We are running out of time

This is the second part of the series 'Ecosocialist Strategies in the Anthropocene' by Christian Zeller.


In the first article, I outlined the major climate changes already underway and the IPCC’s scenarios for development through to 2100. In this second article, I condense the IPCC’s findings to present the consequences of global warming in the coming decades. The governments’ orientation towards “net zero” must be rejected; it does not address the challenges and aggravates the problems.

The coming decades

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on Physical Processes shows that climate change has accelerated in recent decades and will continue to intensify in the coming decades. Using the medium scenario SSP2-4.5 and the low emission scenario SSP1-1.9, it is possible to estimate the development of changes in the immediate future. The current policies of governments and ruling capital, which do not even keep their own – insufficient – promises, increase the likelihood that scenarios with higher greenhouse gas emissions best describe real probable developments.

On September 28, OPEC published projections of future fossil fuel consumption in its World Oil Outlook 2045 report, which are closer to the SSP3-7.0 high-emissions scenario. In these projections, primary oil consumption would increase from 82.5 to 99 million barrels of oil equivalent per day from 2020 to 2045. Oil would continue to be the primary source of energy in 2045, and its share would decrease only slightly from 30% in 2020 to 28% in 2045. Therefore, annual CO2 emissions from oil combustion would increase from the current 11.2 billion tons to 13.3 gigatons by 2045. Gas emissions would also rise, from 6.9 to 9.2 gigatons per year. CO2 emissions from coal would fall slightly from 14.2 to 11.9 gigatons. In total, energy-related CO2-emissions would continue to rise until 2032 and then fall only slightly until 2045.[1] This would mean the collapse of the climate system and its effects would be even worse than described below.

  • Global average surface temperature, if governments implement their emission reduction plans, is already projected to increase by 2.7°C (2.1 to 3.5°C) by around 2100 compared to 1850-1900, according to the best estimate (this corresponds to scenario SSP2-4.5). [2] Under the lowest-emissions scenario (SSP1-1.9), this value is likely to increase by 1.6°C (1.2 to 2.0° C) between 2041 and 2060 and then decrease again to 1.4°C (1 to 1.8° C) between 2081 and 2100. However, the warming would increase 1.4 to 1.7 times more on land surfaces and much more in many regions. The Arctic would probably warm more than twice as fast. [3] The Alpine region is also already warming much faster. Mountain and Greenland glaciers will continue to melt for decades even under an unlikely low-emission scenario. Melting in Antarctica is also likely to continue even in the best-case scenario. The additional warming will further thaw the permafrost, releasing even more methane. This results in a positive warming feedback not fully accounted for in the models. Even this scenario (SSP1-2.6), with the second lowest emissions, is too optimistic; modelling show an average warming of 2°C to 3°C already in the period from 2081 to 2100 in large parts of Eurasia and North America and a warming of more than 4°C in the Arctic compared to today’s conditions.[4]
  • Weather extremes have become more frequent and intense since 1950. They will continue to intensify even if global warming could be stabilized at 1.5°C. [5] Heat waves will become much more frequent and longer, and even modest warming will likely intensify extreme precipitation events and increase their frequency. Tropical cyclones will also become more intense and frequent. Most regions of Africa and Asia, North America, and Europe are likely to experience more intense and multiplied precipitation and associated flooding. Droughts will intensify and multiply on all continents except in Asia compared to 1850-1900.
  • The sea level will almost certainly rise by 0.28 to 0.55 meters this century compared to 1995-2014 under the unlikely low-emission scenario, and will continue to rise thereafter. Under one of the high-emissions scenarios, sea levels may even rise by about a meter by 2100. If all the ice at the poles melted, sea levels would rise by about 60 meters. [6] Floods will become more severe and increase. Many people in coastal areas will be forced to leave their homes. The large megacities on the coasts are acutely endangered. If sea levels rise according to the IPCC’s mean projections, several million people will no longer be able to live in Alexandria and the Nile Delta by 2050. Agriculture in Egypt will already lose 47% of its cultivated land by 2060 due to salinization.[7] It is obvious that already in a few decades millions of people will leave this region.
  • Ocean warming is highly relevant to the heating of the climate system. However, it is occurring more slowly than on land surfaces. Ocean warming has accelerated in recent decades and is projected to be 2-4 times greater for the remainder of the 21st century than between 1971 and 2018 in the case of a more favourable scenario (SSP1-2.6), or as much as 4-8 times greater in the case of a high-emissions scenario (SSP5-8.5). Ocean stratification, acidification, and oxygen depletion will continue to increase, but in spatially differentiated ways, including the emergence of so-called death zones. All three phenomena have irreversible negative effects on marine life. However, the models do not take into account erratic processes such as the destabilization of the ice sheet in Antarctica and Greenland.[8]
  • Even in the 1.6°C scenario, there are expected to be abrupt reactions and the crossing of tipping points – such as increased Antarctic melting and forest dieback. According to recent studies, such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the density differences in the ocean has weakened significantly since the mid-20th century. Its collapse, and with it the Gulf Stream, is possible. The Gulf Stream system could weaken to the point of instability by the end of the century. A collapse would most likely lead to abrupt changes in continental climate and the hydrological cycle with immeasurable societal consequences.[9] The IPCC does not rule out such an abrupt collapse of the AMOC either, but considers it unlikely in this century. However, such a collapse would most likely lead to abrupt shifts in regional weather patterns and the hydrological cycle, such as a southward shift of the tropical rain belt, a weakening of the African and Asian monsoons, and a strengthening of the monsoons in the Southern Hemisphere. Collapse could be triggered by an unexpected influx of meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet.[10] 
  • Important to social dynamics is the fact that these processes will trigger further abrupt changes, thus, a new quality emerges from quantitative alterations.[11] In addition, sudden and surprising events have to be considered. Rare but extreme and combined events, such as the 2018 Northern Hemisphere heat waves in India in 2019, the 2019-20 fires in Australia, in Siberia, on the North American West Coast, and in the Mediterranean region in the summer of 2021, all have enormous impacts. Earth-heating increases the likelihood of extreme events. In addition, events that are as yet unknown will become more frequent.[12] 

At this point, only a few of these self-reinforcing processes are mentioned as examples. The breakup of the gigantic Thwaites or Totten glaciers in Antarctica and the glaciers of Greenland will lead to a massive rise in sea levels. With the release of methane by the thawing of the permafrost soils, the greenhouse gas effect is intensified. In turn, increased plant growth could also absorb CO2. The warming of the oceans reduces their capacity to sequester CO2. A collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation would change the climate worldwide. The Amazon region is emitting more CO2 than it is absorbing due to slash-and-burn agriculture that is constantly reaching new record levels, and is now additionally driving global heating.[13]

It is obvious that the world is heading for ruptures in the earth system. Large parts of the Earth, including numerous megacities, will probably become uninhabitable in just a few decades. If current climate policies continue, the temperature niche within which human society has been able to develop will change more in the next 50 years than at any time in the last 6000 years. Depending on population increases and global warming, one to three billion people will no longer live in climatic conditions that existed during the last 6000 years. Excluding migration, one-third of the world’s population is projected to be exposed to mean annual temperatures exceeding 29°C, currently found on only 0.8% of the Earth’s land surface and mainly concentrated in the Sahara. The regions potentially most affected are among the poorest in the world.[14] Immeasurably more severe than in the ongoing Corona pandemic, this process will amount to the extinction of a portion of the world’s poor population.

Diversionary manoeuvre: “Net zero emissions”

Governments are talking about “net zero emissions” as their discourse is increasingly shifting towards adaptation strategies. Behind “net-zero” lies a major red herring, which unfortunately the climate movement and left-wing parties also succumb to when in some cases they adopt the term unquestioningly. “Net zero” is used in very different contexts. Companies claim they will soon be able to do business with net-zero emissions. Governments present net-zero plans. This invariably includes that companies and governments through projects in other countries that purportedly or actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions or absorb CO2, but continue to emit greenhouse gases by adding them to their own emissions accounts. The IPCC and other institutions also use the term net zero emissions to address the balance of emissions on a global scale. Almost all net-zero scenarios assume the use of technologies that capture and store CO2. Crucially, “net zero” strategies involve appropriating and using vast areas of land in dependent and poor countries to absorb carbon emissions, allowing the largest emitters in imperialist countries to partially avoid necessary reductions in their emissions.[15] By talking about “net zero”, the governments and corporations want to delay the necessary rapid reduction of emissions. This manoeuvre mainly benefits those corporations and countries that need to radically reduce their emissions. The net-zero rhetoric helps to pin hopes on a technological rescue and deny the urgency of radical economic transformation.[16]

Such compensation strategies would lead to an explosive increase in land demand. Because emissions would be insufficiently reduced, according to the IEA’s “Net-Zero Emissions by 2050” scenario, 7.6 Gt of CO2 would have to be industrially sequestered and stored underground annually. In addition, biomass production would have to be increased six-fold by 2050. A significant share of electrical energy would have to be generated via BECCS, i.e., the combustion of biomass with capture and storage of CO2.[17]

Industrial forests and plantations for CO2 sequestration would compete with food production and thus exacerbate hunger. This development is based on a massive increase in the unequal distribution of land and thus the impoverishment and displacement of people in the affected countries. This fact also brutally shows that a “green” capitalism reinforces and promotes processes of barbarism and neocolonial plunder. Most Green New Deal proposals do not address these facts. Leftist Green New Deals also remain an illusion because they are economically counterintuitive and ecologically insufficient. I have explained this in detail in my article published in the journal Prokla.[18]

Non-linear developments in nature and society

The IPCC’s draft 6th Assessment Report on the Physical Basis of Rapidly Accelerating Global Warming clarifies that global warming is already triggering a chain of untold small and large-scale societal disasters. The emission reduction plans of governments are inadequate. And it remains highly uncertain whether they themselves will even implement these plans. OPEC, for example, predicts that global oil demand will be higher in 2045 than in 2020, so stabilizing global warming at 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial times is impossible under current societal conditions. Far more likely is a path towards warming of at least 3 to 4°C.

Global warming and the dynamics of the Earth system are non-linear processes. The likelihood that tipping points will be exceeded, resulting in uncontrollable momentum, increases significantly after warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The earth-system processes became unstable and with the crossing of tipping points self-reinforcing chains arise, which can no longer be brought under control. The earth system literally changes by leaps and bounds. A new quality emerges from the quantity of changes. Several such tipping points are under discussion in Earth system research. They are also an important challenge for the IPCC, although they are either difficult or cannot be modelled.[19] 

The greenhouse gas emissions budget has been depleted in the imperialist countries that historically bear primary responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. If the temperature rises a little more, tipping points threaten to be reached, triggering a disastrous momentum and further driving global warming. Such a cascade of mutually reinforcing mechanisms will result in the Earth becoming a hot place, with limited habitability for current human societies and many other species.[20] In addition to global warming, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, land-use change through deforestation, and nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and atmosphere have reached or even exceeded carrying capacity limits.[21] 

However, there is a fundamental contradiction in the IPCC reports. On the one hand, they clearly show that the climate system is changing qualitatively in a jerky manner to such an extent that it is leading the earth and thus also global society into a completely new situation. On the other hand, the authors of the reports assume that the social conditions will continue. They take the capitalist conditions as given. This corresponds to an absurd linear and deterministic understanding of social development. At the same time, the authors of the IPCC reports model the massive use of nuclear energy and CO2 capture and storage technologies as yet not fully developed or that do not even exist. Their use is associated with immeasurable social risks. This is also absurd and an expression of their deterministic understanding of society. Technologies that do not yet exist paradoxically appear to be more realistic than social changes that would “only” overturn power relations and change the social organization of people. Such abrupt social changes or even revolutions have often occurred in history and are therefore more realistic than betting on non-existent technologies.

Global warming and the ruptures in the Earth system in Anthropocene capitalism, like the capitalist world economy, can only be understood in terms of a planetary totality, although these processes permeate that totality spatially and socially in markedly unequal ways. Historically and globally, early industrialized imperialist countries bear the brunt of the blame for global warming. With Anthropocene capitalism, we are entering a phase of uncertainties and instabilities. The dynamics of the Earth system with its tipping points will force abrupt changes on societies. Pandemics, as well as societal catastrophes caused by droughts, floods and hot spells, will reshape political debates.

Nevertheless, the work of many scientific researchers is characterized by an inherent radicality. With their research results, they show that a continuation of the present development will inevitably lead to a countless chain of social catastrophes. They appear in public and warn politicians, corporate management and society of the consequences of their inappropriate actions. Similarly, since the beginning of 2020, virologists, epidemiologists, physicians and physicists have also been warning society of the consequences of failing to break the chains of contagion in the pandemic. Many scientists deduce from their findings that society must act collectively and live and produce differently. The uneasiness of scientists is also reflected in the fact that parts of the draft report of Working Group III of the IPCC were leaked to the media in advance. Unfortunately, many critical social scientists, activists in social movements and socialist parties do a disservice to these scientific findings through ignorance. They do not recognize the potential for developing a common – also scientifically based – critique of capitalist relations because they themselves have subjugated their thinking to capitalist constraints and the supposed stability of the bourgeois order. Nonsensically, they consider capitalist constraints more relevant than natural law relationships.

Not a single government in the world is currently acting appropriately. There is nothing to suggest that the dominant capital factions and their governments will turn the wheel. The constraints of profit and capitalist competition are too powerful. Not even the parties advocating socio-ecological reform have recognized the gravity of the situation. The credibility and legitimacy of rulers and governors must be challenged. Therefore, the climate justice movement urgently needs to develop strategies aimed at building stable counter-power structures. Only on the basis of a comprehensive social counter-power will it be possible to overcome the social foundations of the fossil greenhouse gas economy. The challenge is gigantic: global mass movements must be able to enforce a historically unprecedented transformation and deconstruction of large parts of the productive apparatus of imperialist countries, including China. Such a comprehensive and rapid transformation requires anti-capitalist and socio-ecological structural reforms, which in turn lead to an eco-socialist revolution.[22]

In the next article in the series, I show how the capitalist economic system of domination is evolving in the Anthropocene. Exploring why only a revolutionary perspective is appropriate to the ruptures of the Earth system in Anthropocene capitalism, which I explain further in the fourth article.

[1] OPEC 2021:58, 66, 80f

[2] IPCC 2021: 1-100, 1-104

[3] IPCC 2021: SPM-19

[4] IPCC 2021: TS-39

[5] IPCC 2021: TS-48

[6] Potsdam-Institut für Klimafolgenforschung (2021): Willkommen auf den Meeresspiegel-Seiten des PIK https://www.pik-potsdam.de/sealevel/de/

[7] Climate Central 2021; Earth.Org 2020

[8] IPCC 2021: SPM-14, SPM-28, TS-44, 2-75, 12-95

[9] Caesar, et al. 2021; Boers 2021

[10] IPCC 2021: TS-38, TS-39

[11] Die Tabelle 4.10 erörtert den Kenntnisstand über einige wichtige Kipppunkte (IPCC 2021: 4-96, table 4.10).

[12] IPCC 2021: Kasten 11.2, 9.6.4

[13] Gatti, et al. 2021

[14] Xu, et al. 2020

[15] Die NGO Oxfam hat zu diesem Thema am 3. August 2021 eine lesenswerte Studie vorgelegt. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/tightening-net-implications-net-zero-climate-targets-land-and-food-equity

[16] Dyke, et al. 2021

[17] IEA 2021: 20, 27, 79-80, 107

[18] Siehe hierzu meine beiden Artikel über linke Green New Deal Projekte (Zeller 2021a, 2021b).

[19] Die Tabelle 4.10 erörtert den Kenntnisstand über einige wichtige Kipppunkte (IPCC 2021: 4-96, table 4.10).

[20] Steffen, et al. 2018

[21] Rockström, et al. 2009; Steffen, et al. 2015

[22] Zeller 2020


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Caesar, L.; McCarthy, G. D.; Thornalley, D. J. R.; Cahill, N. und Rahmstorf, S. (2021): Current Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation weakest in last millennium. Nature Geoscience 14 (3) 2021/03/01, S. 118-120. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00699-z

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Dyke, James; Watson, Robert und Knorr, Wolfgang (2021): Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/climate-scientists-concept-of-net-zero-is-a-dangerous-trap-157368

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Rockström, Johan; Steffen, Will; Noone, Kevin; Persson, Åsa; Chapin, F. Stuart, III; Lambin, Eric; Lenton, Timothy M.; Scheffer, Marten; Folke, Carl; Schellnhuber, Hans Joachim; Nykvist, Björn; de Wit, Cynthia A.; Hughes, Terry; van der Leeuw, Sander; Rodhe, Henning; Sörlin, Sverker; Snyder, Peter K.; Costanza, Robert; Svedin, Uno; Falkenmark, Malin; Karlberg, Louise; Corell, Robert W.; Fabry, Victoria J.; Hansen, James; Walker, Brian; Liverman, Diana; Richardson, Katherine; Crutzen, Paul und Foley, Jonathan (2009): Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society 14 (2), S. art32. https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/

Steffen, Will; Richardson, Katherine; Rockström, Johan; Cornell, Sarah E.; Fetzer, Ingo; Bennett, Elena M.; Biggs, Reinette; Carpenter, Stephen R.; de Vries, Wim; de Wit, Cynthia A.; Folke, Carl; Gerten, Dieter; Heinke, Jens; Mace, Georgina M.; Persson, Linn M.; Ramanathan, Veerabhadran; Reyers, Belinda und Sörlin, Sverker (2015): Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347 (6223), S. 1259855. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/347/6223/1259855.full.pdf

Steffen, Will; Rockström, Johan; Richardson, Katherine; Lenton, Timothy M.; Folke, Carl; Liverman, Diana; Summerhayes, Colin P.; Barnosky, Anthony D.; Cornell, Sarah E.; Crucifix, Michel; Donges, Jonathan F.; Fetzer, Ingo; Lade, Steven J.; Scheffer, Marten; Winkelmann, Ricarda und Schellnhuber, Hans Joachim (2018): Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (33), S. 8252-8259. https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/115/33/8252.full.pdf

Xu, Chi; Kohler, Timothy A.; Lenton, Timothy M.; Svenning, Jens-Christian und Scheffer, Marten (2020): Future of the human climate niche. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117 (21), S. 11350-11355. https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/117/21/11350.full.pdf

Zeller, Christian (2020): Revolution für das Klima. Warum wir eine ökosozialistische Alternative brauchen. München: Oekom Verlag, 248 S.

Zeller, Christian (2021a): Green New Deal als Quadratur des Kreises. PROKLA. Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft 51 (1 (202)), S. 31-51

Zeller, Christian (2021b): Linker Green New Deal. Ökonomisch inkonsistent, ökologisch unangemessen. Die Internationale (2/2021). https://inprekorr.de/592-deal.htm

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