If not now, then when should we start panicking?
First published by Morning Star – Wednesday 6th November 2019, then published by CounterPunch – Friday 15th November 2019
One of the key research facilities leading the discussion on the climate crisis and arguably a major plank underpinning the Extinction Rebellion[i] mindset is the work being done by the team at the National Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne Australia[ii]. Over the last few years they have been analysing a lot of the leading climate research and issuing reports based on their meta-analyses of these studies.
While their reports don’t make for pleasant reading, they do instil their reader with an understanding of what it is we are all facing, in what sort of time frame we are facing it, and why business-as-usual just won’t solve the problem.
For instance, amongst the various criticisms of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report allegations were made of it having “systematically and grossly underestimated the risks” facing humanity. One of the foundations for this criticism was the allegation that the IPCC framed the likelihood of an outcome occurring as “unlikely” if it falls outside of the central 67% probability distribution. This didn’t take into consideration what are referred to as high consequence low probability outcomes in the other 33%[iii].
So, if I order a sandwich in a coffee shop and there is a 33% chance that the bread will be a little stale, that would be a low consequence low probability outcome. However if I order that same sandwich without knowing that there is a 5% chance that it will kill me, my family, and everyone I know, that is what would be considered a very high consequence low probability outcome. For me the first is an outcome that is probably not worth mentioning, the second however I would definitely want to know about.
One of the difficulties facing the IPCC is that part of their methodology is to reach a consensus, which as we can see means that reports that are more conservative in tone will avoiding drawing attention to ‘unlikely’ possibilities, however serious they maybe.
The problem is, as we now know, overly cautious science only emboldens neo-liberal politicians who are actively pursuing their ‘business-as-usual’ strategies on behalf of the carbon-capitalists. At the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, in response to the cautious tone of the IPCC, the world’s political leadership agreed that they would try very hard to hold the average global temperature increase to below 2°C, or at least to below 1.5°C.
But amidst all the fanfare and back-slapping there were experts at the time pointing out the fundamental flaws in this thinking. Many believed that the agreed upon course of action would not achieve the targets that they claimed it would. It was argued that their plans were more likely to result in a 3-5°C increase in the average global temperature. And even if they did achieve the target of 1.5-2°C, that wouldn’t be enough to stop certain climate processes from crossing the safe thresholds into irreversible trajectories anyway. They argued that in order to avoid triggering these feedback loops temperature increase would have to be kept to below 0.5C[iv].
A more recent example of the sort of self-reinforcing feedback loops that we have been warned about was the fires tearing through the Amazon rainforest this year. When the first spark caught, increased temperatures had already dried out large areas of the forests, which increased the scope and severity of the forest fires, which released the CO2 already stored in the trees and reduced the number of trees that would be able to store future C02, which increased the CO2 in the atmosphere, and in turn has increased the temperature, making more forest fires likely. Bringing us back to the beginning of the circle, in an even worse position than we were before. A self-reinforcing feedback loop[v].
It is easy to lose sight of what the implications of an increase of a few degrees in the global average temperature actually means. As early as 2011, leading climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson warned that if global temperatures were to rise by between 4-6°C, then it is likely that by 2050 we could be facing a climate-related death toll in the region of 8.5 billion people out of a total population of 9 billion. He went on to argue that temperature rises of this kind are quite feasible when you start factoring these sorts of feedback loops into the predictions[vi]. And it is not just humanity. The IPCC’s own studies argue that an increase of only 4°C will lead to the extinction of between 40-70% of all plant and animal species on earth[vii].
This mass extinction level event, according to leading climatologists, falls clearly into the realm of possibility even if the Paris measures are taken. And our politicians are ignoring the advice of these experts and instead gambling with all of our futures. And for their supporters that believe that their 4X4s, overseas second homes, frequent flyer business miles, offshore accounts and long-haul holidays in half-term will give them a free access pass to the surviving 5%, they really need to think about what sort of world will be waiting for them.
One of the more interesting groups to report on the potential impacts of the climate crisis is a highly influential US military think tank called the CNA Military Advisory Board. It is made up of retired three- and four-star officers from the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. In 2014 they issued a report that summarised the fallacy of thinking that a global climate crisis would respect international borders and regional relationships[viii].
One key problem that the CNA MAB report highlighted was the impact of a decrease in the availability of fresh water, and the knock-on effect this would have on the availability of food and energy, which in turn would increase tensions and conflict both nationally and internationally[ix].
Currently around 1.8 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water, and just under 2 billion don’t have access to sanitation. This is only set to get worse, with some estimating that within the next ten years there will be a 40% deficit between how much fresh water is needed and how much will be available. A report issued by the US National Intelligence Council in 2017 argued that based on current trends, over 30 countries would be experiencing a water supply deficit by 2035[x].
We have known about the implications of these trends for over a decade. In 2007, two different national security think-tanks in the US were arguing that even an increase of only 3°C and a 0.5 metre rise in sea levels would lead to “outright chaos” and an increased threat of nuclear war[xi]. Many of the governments facing water scarcity among their populations are already in armed conflicts, while maintaining nuclear arsenals. The European Parliament has issued briefing documents of the role water plays in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict[xii]. And in India and Pakistan control and access of certain fresh water sources has arguably been one of the key flash-points now for decades[xiii].
And it is not just between nation states. It has been argued that one of the many triggers for the Arab Spring was the food riots that occurred after the sudden and sharp increase in the price of bread in Egypt. At the time 30% of household budgets were already being spent on food. The rise in the price of bread across the Middle East came about because of an increase in the price of wheat on the global markets, which in turn was triggered by the 2010 heatwave and wildfires in Russia and Ukraine, and the winter drought in China[xiv].
Part of the reason that it is so difficult to accurately predict how catastrophic and immediate a disaster the human race is facing is because of the desperate complexity of our relationship with the planet. However clever and superior we think we are, the truth is that we are actually a very small malfunctioning cog in a very big machine. For instance, compound the civil and international tensions caused by a massive decrease in the availability of food, fresh water and energy, with a mass-migration the like of which the world has never witnessed and things are likely to unravel very quickly.
One of the most obvious and large-scale predictable climate events will be rising sea-levels, caused by the expansion of water as it heats up and the melting of the polar ice caps. Increased sea-levels and violent storm swells will cause more severe and regular coastal flooding. And because many of our major cities and urban areas are built along coast lines, this flooding will displace hundreds of millions of people. The IPCC estimates that just under 10% of the global population live under 10 metres above the current sea level[xv].
We are now seeing large sections of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) beginning to show signs of breaking up and melting into the sea. When this occurs, it will release up to two million cubic kilometres of melted ice, raising global sea levels by between 3-5 metres. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), although more stable, is far larger and could raise sea levels by up to 50 metres. Scientists currently studying the EAIS are beginning to report similar patterns as they have previously witnessed in the WAIS. These are just two of the irreversible thresholds that the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative warned of in 2015 in response to the Paris agreement[xvi].
And as grim as this sounds, the fact is that governments are preparing, albeit half-heartedly, for these exacts sorts of outcomes. It was reported in 2016 that the Indian and Bangladeshi governments were formulating plans on the basis that a 1 metre rise in sea-level will flood 20% of Bangladesh, thereby displacing in the region of 30 million people. Coincidentally, the Indian government has been building a fence along the border with Bangladesh that is nearing completion and is supposedly being patrolled by 80,000 troops[xvii].
That same 1 metre rise in sea-level is likely to flood 50% of the Mekong delta, 25% of the Nile delta,[xviii] large sections of Florida, Singapore, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Santo Domingo, Panama City, Algiers, Djibouti, Tunis, Bangkok and several Pacific Island nations. A 5 metre rise would also take out most of Washington D.C., Nassau, Jakarta, Colombo and Havana[xix]. But it is not just a rising sea-level that we are facing.
China is a perfect example of how climate change combines multiple threats. While it has been estimated that the fast-growing coastal mega-cities in China are putting 145 million people in the direct path of the rising sea levels[xx], large sections of inland China have already experienced devastating, sustained and widespread droughts. 24,000 villages have been overrun by the desert and abandoned in the last five decades and the Gobi desert is fast encroaching on Beijing, with many of the displaced fleeing to the safety of the growing coastal cities. Now 300 million Chinese don’t have access to safe drinking water, and with 20% of the global population and only 7% of the accessible fresh water, the situation is only set to get worse. The World Bank has warned of ‘catastrophic consequences’ stemming from China’s water crisis[xxi].
But there are solutions. In 2014 the Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) put together and issued a report entitled One Million Climate Jobs. This was a collaboration between the CACC Trade Union Group, 8 major trade unions, 7 universities and several climate activists groups. The overarching rationale was that while we can all make changes to our own behaviour that will help, to change the path that the entire nation is on will take an organised nationwide response.
Much like the post-war rebuilding plan that brought into existence the NHS, the CACC plan to build a National Climate Service estimated that it would employ 1 million people directly, increase employment in the supply chain by a further 0.5 million people and decrease CO2 emissions in the UK by 86% in just two decades[xxii].
The core of the plan is to course correct the entire economy away from high carbon dependency to a low-to-zero carbon sustainability. This would be done by transitioning the energy sector away from fossil fuels and over to wind, solar, wave and tidal, to insulate and retrofit all existing buildings to better conserve and use energy, and to shift transportation to a public system powered by renewable energy. The report estimates the total cost of doing this at around £66 billion[xxiii].
However, by only socialising the production and not the consumption, this would generate an income stream from energy bills and tickets on public transport of an estimated £25 billion. In addition to which, employing 1.5 million people will generate another £21.5 billion in taxes raised and benefits saved. So the net cost to the UK exchequer would be around £19 billion[xxiv].
This is not a huge amount when one considers that in the UK alone it is estimated that legal tax avoidance withholds around £25 billion per year from the exchequer, while illegal tax evasion is withholding around £74 billion per year[xxv].
If we had a government that was willing to make the super rich and the multinationals pay their fair share, this plan would not only be achievable but would be the first steps to insuring that there will be a future for us and generations to come.
So the real question isn’t why is Extinction Rebellion in such panic. The real question is why aren’t the rest of us?
iii Spratt, D. &Dunlop, I. – What Lies Beneath. 2017 – p10, 11
iv Dunlop, I. & Spratt, D. – Disaster Alley: change conflict & risk, 2017 – p21
v Spratt, D. &Dunlop, I. – What Lies Beneath. 2017 – p13
vi Dunlop, I. & Spratt, D. – Disaster Alley: change conflict & risk, 2017 – p5
vii Mann, M.E. &Kump, L.R. – Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition, 2015 – p131
viii Dunlop, I. & Spratt, D. – Disaster Alley: change conflict & risk, 2017 – p9,
ix Dunlop, I. & Spratt, D. – Disaster Alley: change conflict & risk, 2017 – p10
x Dunlop, I. & Spratt, D. – Disaster Alley: change conflict & risk, 2017 – p10, 11
xi Spratt, D. &Dunlop, I. – What Lies Beneath. 2017 – p13
xiv Dunlop, I. & Spratt, D. – Disaster Alley: change conflict & risk, 2017 – p8
xv Mann, M.E. &Kump, L.R. – Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition, 2015 – p122
xvi Spratt, D. – Antarctic Tipping Points for a Multi-Metre Sea Level Rise, 2017 – p2, 10
xvii Dunlop, I. & Spratt, D. – Disaster Alley: change conflict & risk, 2017 – p9
xviii Spratt, D. – Antarctic Tipping Points for a Multi-Metre Sea Level Rise, 2017 – p2, 10
xxi Dunlop, I. & Spratt, D. – Disaster Alley: change conflict & risk, 2017 – p11
xxii Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group – One Million Climate jobs, 2014 – p4
xxiii Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group – One Million Climate jobs, 2014 – p9
xxiv Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group – One Million Climate jobs, 2014 – p10
xxv Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group – One Million Climate jobs, 2014 – p10