Bob Dylan remarks somewhere that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. He forgot to add: you might need one to tell you about the tragedy of extreme weather events. Not, perhaps, those committed by the erstwhile US urban guerrilla movement, inspired by Dylan’s aphorism, but definitely those due to rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases.
As a person who in his prime was given to vivid symbolism, perhaps Dylan should now write a song about the crossing on May 9th 2013 of the 400ppm threshold in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. He might also revisit his anti-capitalist past and provide a critique of current efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But let’s not wait for that….
Studies have now confirmed what has been predicted all along: that climate change is leading to more – and more intense – extreme weather events. One of these studies states that the land area of the world now affected by extreme hot summer anomalies in any one year, has increased from 1% to 10% in the space of 30 years. It states confidently that the heat waves in France, Texas and Moscow in 2003, 2010 and 2011 respectively, all of which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, “almost certainly would not have occurred in the absence of global warming”.
New Scientist in mid-January summarised what this has meant for people, animals and plants recently in different parts of the world. In Australia, temperature records are being “annihilated”:` wild fires in January devastated large areas of New South Wales and highly ecologically-sensitive Tasmania. In 2009, 173 people were killed in bush fires around Melbourne, Victoria. Current housing development doesn’t take fire risk into account. As one scientist put it “[planners] are setting us up for the catastrophes of the future”.
In NE Brazil, the year-long drought – the worst in 50 years – has killed cattle, damaged corn and cotton crops and wiped out 30% of the region’s sugar cane (in part, used for biofuel). Hydropower dams are at 32% of capacity, threatening electricity shortages. Thousands of subsistence farmers have lost their livelihood, while agrarian reform under the PT government of Dilma Rousseff has “been abandoned”, according to the co-ordinator of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).
Meanwhile, in the United States, 60% of the land area has been affected by drought and last year 25% of the maize (corn) crop was lost (12% of the world’s total) in the hottest year for the sub-continent on record. This will impact on food prices for everyone. In January, the Department of Agriculture declared 20% of agricultural land a “natural” disaster area, although it really is a “capitalist” disaster. During and after Hurricane Sandy, some US politicians finally suggested that climate change might be a problem.
They now face a major choice for the future of New York: either abandon large sections of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and even sections of lower Manhattan, or build huge, ecologically-damaging barriers across the New York-New Jersey Harbor Gateway and the East River. It is quite likely that neither option will have even been decided by the time the next “Sandy” hits. Of course, the problems the people of New York face are as nothing compared to those in cities in emerging economies, such as Dhaka, Bangkok, Shanghai or Rio, which have fewer resources for defences.
Finally, four years of intense waves of cold weather have covered large parts of Asia, extending even to snowstorms and floods in the Middle East. 200 people have been killed by the cold in northern India. This weather pattern is thought to be caused by the rapid warming of the Arctic, including a feedback mechanism, driven by the melting of the sea ice. This has weakened wind currents over Asia and allowed Arctic air to spill over onto the continental mass.
Weather vs. Climate
A climate change denier might argue “that’s just weather: the climate trends are different, and even the Met Office said on 24th December (2012) that the world has cooled since 1997-8 and will remain at current temperatures, about 0.43oC above the long-term average, until 2017”. This is precisely what the Mail Online reports: “Global Warming stopped 16 years ago …. So who are the deniers now?”
More recently, some climate scientists themselves have started to question whether their estimates of climate forcing by carbon dioxide are correct. Climate forcing is the average world temperature rise that would result from a doubling of CO2 concentrations and is in the range 2-4.5oC. That carbon dioxide concentration (but not the commensurate temperature rise – see below) is expected to be reached by about mid-century, on current trends.
The argument is that, in the last 15 years or so, the rate of global warming has increased more slowly than previously (not, as the deniers contend, that the world has cooled). A report on the BBC’s Today Programme on 17th May gave a flavour of the debate, but failed properly to confront the scientific issues – namely the difference between heat and temperature, a question that should be familiar to anyone who has done a GCSE science course. (Basically, a swimming pool at 30oC contains an awful lot more heat energy than a spark at 3000oC).
A small oscillation in the rate of global warming does not contradict the basic findings from the paleoclimate record. Indeed, in the very week that this debate started up again, a study was published showing, based on records from the sediment in a Siberian lake, that the last time carbon dioxide levels were as high as at present, 3 million years ago, the average temperatures in Siberia were 8oC higher than today.
Previous warming episodes have come about over periods of thousands of years, while the current one is much faster. It would be even more rapid, if the sea did not act as a sink: it is unable to reach the temperature that corresponds to current carbon dioxide levels before those levels rise again. This lag means current temperatures are cooler than they would be if the sea was not there, but that we are already locked in to higher levels of temperature rises, like those of 3 million years ago, unless carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are actually brought down. This is the rationale for the 350.org campaign.
Deniers show their cynicism
After the Daily Mail’s outburst in January, comments of a similar calibre flooded the deniers’ media outlets and blogs, actions of deeply cynical dishonesty, designed purely for defence of the fossil fuel industry. In fact, as Fred Pearce has pointed out , along with others, the Met Office’s findings are qualified by numerous caveats:
- 1998 was the hottest year on record and surface air temperatures can be expected to reach similar levels twice in the next five years
- The Met Office work is an exercise, designed to test the robustness of several new models that now take account of ocean currents, amongst other things
- In the medium term, climate is affected by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, which affect the amount of heat absorbed by the oceans, with the effects described above
- The factor that is fundamentally affected by atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is the balance between the energy absorbed by the planet and that re-radiated out into space. If that energy is used to heat a previously unexposed colder ocean surface, or to melt ice, rather than to further heat up the atmosphere, it hasn’t “disappeared”: there is still a major issue, including sea level rises and extreme weather. The rise in temperature will hit us later.
- If the Met Office forecasts prove to be correct, as medium term effects, they are just superimposed on the long-term atmospheric warming trend.
Pearce suggests that when these oscillations enter a new phase, warming could accelerate even further, as oceans give up to the atmosphere heat accumulated in the current phase. “Scary”, is his summary of the situation.
This also is the conclusion that can be drawn from a recent study in Nature Climate Change, which modelled what would happen even if it was possible to cut world carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050. This is a cut of 5% a year from 2016 (the authors give the international capitalist class and their political lackeys 3 years to read their paper and start to implement cuts). There is currently a rise in emissions of 2.6% a year.
The 80% cut, the authors argue, would limit the average world atmospheric temperature rise to 2oC by 2100, still viewed as disastrous by some scientists, but way below the likely rise of 4-6oC. They conclude that 20-65% of the adverse effects (heat waves, floods, crop failures etc.) predicted under “business as usual” could be avoided if the cuts are implemented. Or, to put it another way, 35-80% of these effects would not be avoided. Furthermore, no mitigation of climate change and its consequences is predicted prior to 2050, even if these large cuts in GHG emissions take place.
What are the Capitalists Doing?
How well is the capitalist system faring in its attempt to implement such cuts? A cut of 80% in emissions by 2050 is, after all, the figure on the European Commission’s “road map”, whatever that means. The current rate of emissions rise has already been mentioned. We can look at some fossil fuel projects being implemented or planned. In the Athabasca tar sands, oil production is to nearly triple by 2020. Obama is about to decide whether to give the go-ahead to the Keystone XL pipeline, connecting these tar sands to Texas refineries. There already is one going to Illinois and Oklahoma.
US coal exports (mainly to China) have more than doubled in 3 years and there are plans to increase them further – by building ports in Oregon, Washington State and British Columbia linked to railways from the western fields. China’s annual coal consumption, already nearly half world consumption, is forecast to grow from the current 3.52bn to 5.2bn tonnes by 2020: another 2bn is consumed in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.
At the same time, there is the dash to use the opportunity of the melting of Arctic sea ice to open up the region for oil and gas exploitation, while Japan has recently developed the technology to recover methane clathrates from the sea bed. These clathrates, or hydrates, are a crystalline compound of methane and water, unstable except at high pressure, or well below 0oc. The Japanese extraction method involves reducing the pressure to release the gas from the compound. This must involve the risk of inadvertent release to the atmosphere of large quantities of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Fracking, for gas and oil, is having a major impact. Shale gas, trapped in the cracks and pores in rocks, rather than in large reservoirs, is extracted by drilling deep wells that turn horizontal, then opening up the fissures using high-pressure water. The technology has many damaging environmental consequences: possible pollution of aquifers; air and noise pollution at ground level; very high well-head density (roads and pipelines). Large amounts of water required (which returns to the well-head polluted by the chemical additives and often by the underground minerals and volatile organic compounds. The technology is highly dependent on road transport, the new roads destroying ecosystems and leading to even greater carbon emissions.
Largely using this technology, the US is set overtake Russia as the main gas producer in 2015, and to exceed Saudi Arabia’s oil production by 2017. Gas prices in the USA have plummeted, while the “fracking rush” has only just got underway. These developments could have significant world-wide political consequences.
There are slated to be up to 170,000 (see 1.06:48) fracking wells in Pennsylvania alone, drilled over a long period of time: one every 80 acres over 70% of the accessible land. These will add to the well over 300,000 existing and exhausted oil and conventional natural gas wells in the state. Already, there are signs that these old workings are being damaged by fracking, causing methane leaks and even explosions. Of course, this is partly because the old wells were never properly sealed.
Fracking all over the place
Other countries, such as Britain, Poland and South Africa are trying to introduce gas fracking, in the face of considerable popular opposition. The Transnational Institute has surveyed moves towards fracking and counts four countries that have started and 18 that are interested, including the major imperialist powers, except France, and all the BRIC countries. In France, fracking was banned in July 2011, following a large national mass movement, based on opposition in areas where sites had been earmarked for exploration. A movement against fracking is developing in Algeria, where fossil fuel companies Shell, Eni and Talisman have interests – particularly because of the tax breaks the government is offering.
China is meant to have the largest on-shore shale gas reserves and is aiming to use the resource for 6% of its energy needs by 2020. Again, according to TNI, Chinese companies have linked up with the likes of Shell, BP, Exxon, Chevron and Total to extract the gas. There is no effective environmental protection and the water demands, often in areas of shortage, will add to all the other harmful effects on local ecosystems and people.
The TNI links the interest in fracking to land-grabbing by multinationals, particularly important, given the large land area “per unit gas yield” the technology requires.
In Britain, after a 1 ½ year delay due to some minor earthquakes near Blackpool, resulting from exploratory drilling, the government in November 2012 gave the go-ahead for fracking test wells. Shale (but not necessarily recoverable gas) is present over 60% of the land mass of England and drilling licences have already been granted (or old conventional gas and oil ones revived) in Lancashire, the South-East and South Wales.
One other technology for which permits have been given in the UK is underground coal gasification (UGC). Interestingly, Lenin wrote approvingly about this technology, describing the benefits that could be gained from it under a socialist system, and its earliest large-scale application was in the USSR in the 1930’s.
Another technology, more closely related to fracking, is Coal Bed Methane (CBM). Planning applications have been sought for this process in the Falkirk/Stirling area and it is likely that this site will be the first to use one of these technologies on a large scale.
The drawbacks described below for fracking largely apply to UGC and CBM as well.
Some environmentalists are starting to claim that fracking will have the benefit of reducing the dependence on coal for generating electricity and thereby carbon dioxide emissions. There are three reasons why fracking is not the answer to this problem. One is the issue of methane leaks. The fragility of old workings has already been mentioned, and there are videos on the internet of people showing flames in their methane-contaminated tap water. Probably more serious are long-term leaks from the new wells, resulting from careless work or poor quality materials. The wells are lined with concrete: the Deepwater Horizon disaster was due to the failure of non-compliant concrete.
A study from Cornell University in 2011, with a follow-up in 2012, found that fracking caused up to twice as much methane leakage as conventional drilling and that, as a result, “the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years”. Another report, from January 2013, has shown that some wells leak an “eye-popping” 9% of their production. Presumably, this leakage could be reduced by better practice, but who will inspect the hundreds of thousands of installations to ensure that is implemented?
The second objection is that all these new technologies are locking the system into fossil fuel dependence for (more) decades to come. This is the effect of building of ever more fossil fuel infrastructure. Capitalists who invest in expensive plant will want to use it for as long as possible, in order to maximise their revenue and profits. Every new investment reduces the prospects of a viable system of energy saving and renewable energy generation being implemented. It also diverts financial and human resources (research and skilled labour) away from these goals.
Finally, the fracking boom is likely to reduce the prices of all fossil fuels. Again, this makes it more difficult to implement fuel-saving or renewable energy strategies, especially as fossil fuels attract subsidies, open or hidden, which are not given to non-fossil fuel technologies.
A CEO of a US energy corporation summed up the capitalist attitude to fossil fuel exploitation at a recent business meeting on fracking, dismissing the concerns of an MIT professor (who also happened to be a former head of the CIA!):
“There is no question that climate change and global warming are issues, but you cannot ruin the economy to address them….We’re in these businesses and we are driven by economics. I can tell you that in my opinion all of these alternatives are not economic against natural gas.”
Conclusion – not a holiday
In 2005, one of the predecessors of Socialist Resistance pointed out that capitalism had already had fifty years’ warning that greenhouse gas emissions were subjecting the world’s people and ecosystems to a “large scale geophysical experiment”. We surveyed some of the effects of climate change that were already visible and pointed out the threats, especially to agriculture, and of the spread of tropical diseases and mentioned that a major extinction event was already under way.
Since then, carbon dioxide concentrations have risen from 380ppm to 400ppm and the rate of increase of emissions has also increased by about 20%. There is no indication that capitalism is structurally capable of turning this around.
Along with the continuing frantic extraction of fuels outlined above, the problem is perhaps best illustrated by a recent report, which warned of the possible collapse of the fossil fuel giants, if serious emissions curbs were implemented. The top 200 giants are worth $4tn (based, in large part, on a valuation of their claimed reserves), but have debts of $1.5tn, so a policy that stated “no, you can’t use your reserves” is untenable for the capitalist economy.
Bursting the fossil fuel bubble would have severe consequences for the capitalist system as a whole. The fossil fuel system giants cannot be allowed to collapse and nor can the pension funds that own so many of their shares. Capitalism has no way out when it comes to climate change, except possibly when it is faced with global ecological catastrophe. By then, the “cure” capitalism proposes will most likely make the current austerity programme look like a summer holiday.
What are the alternatives that socialists propose? These will be the subject of subsequent articles in the series. We will examine especially agriculture, energy resources and biodiversity, hopefully showing how, through a socialist strategy, correctly addressing these issues can secure the future of humanity and the ecosystems on which we depend.