The left must force the government into taking the climate crisis seriously, argues Feyzi Ismail
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its most comprehensive report yet on the climate crisis, compiling 14,000 scientific papers and refining models to both understand the current state of global heating and its impacts, but also to make future projections. The report contains contributions from 234 authors from 66 countries and comes just as the world is experiencing some of the most severe wildfires, heat waves, droughts, floods and superstorms ever. The IPCC report confirms what people are already experiencing – but warns there is more to come. That is, if those in power don’t change course.
The landmark report, which is the Sixth Assessment Report the IPCC has put out since 1988, is the culmination of 8 years of work by leading scientists. It also comes 3 months before the crucial COP26 taking place 1-12 November in Glasgow, where the governments of 197 countries will meet to discuss how to respond. It is hosted by the UK government.
This government has a particular responsibility therefore to ensure that policies addressing the crisis are radical: ones ‘that not just put the brakes on the climate crisis, but slam it into reverse’, according to Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientist. Since measures to address the crisis were needed decades ago, we are now almost out of time – nothing short of immediate and drastic change is needed if the planet is not to exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, a limit that already puts us on course for more extreme weather, devastation and loss of life. As ever, the poorest will suffer the most severe consequences.
Indeed, the social consequences of the crisis are untold. The risks identified by the IPCC also include crop failure, disease and migration, noting that poor countries have far less ability to deal with storms, droughts, wildfires and pests. Already there are conflicts over land and resources in many parts of the world, and the right continues to mobilise against migration.
The nearly 4,000-page report contains three main headlines: that it is indisputable that climate change is the result of human activity; that climate change is affecting every region on the planet; and that immediate, rapid and sustained reductions in carbon emissions are required. Nothing new, Greta Thunberg reminds us, but what the report does is sound the alarm once again, and this time ahead of probably the most decisive COP summit.
What happens at COP26 could determine the future of the planet, and the future of civilisation. The past 6 years have been the hottest on record. The oceans are warming, acidifying and rising at unprecedented rates, and major ice sheets are melting – Greenland by 30% since 1979, and the East Antarctic ice sheet in the South Pole, which holds 80% of the world’s ice, is more vulnerable than scientists thought.
Only last week, a major report was published about the potential for the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) system to collapse, linked to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The Gulf Stream System, an essential component of the AMOC, brings warm currents to the upper layers of the Atlantic Ocean in the north, causing denser, colder and more salty water to sink and flow back southward to the Arctic Ocean.
The AMOC is a complex system that is not only responsible for the warm and stable temperatures in Europe but without it, would disrupt the seasonal rainfall that billions of people in much of the Global South depend on to grow food. Its collapse would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and the Antarctic ice sheet, intensifying climate instability.
Niklas Boers, author of the research, warns that this collapse must never be allowed to happen. And yet every additional half-degree of warming causes more CO2 in the atmosphere, which at a certain level could trigger the AMOC’s collapse. The only way to cut global heating is to stop the burning of fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas. So why are Boris Johnson and Alok Sharma, the president of COP26, refusing to ban new licenses for oil and gas in the North Sea or stop plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria? The mine in West Cumbria would cost £165m and be the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years – but it goes against all the science.
Alok Sharma at least seems to grasp one aspect of the situation – that climate breakdown could be catastrophic. But it’s not human behaviour in general that is to blame, nor is it people in general that should take responsibility, as he suggests. We have to be clear that it is the capitalist class and those in government who promote and protect capital accumulation based on a fossil economy, including market solutions to the crisis, who are to blame. The G20 countries are responsible for 80% of emissions.
The fact is, emissions targets of net zero by 2050 are not fast enough. What is driving global heating today is deforestation but also future emissions – that a certain amount of carbon is locked in to existing fossil fuel-based infrastructure. Just over half of CO2 emissions are absorbed by tropical forests, plants, soils and oceans, but this is also waning. These are slow processes affecting the atmosphere and the oceans, but they are long-lasting and the negative effects of even 1.5C will be irreversible for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Led by the Johnson government, will COP26 deliver? Unreservedly, the answer is no. We cannot just hope that the Tories, or the governments currently in power around the world, will listen to the science and deliver the changes needed – at the speed and scale we need them. We have to force them. And if unimaginable policy changes can be made during the pandemic, they can also make them in the face of climate breakdown. The climate crisis was always a question of the reorganisation of the economy, and therefore always a question of politics.
The IPCC report will be followed next year by a second part focusing on the impacts of climate change, while a third part will outline potential solutions. But we already know the solutions. They must start with a radical Green New Deal that puts investment in clean energy and jobs in those sectors, above profit. It means ending the use of fossil fuels in power generation and transport. It means more money into public services. It doesn’t mean waiting for leaders or movements or teenagers in the Global South or other parts of the world to take action, as Johnson and Sharma always seem to want to suggest is the issue.
Even the scientists agree that the actions we take now are a choice. If changes can be made to slow heating and mitigate the emissions we haven’t been able to eliminate, reaching as close to net zero as soon as possible, then we have a chance. Most importantly – and you won’t read this in the IPCC report – it matters what the left does. The problem is understood, the question now is what kind of action we take. The COP26 is certainly not the last word on the crisis, but how we influence it is crucial.
We have to provide a strong, urgent, unequivocal message to the politicians present: that we won’t countenance anything less than radical changes. The programme of austerity must end. Inequality and war have to go. Policies that scapegoat migrants and people of colour have to be scrapped, given that climate-induced migration is already becoming a reality. And greenwash, half measures and lies are unacceptable. To do that, we need a broad, radical, strategic and united movement on the streets, and not only in Glasgow: the biggest demonstrations we can muster, the biggest meetings, the most trenchant analysis.
There are always more specific and immediate demands we can make in the here and now, and must continue to make after COP26: an end to licenses for oil and gas exploration; no more coal mines; better flood defences; more fire services, such as they have been demanding in the horror unfolding in Greece. And if this Tory government can’t deliver, we must force them out of office.
Every trade union needs to start developing climate policies that reflect the depth and scale of the crisis, and every trade unionist needs to see themselves as playing a role in the transition towards an economy that is not based on fossil fuels and endless war. Climate policies have to be connected to and central to the demands of every movement.
COP26 presents an opportunity for the left to scale up its response, given that the crisis has suddenly and forcefully come to the forefront of people’s consciousness – consistently in the top three priorities that concern the British public, along with health and the economy. If the left is serious about addressing the climate crisis, reflecting what we already know to be a systemic question, COP26 has to be a turning point for the movement.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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