What the New Report Tells Us about Climate Change​

Dianne Feeley

December 19. 2018

The October 2018 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), a UN body made up of scientists, confirmed the need to limit the rise in CO2 to 1.5 degree Celsius. This point, suggested in the Paris Agreement, had been demanded by island countries that faced obliteration with a two-degree rise. In reviewing recent scientific studies scientists concluded that we have a dozen years to cut the use of fossil fuels in half, and reduce them to zero by 2050.

Although alternative energy sources exist, sharply reducing the use of coal, oil, natural gas and methane worldwide is a Herculean task. Yet it is essential if we are to rein in CO2 and prevent nature’s feedback loops that will threaten mass extinction and the collapse of civilization.

Yet many politicians and corporations contemplate allowing CO2 to rise as much as 3.5-4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. They assume that a yet-to-be used carbon capture and storage technology can solve the problem. Their unwillingness to develop and implement an emergency plan demonstrates that if we are to survive, we must find ways of dramatically cutting emissions. This involves educating ourselves and massively confronting these forces.

The truth is that the economic system, based on profit for the few, is detrimental to our health and safety and needs to be replaced. The propaganda of the system promotes growth and consumerism that stand in the way of understanding how humans can survive on earth. Part of building a movement to end the extraction and use of fossil fuels is confronting the ideology of capitalism, and developing a sustainable society.

What Happened?

Scientists explain that for the last 11,000-12,000 years the geology of the earth has had a relatively stable climate and the pace of change was slow enough so that nature’s feedback loops were able to absorb and adapt. They have now concluded this geological era, known as the Holocene, has been replaced by an unstable environment where the rise in climate and the pace of change has overwhelmed nature’s capacity to absorb and adapt. Further, they see human activity is responsible for the dramatic change, dating the new era to the mid-20t​h​ century, hence the new “Anthropocene” era.

While industrialization in the 19​th​ century ushered in the use of coal as an energy source, the post-World War II economy of huge war expenditures and the development of thousands of new chemicals have taken us over the tipping point. We have now passed the one-degree rise in CO2. Just since 2000 carbon dioxide has risen ten times faster than during any sustained rise over the last 800,000 years!

We now see climate change affecting our daily lives. [Here asked members for examples and this what they came up with]:

  • The change in climate means that the yearly cycle of life is off. Some days are warm and flowering trees start sprouting only to have their buds wither when the weather changes.
  • Some areas suffer from drought while others are flooded.
  • We see hurricanes destroying areas of the world with greater intensity than ever before.
  • The massive forest fires that are raging in California are more intense than they have been in the past.
  • The melting of the ice caps has led to the rise in ocean temperatures and the loss of ocean life.
  • The loss of some species is as high as 70%. This includes coral reefs, birds and mammals, who face severe habitat loss.
  • Tens or hundreds of millions of people around the world who can no longer sustain their lives because of drought or rising sea levels and now seek refuge in other countries.

The Reality

We need to understand that even if we were able to halt the use of fossil fuels through an emergency program, the change that has already occurred will persist for centuries.

However these emergency measures would lessen the pressure on feedback loops and give nature—of which we are a part—time to adapt.

What is the difference between a 1.5 degree rise and a two-point one? The IPCC report provides a concrete example. With the lower rise the Arctic Ocean will be ice free only one time per century whereas with a two-point rise it will be once a decade. There will be fewer heat, rain and drought extremes.

Between the two points the planet’s ice sheets become increasingly unstable and increase the potential for greater sea level rise. A lower increase means less risk of habitat loss for many insect, plant and animal species. Climate-related risks, including forest fires and the spread of invasive species, would be less threatening.

Of course, given the attitude of fossil fuel investors and politicians, even stopping at the 2-degree point would be difficult. That would require a 20% reduction by 2030, reaching zero by 2075. However, even this would mean destruction for many people and species.

What Can We Do?

Given the position of the Trump administration and how it has aggressively moved against even the paltry steps to rein in CO2 through vehicle emissions and the Clean Air plan, one might feel discouraged. According to Harvard University researchers these rollbacks may lead, in the United States, to at least 80,000 premature deaths per decade and respiratory problems for a million others. Add to that the failure of most U.S. unions to even recognize the serious problem.

Yet some states and cities, however inadequate their program, have initiated important reforms. These range from curbing emissions to banning plastic bags. It seems to me that at the local and state level there is more opportunity to affect change over the next couple of years.

We need to keep a few principles in mind as we work to curb the extraction, production and transportation of fossil fuels:

  • Promote a “just transition” for the workers in an industry that needs to be shut down or transitioned. Workers should not suffer from the decisions corporate leaders and politicians made. They have the right to a decent and safe environment for themselves at worker and at home. The community also needs a “just transition” as it depends on the economy the fossil fuel industry has built.
  • In moving to an economy that is not based on fossil fuels, we need to be aware that not all people face the exact same problem. The more vulnerable portions of society—whether we are talking about African Americans, immigrants, the indigenous, the marginally employed, those who live on islands or along the coast, children—are in greater danger. In the transition, we want to end the inequality that capitalism demands.
  • We would like to build an anti-capitalist awareness as we work. The broadest public needs to be aware of who are the ones who brought us to the edge of destruction.

It is important to point out that at other times society has faced dire situations. Since I live in Detroit, I’ll mention that the U.S. government ended car manufacturing in order to build war material for the Second World War. While it’s true that politicians and corporate heads see a reason for war that they may not see in curbing climate change, the reality that society can rise to solve problems helps overcome the sense that nothing can be done. Change begins with a minority, but can change the world.