The earth is burning, the earth system is crumbling

Part 1 in the series 'Ecosocialist Strategies in the Anthropocene' by Christian Zeller.

 

With this article I document the social explosiveness of the ongoing ruptures in the earth system, global heating and the climate catastrophe. My aim is to counteract a chronic and latent underestimation or even ignorance of the situation in progressive social movements, trade unions and left parties. The election results in Germany clearly and tragically confirm that the parties in power so far and likely in the future are merely reacting to global heating with technical measures and new economic incentives. In so doing, they are leading society astray, into a chain of catastrophes. The changes in the Earth system will soon tear away the foundations of current politics and social debates. In subsequent articles, I will discuss the implications for ecosocialist strategies.

The new normal

The heat waves in the north-western U.S., western Canada, Siberia, and the Mediterranean during the summer of 2021 were extreme, but by no means unexpected. The current century-long drought in the south-western U.S., the recent floods in Germany and China, the fires in Siberia and elsewhere, and the devastation and death of many people in very different regions of the world are turning abstract fears into concrete experience. The weather extremes confirm what climate researchers have been warning for many decades. They are signs that the Earth system is undergoing abrupt and massive changes. Even more than in the case of the Corona pandemic, governments and representatives of corporate capital, as well as labor unions and broad sections of the population, are suppressing scientific findings. But weather extremes are the new normal. Extreme weather now occurs four to five times as often as in the 1970s and causes seven times as much damage.[i]

On September 17, the UN climate agency released an alarming report on the nationally determined contributions of 191 countries that framed the 2015 Paris Climate Accords.[ii] Despite improvements, these government’s plans remain inadequate. They will result in global CO2 emissions being 16% higher at the end of this decade than they were in 2010, amounting to a warming of at least 2.7°C above pre-industrial times. As recently as 2018, the IPCC wrote in its so-called 1.5°C report that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to be reduced by 58% from 2010 levels by 2030 (not including the use of CO2 capture technologies) to limit global warming to 1.5°C with a probability of only 50%.[iii]

The draft of the IPCC’s Working Group I 6th Assessment Report Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis[iv] documents rapidly accelerating global warming, published on August 9, and is a sober and technical warning of the consequences of the inescapable physical laws of nature. The scientific findings compiled and condensed here are unequivocal. Humans have interfered with the Earth system and the climate to such an extent that irreversible changes have resulted. These are now rapidly becoming more and more noticeable. The report of Working Group I does not name the social framework and implications. That will be left to the reports of Working Groups II and III, which are scheduled for publication in February and October 2022. However, there is concern among the scientists involved that the reports will be politically scrubbed before publication. For this reason, parts of the draft report of Working Group III have already been leaked to individual media in advance. It is remarkable that the authors address capitalist growth, enormous social inequality and the huge responsibility of the richest for greenhouse gas emissions as central problems.[v]

To an extent, the IPCC reports are a standard reflection of the best scientific conclusions. However, the scientists summaries for policy makers are more political than most scientific documents. Scientists and representatives of the governments fight hard in the background about the statements. Accordingly, the content of these reports is also an expression of political power relations within and between governments. In the past, the IPCC reports have tended to underestimate real developments. There are numerous studies that arrive at much more alarming findings about global warming.

The heating up of the earth, the crossing of tipping points and the connected and abrupt changes to the earth system, mean we enter a phase full of turns and breaks. Time is condensing. In rapid succession, the conditions of everyday life are changing for billions of people. This has serious consequences. The foundations for socio-political concepts and economic policy recipes discussed up to now are breaking away. The physical world, which has been stable for thousands of years, is changing faster than the social and political discussions about seemingly gradual “climate change”. Debates on socio-ecological transformation and ecosocialist upheaval of society urgently need to take into account these rapidly changing conditions. Necessary strategic conclusions are far-reaching.

The world climate conference in Glasgow, which took place between October 31 to November 12 is the last one that can adopt resolutions that will serve to limit global heating to 1.5°C. This goal is highly unlikely to be achieved. The new German government could immediately adopt and implement the necessary emissions reduction and industrial transformation program. This is equally unlikely.

Based on the 6th Assessment Report of the IPCC, I show how the climate has already changed. I outline some of the IPCC’s scenarios and briefly describe major climatic changes in the coming decades. Government responses and the “net zero” perspective are misleading and dangerous. On this basis, I argue in the conclusion that the climate justice movement urgently needs to develop a strategy that no longer leaves the question of power to the professional political actors of parliamentary parties, but encourages self-activity and self-empowerment among the working population.

The climate system has already changed

The sixth assessment report of the IPCC describes in detail how the climate system has already changed in a few decades. I give here five findings to illustrate the earth-historical changes.

  • “In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years (high confidence), and concentrations of CH4 and N2O were higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years (very high confidence).” [vi]
  • Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2000 years (high confidence).” Currently, average global surface temperature is about 1.1° higher than in the pre-industrial era. We need to look back at least to the interglacial period 125,000 years ago to observe the high average temperatures as we are currently experiencing. [vii]
  • Sea level rose an average of 20 cm in the 20th century and will continue to rise in the 21st century – about 30 cm even if emissions fall rapidly, over half a meter if emissions continue at current levels. These changes will force many people in coastal areas, including residents of many megacities, to leave their homes in just a few years and decades. The threat to coastal regions is all the more relevant because the population in flood-prone areas increased at a significantly above-average rate between 2000 and 2015.[viii]
  • The glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland and in the mountains have melted significantly in the last decades and will continue to melt. In the Alps, most glaciers will have disappeared after a few decades.
  • These changes happen spatially unevenly. Not the constructed average values, but the real and spatially specific processes are relevant for the abruptly changing living conditions of people. The expected changes in the pattern of monsoon rains as well as specific effects on biodiversity, deserts, tropical forests, cities and other places require special considerations, especially from an emancipatory and ecosocialist perspective. [ix] How can the particularly affected societies cope with these challenges in solidarity?

However, recent climate changes show that in many cases real developments are taking place faster than the IPCC reports previously estimated. For example, studies conclude that the average global warming compared to pre-industrial times has already risen to 1.3°C in 2020. The IPCC previously underestimated an alarming fact. Global warming is accelerating. Therefore, by 2030, average global warming may already be 1.5°C higher than in the pre-industrial era. [x] Even the IPCC now states that the 20-year average surface temperature will exceed the 1.5°C warming mark in the early 2030s. This means the political threshold of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords will be breached earlier than expected.[xi]

Warming is likely already crossing tipping points in the Earth system, setting in motion self-reinforcing processes. As a result, a study by the Energy Watch Group concludes that greenhouse gas emissions must end as early as 2030 to stop the path to warming.[xii] Scientists from Scientist Rebellion summarize studies that conclude that if existing policies continue, global heating will rise to 4°C by the end of this century. That would be the end of civilization as we know it.[xiii] To limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C with a probability of 50%, the world may still emit 500 Gt CO2, with a probability of 83% it is only 300 Gt CO2. [xiv] This culminates in an absurd idea. If the world continues to emit around 40 Gt CO2 per year, every machine worldwide that emits CO2 would have to be shut down immediately before 2030.

But the real development is going in the opposite direction. CO2 emissions continue to rise significantly. According to the implemented latest nationally determined contributions of 191 countries, greenhouse gas emissions excluding land use, land use change and forestry will increase to 54.8 Gt CO2 eq by 2025 and 55.1 Gt CO2 eq by 2030. In 2025, this corresponds to an increase of 58.6% compared to 1990, of 15.8% compared to 2010, and of 4.5% compared to 2019. By 2030, this corresponds to an increase of 59.3% compared to 1990, of 16.3% compared to 2010, and of 5% compared to 2019.[xv] Governments’ policies generally place a great emphasis on expanding renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. However, only a few governments have announced concrete measures to reduce emissions in key industries. [xvi]

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-3.png
Figure 1: Future annual CO₂ emissions in gigatons per year in five illustrative scenarios
Scenario SSP2-4.5 corresponds roughly to the course if governments implement their announced plans to reduce emissions. Scenario SSP3-7.0 corresponds roughly to a continuation of the current policy without additional climate policy measures.
Source: (IPCC 2021: SPM-16, 1-104f)

Scenarios

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report[xvii] summarizes the process of future global warming in five illustrations, titled Shared Socioeconomic Pathways. This summarizes possible socioeconomic orientations that could be adopted through five pathways: SSP1 Sustainability, SSP2 Middle of the Road, SSP3 Regional Rivalry, SSP4 Inequality and SSP5 Fossil-fuelled development. It combines these with different values for radiative forcing (a measure of the Earth’s radiative balance, of which greenhouse gas emissions are an important component). This produces different scenarios, five of which are described in the Sixth Assessment Report. The scenarios presented start in 2015 and cover development paths with very high, high, medium, low and very low greenhouse gas emissions. The resulting insights are brutal and sobering. The goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference to limit global warming to 1.5°C is no longer achievable under the existing capitalist conditions accepted by the IPCC.

Even if governments at the COP26 conference in Glasgow had agreed on the most radical scenario (SSP1-1.9) of a rapid and comprehensive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions – which was always out of the question – the world would still be on a catastrophic path. Even in this scenario, the Earth system would change so dramatically and abruptly in just a few decades that all previous ideas about socio-ecological transformation within the framework of the capitalist mode of production would be stripped of their foundations.

The middle scenario (SSP 2-4.5) is closest to real development. The IPCC refers to it as a no-additional climate-policy’ reference scenario. This scenario follows a “middle of the road” path and corresponds to the upper range of the aggregated emission reduction plans of governments (nationally determined contributions, NDCs), which they submitted in the wake of the Paris Climate Accords 2015. [xviii]  This scenario assumes an emissions peak roughly between 2040 and 2050 and predicts that the world will cross the 1.5°C threshold in the early 2030s and the 2°C threshold by the middle of the century. Between 2080 and 2100, global average surface temperatures are very likely to increase by 2.7°C (with a range of 2.1 to 3.5°C) above pre-industrial times.[xix]  If governments implemented their promised but insufficient national emission reduction plans, warming would accelerate further. The Earth will become a hot planet whose Earth system would abruptly change and would soon pass tipping points. The processes triggered by this would take place in ust a few decades.

Experience shows us, however, that governments do not even keep to their own, albeit inadequate, plans. It is therefore possible that even this medium scenario is too “optimistic”. If emissions continue to rise at the same rate as they are now (which is what the SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5 scenarios show), the average surface temperature could already rise by 3.3 to 5.7°C by the end of the century. This would be equivalent to a complete collapse of the climate system.

The scenario (SSP1-1.9) with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions limits global warming to 1.5°C at the turn of the century, although this threshold has already been exceeded before. [xx]  Of concern is that the emissions pathways limiting global warming to 1.5° to 2°C by 2100 rely not only on emissions reductions but technologies for removing CO2 from the atmosphere (Carbon Dioxide Removal CDR), CO2 capture and storage (Carbon Capture and Storage CCS), and a massive expansion of the plantation economy for the production of energy crops. The aim is to achieve a negative emissions balance by the mid-century. This scenario implies that 5 gigatons of CO2 will be removed from the atmosphere annually by that point (by comparison, the U.S. emitted about 6.558 5 gigatons of CO2 in 2019) and as much as 17 gigatons of CO2 by the end of the century. [xxi]  The IPCC report itself cites broad review studies that have concluded that CDR technologies will not be applicable on a large scale by 2050. [xxii]  The IPCC modelled this low-emission scenario to provide a concrete pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century, in line with the goal of the Paris Climate Accords, although this threshold has been exceeded in the meantime. [xxiii]  However, the authors consider this scenario unlikely if they base it on unrealistic assumptions and technologies whose mass use they themselves consider doubtful and dangerous.

Negative emission technologies are highly speculative. They require gigantic amounts of energy, which, however, can be produced in a CO2-neutral way. The solution to this problem alone will remain a mystery for some time. There are only a few pilot plants for small quantities. It is uncertain whether these technologies can be applied on a large scale and achieve the desired effect. This scenario would also involve a huge expansion of land for industrial agriculture. It would take decades for new trees to grow to replace those that have been felled. [xxiv]  In many places, the expansion of industrial tree production would be in direct competition with food production and supply and would destroy small-scale subsistence farming. Note that global warming from droughts, fires, and insect infestations reduces the capacity of forests to sequester CO2. [xxv]  The governments’ propaganda for “net zero” is therefore tantamount to a great deception and diversion (see below).

The SSP1-1.9 scenario bears a resemblance to the P1 low-emissions pathway in the Summary Report for Policymakers and the LED (low-energy demand) pathway in chapter 2 of the IPCC’s so-called 1.5°C report of 2018. However, this pathway, with a 58% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 compared to 2010, still limits warming to 1.5°C with only a small secondary overshoot of this mark. It excludes the use of CSS and BECCS technologies (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage), but foresees a global increase of nuclear energy by 59% by 2030 and by as much as 150% by 2050 compared to 2010. [xxvi]  It stands to reason that the Low Emission Scenario SSP1-1.9 and the Medium Scenario SSP 2-4.5 also include a massive expansion of nuclear power. If we exclude the increase of nuclear energy and the use of speculative CSS technologies, the defossilization of society must logically occur even more radically and rapidly than even the “best” IPCC scenarios predict. The early industrialized and imperialist countries would also have to be forced to defossilize their societies even faster according to their ecological debt and to support the efforts of the post-colonial countries, for example by cancelling the debts that lead to a constant flow of money to the financial centers through perpetual interest payments. These facts underline how comprehensive the restructuring of the global productive system must be to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Regardless of which scenario most closely reflects the real development, the near future looks similar. The target of 1.5°C will be exceeded sooner or later, with a high probability that it will be surpassed in the next ten years. This process is of immeasurable Earth historical significance: the last time that the global surface temperature was 2.5°C or higher was more than 3 million years ago.[xxvii]

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-4.png

In the next article, I show that changes in the climate system will undermine or even destroy the livelihoods of billions of people in the coming decades.


[i] WMO 2021

[ii] UNFCCC 2021

[iii] IPCC 2018: 14

[iv] IPCC 2021

[v] Juan Bordera / Fernando Prieto: El IPCC considera que el decrecimiento es clave para mitigar el cambio climático. Ctxt, 7. August 2021 https://ctxt.es/es/20210801/Politica/36900/IPCC-cambio-climatico-colapso-medioambiental-decrecimiento.htm, gesichtet 20. September 2021;  Scientist Rebellion https://scientistrebellion.com/we-leaked-the-upcoming-ipcc-report/ gesichtet 20. September 2021

[vi] IPCC 2021: SPM-9

[vii] IPCC 2021: SPM-9

[viii] Crownhart 2021

[ix] IPCC 2021: TS-74ff

[x] Xu, et al. 2018

[xi] IPCC 2021: TS-27, 30

[xii] Fell und Traber 2020: 5-7)

[xiii] Scientist Rebellion (2021): The Science https://scientistrebellion.com/science/ gesichtet am 20. September 2021

[xiv] IPCC 2021: SPM-38, Table SPM.2

[xv] UNFCCC 2021: 5, 14, 26, Figure 7

[xvi] UNFCCC 2021: 7, 38

[xvii] IPCC 2021: SPM-15

[xviii] IPCC 2021: ch1-100, ch1-104; UNFCCC 2021: 29

[xix] IPCC 2021: SPM-16-17, Figure SPM.4; UNFCCC 2021: 29, Figure 9

[xx] IPCC 2021:TS22, Figure TS.6

[xxi] Temple 2021, Statista https://www.statista.com/statistics/517376/us-greenhouse-gas-emissions/ gesichtet am 26. September 2021

[xxii] IPCC 2021: 4-81–4-82

[xxiii] IPCC 2021: ch1-103

[xxiv] Temple 2021

[xxv] IPCC 2021: SPM-41f

[xxvi] IPCC 2018: 14, 131-134, 325

[xxvii] „The last time global surface temperature was sustained at or above 2.5°C higher than 1850–1900 was over 3 million years ago (medium confiencence)” (IPCC 2021: SPM-17).

References

Crownhart, Casey (2021): New global map shows populations are growing faster in flood-prone areas. MIT Technology Review, August 4, 2021. https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/08/04/1030533/population-climate-flood-risk/ Zugriff: August 21, 2021.

Fell, Hans-Josef und Traber, Thure (2020): The path to climate neutrality by 2050 misses the Paris climate targets The rocky road to truthfulness in climate politics;EWG Policy Paper, December 2020, Energy Watch Group: Berlin, 12 S. https://www.energywatchgroup.org/the-path-to-climate-neutrality-by-2050-misses-the-paris-climate-targets/ Zugriff: 17. August 2021.

IPCC (2018): Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty, V. Masson-Delmotte; P. Zhai; H. O. Pörtner; D. Roberts; J. Skea; P. R. Shukla; A. Pirani; W. Moufouma-Okia; C. Péan; R. Pidcock; S. Connors; J. B. R. Matthews; Y. Chen; X. Zhou; M. I. Gomis; E. Lonnoy; T. Maycock; M. Tignor und T. Waterfield, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, G. World Meteorological Organization: Genf, 616 S. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/download/; https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/06/SR15_Full_Report_High_Res.pdf Zugriff: 26. März 2020.

IPCC (2021): Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.): Cambridge University Press, 3948 S.

Temple, James (2021): The UN climate report pins hopes on carbon removal technologies that barely exist. MIT Technology Review, August 9, 2021. https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/08/09/1031450/the-un-climate-report-pins-hopes-on-carbon-removal-technologies-that-barely-exist/ Zugriff: August 21, 2021.

UNFCCC (2021): Nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. Synthesis report by the secretariat. Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement Third session Glasgow, 31 October to 12 November 2021, 17 September 2021, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: Bonn, 42 S. https://unfccc.int/news/full-ndc-synthesis-report-some-progress-but-still-a-big-concern; https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/cma2021_08_adv.pdf Zugriff: 18 September 2021.

WMO (2021): WMO Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate  and  Water  Extremes  (1970–2019) 1 September 2021, World Meteorological Organization: Geneva, 90 S. https://library.wmo.int/doc_num.php?explnum_id=10769 Zugriff: 19 September 2021.

Xu, Y.; Ramanathan, V. und Victor, D. G. (2018): Global warming will happen faster than we think. Nature 564 (7734) Dec, S. 30-32. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07586-5


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