Gus Woody looks at the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and discusses just how thoroughly it vindicates the basic principles revolutionary socialists have been arguing for years.
A herd in Ethiopia traverses a dried river bed. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The publication of Working Group One’s contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6-1) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last Monday drew a lot of attention during a summer of climate-induced extreme weather events, from floods to heatwaves. The report is necessary reading for anyone organising in the 2020s, including socialists. In many ways, the major takeaway from AR6-1 is nothing that those involved in climate politics did not already know – the situation is bad. But right now, in a world so clearly on the brink of climate breakdown, it is more important than ever for socialists to understand climate science and apply what we learn in our organising.
The AR6-1 represents the assessment of the current physical science of climate change, to inform government policymakers in the forthcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow. The Summary for Policymakers and Full Report can be accessed here and an excellent Q&A can be read on Carbon Brief. What follows are some key takeaways for socialists concerned with climate change.
Understanding the crisis
AR6-1 makes it clear that time is running out to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees, the preferred target laid out in the Paris Agreement. The effects of warming – from droughts to storms – are growing in both magnitude and frequency, already severely impacting people in many areas of the Global South. While this reflects previous IPCC reports, the analysis of AR6-1 benefits from scientific developments over the last decade of climate research. Specifically, advances in attribution science and modelling are allowing for more precise indications to be drawn out about how climate change looks given different emissions pathways (the different models of how pollution rates will change in the coming decades).
This means the range of increases in occurrence and magnitude of rain and heatwaves – as well as their geographic spread – can be better estimated. Between the previous report AR5-1 and the new AR6-1, some of what were medium confidences have become high confidences, with these wording differences representing qualitative leaps in the climate science. Such knowledge is crucial, as understanding the magnitude and likelihood of particular events is necessary to inform organising strategies for our changing world. For example, AR6-1 makes clear that North-western Europe is facing likely high increases in precipitation, indicating rising flood risk, whilst Mediterranean areas are facing more droughts. The emergence of these events must be at the forefront of how socialists in these respective locations organise in the coming years.
1.5 is still attainable
Crucially, there is still sufficient ‘carbon budget’ (the amount of carbon dioxide which can still be burned over the coming years) to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming. However, achieving this will require urgent and decisive action within this decade: reducing emissions and reorganising production into more sustainable systems. For a 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, we can only have nine more years of emissions at 2020-levels, a huge challenge given the context of 2020 seeing lower emissions than previous years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For a 66% chance of limiting to 2 degrees, we are looking at only 28 more years of 2020-level emissions. These estimates mark an increase from previous reports as a result of the more accurate modelling. Overall, though the window of action remains small, a window remains.
Climate movements are at a crucial point: we must escalate in actions and grow in number, continuing to both follow and intensify our trajectory since the turn of the Millennium. Given the existence of a ‘carbon budget’, the important fight over the coming years will be keeping fossil fuels in the ground. In Britain this indicates two key orientations: fighting fossil fuels expansion and ramping down production domestically. This includes resisting the development of North Sea Oil at Cambo and building a worker-led transition plan for the area, and fighting the financial sector’s role in global extraction. On this latter orientation, London – brimming with insurers, financiers, and derivatives traders – is a substantial link in fossil capitalism’s global chain, acting as a facilitator of many fossil fuel projects. The development of a revolutionary situation here in Britain thus has the potential to throw a serious spanner in the workings of global fossil capitalism.
Here, there is much socialists can learn from struggles around Indigenous sovereignty in the face of fossil projects, such as the Wet’suwet’en struggle against the Coastal Gas Link pipeline. This struggle not only saw a mass militant movement at the pipeline, in support of Indigenous sovereignty in the face of a violent state, it also saw movements globally targeting the financiers and insurers of the project.
Turning to the elephant in the room, as with every IPCC report, there is inevitably a-scientific talk of the world being ‘doomed’ and runaway climate change being unpreventable in response. This is often due to a crude understanding of so-called ‘tipping points’ – climate events which occur at a disproportionate rate to the current extent of warming, often irreversibly and with knock-on effects to the wider climate system. Examples of these include the collapse of ocean-currents, forest system breakdowns, and the melting of large ice sheets. Since AR5, the understanding of these processes has progressed significantly, and AR6-1 demonstrates that these tipping points cannot be ruled out.
Most notable here is the analysis of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the ocean system which takes hot air from the tropics to Europe. Here, the likelihood that there will not be an abrupt collapse of the AMOC by 2100 is only ‘medium confidence’, a fall in confidence since AR5-1 where the event was ‘very unlikely’. If it does, we will see radical temperature and precipitation changes across Europe and other territories bordering the Atlantic, as well as further melting of the ice sheets from Greenland.
Ultimately, many tipping points remain of a lower likelihood before 2100, with the extreme weather risks of higher emission pathways remaining a greater danger. However, the existence of these tipping points and their increased potential to occur at higher levels of global warming should spur organising which recognises the fragility of the biosphere and the need to mitigate and adapt to risks beyond those of a high certainty. For a wider summary of tipping points, Table 4.10 in AR6-1 provides a discussion of the various scenarios.
Irreversible changes and CDR
If we could wave a wand and immediately stop carbon dioxide emissions, this would not be enough to deal with all of climate change’s impacts. The causation of climate events is not simply more carbon dioxide equals more larger events, as some of these events are locked in and the carbon dioxide still in the atmosphere will continue to cause warming.
Perhaps most notable here is the ocean acidification that will occur, as the ocean continues to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and act as a sink for CO2. Whilst this is somewhat reversible for the surface of the ocean, AR6 points out that in the deep ocean, acidification is irreversible on generational timescales. This has wide ranging implications for both the extent to which the ocean can continue to absorb carbon dioxide emissions, and to the wider ocean ecosystems and the humans that rely on them.
Similarly, sea level rise is estimated to continue beyond 2100. In fact, all emissions pathways, irrespective of whether society limits emissions in the next decades or we see continued growth, see likely to virtually certain sea level rise. In AR6-1, efforts have further been made to estimate rises to 2150, a half century increase on previous assessments. Their estimates demonstrate increasing risk of flooding to coastal communities over the coming decades, as well as wider losses anticipated from ocean acidification and expansion.
Here lies a crucial issue within the models of future emissions pathways used within AR6-1. All of those which limit warming to 1.5 and 2 degrees rely on the emergence of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies, which capture carbon dioxide emissions and are generally of only provisional development and deployment at the present time. Whilst a full assessment of these technologies is left to the Working Group Two and Three reports expected in 2022, CDR is understood as central to limiting warming in many of the models used by the IPCC. This presents a problem if CDR cannot be developed at scale, never mind the potential negative, colonial, and imperial side-effects of some of its more hairbrained options, such as the potential Global South droughts caused by the intentional release of sulphur dioxide in the stratosphere. Thus, planning and assessment around AR6-1 must recognise this crucial weakness in the pathways relied upon within the report.
Given that climate impacts are already here, and that even on the most optimistic scenarios extreme climate events will define the coming decades, a shift has occurred. Whilst many have rallied under the banner ‘mitigation, not adaptation’ in the past decades, there is a loss-and-damage (the term used by the UN to describe climate impacts) gap across a world ill-adapted to the climate impacts indicated in AR6-1. Whilst mitigation always takes priority, adaptation work needs to be done. Critical eyes must be applied to the Working Group Two and Three reports coming in the following year, which deal with adaptation and mitigation respectively, and the lessons they hold for the working-class movement.
Socialists need to consider urgently how they will relate to the COP26 conference in Glasgow this November. As most countries have already agreed their increased Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to emissions, their climate targets for the coming years, simply calling for ‘more action’ misses the mark. Each nation was expected to submit their NDCs in advance of COP26, the UK submitting its in December 2020 for example, with their next revision expected in 2025 under the Paris Agreement. Instead, two aspects being negotiated at COP26 deserve greater scrutiny: (1) the need for a serious loss and damage mechanism, where nations agree how to coordinate payments and planning for climate impacts, and (2) the need for a rise in finance from Global North countries to pay for mitigation and adaptation. On the first, there is no agreed mechanism to fund losses and damages resulting from climate events, meaning those at the frontline of climate colonialism are being left high and dry. On the second, only $100bn of climate finance was promised by wealthy nations, much of which has not emerged, or which was squandered on ineffectual market projects. A new target for global climate finance is needed, which should follow the current baseline for climate debt – it should at least see Global North nations pledging transfer of 6% of their GNP per year to the Global South, in the form of debt payments.
Looking at the many badly written and misleading headlines in the aftermath of AR6-1, quite a few blame humanity in the abstract, others talk of individual action and everyone ‘doing their bit.’ Given the content of AR6-1, this is at best misguided bourgeois timewasting, and it is at worst an intentional strategy of climate delay and obfuscation.
Socialists must be clear in their understanding of the world of fossil capitalism, including both a Marxist analysis of the relations of production and an understanding of the physical sciences. Knowledge and action on the climate crisis have been suppressed by industry and governments since the 1970s. Resistance to this fossil capitalism has been attacked across the globe, with many profiting from the protection of continued extraction and pollution.
The climate crisis is something that has been done to the global working class, due to a racial and imperialistic capitalism. AR6-1 shows that impacts will disproportionately impact the Global South, despite emissions being caused by their plunder by imperialist power in the Global North. This situation is made further disgusting by the refusal of Global North countries to increase their reparations to the South, never mind even agreeing a framework for dealing with global climate impacts. These considerations must be central to ecosocialist organising, that our resistance must be global and anti-imperialist. There can be no justice until those that profited, supported, and defended fossil capitalism are held to account by the working class and global dispossessed. More importantly, the conditions which created this class and allowed its continued profit from climate chaos must be dismantled. AR6-1 underlines what socialists always knew, in response to the climate crisis, revolution is the most reasonable option.