By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Extreme meteorological events during the summer of 2021—hurricanes, floods, drought, unbearably high temperatures, and huge fires—have brought the issue of climate change to the forefront of media and political attention in the United States. This summer, nearly one-third of U.S. residents have lived in a county that was struck by a weather disaster, according to a Washington Post study, and at least 388 people have died from such events. In addition, 64 percent live in an area of this country that experienced a prolonged heat wave.
The New York Times ran an article on Sept. 2 demonstrating how many small towns in the U.S. are losing population and viability due to these disasters. Fair Bluff, N.C., for example, was inundated by four feet of water due to Hurricane Matthew in 2015, and then hit again by Hurricane Florence in 2018. Today, many shops and the high school are all vacant, the only factory in town closed its doors for good, and about half of the former 1000 people who lived there have packed up and left.
“Fair Bluff,” stated The Times, “offers a worrisome glimpse into the future. The increasing frequency of extreme weather has left countless towns, in the U.S. and around the world, vulnerable to both physical devastation and economic insolvency.”
In recent days, a large swath of the eastern United States was subjected to Hurricane Ida, which had previously slammed western Cuba. Accuweather estimated that Ida produced $95 billion worth of damage in the U.S. alone; at least 67 people were killed by the hurricane over eight states.
Warm seas and oceans provide fuel for hurricanes, producing higher wind speeds and higher storm surges. The extremely warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico (about 85 degrees Fahrenheit) turned Ida within one day from a tropical storm—with winds of about 80 miles an hour—to a Category 4 hurricane, with winds of about 150 miles an hour when it hit the Louisiana coast. The impact took place on Aug. 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s strike on New Orleans, which left large sections of the city underwater. Ida produced less of a surge of water than Katrina, but its winds were enough to rip entire buildings off their foundations. Many people did not have the resources to evacuate the areas targeted by the hurricane; Louisiana hospitals, overcrowded with some 2400 COVID patients, did not have enough beds to accommodate evacuated patients.
Over a million people lost electrical power in Louisiana. Sewage-pumping facilities in New Orleans also lost power, leaving over 440,000 people without clean drinking water or water to flush toilets. In the wake of the hurricane, huge oil slicks from ruptured pipelines formed both in the Mississippi River and in the Gulf.
People from some New Orleans neighborhoods appropriated food and other commodities from supermarkets and often shared them among hurricane victims who were hungry and had lost their homes and belongings. In some cases, shop and restaurant owners participated in the free distribution of food, noting that without electricity it would spoil anyway. The situation was not helped when the mayor of New Orleans called a curfew over the city and authorized a special police patrol to stop “looting.”
As the remnants of Ida proceeded up the East Coast of the United States, unusually hot temperatures added to the moisture content of the storm, which produced heavier rains. The Schuylkill River at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia rose to 16.28 feet (flood stage is nine feet) in what some called a “once in a century event.” A contributing factor was the suburban sprawl that has paved over miles of upriver farmland and woods in recent years; run-off from the new housing and commercial developments helped to swell the creeks that feed into the Schuylkill. In the city, dozens of antiquated sewage and storm-water pipes overflowed, spewing sewage directly into the waterways and into flooded streets and basements. Some 400 homes were ruined in southeastern Pennsylvania alone.
Drought and fire in the West
Some 90% of the Far Western United States is in the grips of an historic drought this year—over half of the region is considered to be in an “extreme” or even “exceptional” drought. Unusually dry conditions extend eastward into the Plains states, from Texas up to the Dakotas. Because of climate change, periods between rains have lengthened, while the snowpack in the mountains—a major water source—has diminished. This year’s drought is an extension and deepening of the general drought that has affected much of the region for the past two decades, with just a handful of wet years (i.e., 2019) within that span.
Agricultural lands are competing for water with fast growing cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, which continue their relentless sprawl into the desert. In the meantime, the main source of water for the region, the Colorado River and its reservoirs, continues to shrink, while the underground water table gets ever lower as people empty the wells.
The results of the Western U.S. drought are liable to produce shortages or higher prices for agricultural products in the rest of the nation. Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, the second poorest region in the nation, were advised by state authorities not to plant crops. Water for agriculture is being severely rationed in the Klamath Valley in order to try to provide enough for spawning salmon stocks. Thousands of farmers in California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin river valleys—the major region for commercial crops in the country—are letting fields go fallow as they deal with reductions or complete cuts in irrigation water (some are taking the option of drawing more groundwater from wells).
The drought-ravaged forests and meadows provided tinder for fires throughout a large section of the western United States. The massive Bootleg fire in Oregon began July 6 and is not expected to be extinguished until some time in October.In California, 12 giant fires were still burning in California in early September; the total burnt acreage in the state (over 2 million acres) is slightly less than in 2020, the record year, but the fire season is not yet over. The largest conflagration, the Dixie fire, has burned for over a month; its perimeter spans a distance of 800 miles—the distance between New York and Chicago. Smoke and particulate matter from these fires entered the jet stream and carried thousands of miles away to the East Coast, where it formed a smoggy haze.
Scientific findings on the severity of climate change
Just as the horrible effects of climate change have become more palpable, science is steadily gaining increased understanding of the nature of the phenomenon and what it might produce in the future. Findings on the question were made public this year in scientific reports such as that of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report concludes, for example:
• The global ocean has warmed faster over the past century than at any time since the last deglacial transition, 11,000 years ago.
• Global mean sea level has risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in the last 3000 years.
• Human influence has warmed the climate at a faster rate since 1970 than at any other 50-year time period in at least the last 2000 years.
• In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years.
Likely scenarios for the future in the IPCC report are quite ominous. They include:
• At this point, the world is locked into at least 30 years of worsening impacts of climate change. The Paris target of 1.5 degrees rise since the beginning of the industrial age will probably be exceeded. They project a rise of 1.6 degrees between 2041 and 2060, as long as certain radical measures are taken by the world’s governments. Otherwise, the warming will be much worse.
• Ocean warming during the remainder of the century is likely to be two to four times greater than between 1971 and 2018. It will take millennia to reverse the deleterious effects on marine life.
A week after the IPCC report was published, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its “State of the Climate in 2020” report. The NOAA’s observations corroborate and enhance the IPCC’s findings:
• Average global temperatures in 2020 were among the hottest for any year. The Arctic continued to warm faster than lower latitudes; the minimum sea ice was the second smallest in 42 years of record keeping.
• Average sea levels in 2020 were the highest in recorded history, rising for the ninth year in a row to about 3.6 inches higher than the 1993 average. This was a result of melting glaciers and ice sheets and the expansion of warmer waters.
• Burning forests and grasslands poured over 1.7 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. There were 102 named tropical storms, well above the 1981-2010 average of 85 for each yearly storm season.
• The average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in 2020 was 412.5 parts per million, about 2.5 ppm above the 2019 average. No ice cores going back 800,000 years contain so much of the gas.
The response in ruling-class circles
It was not easy for the media and governments to ignore the damage from climate-driven weather events this year and the many billions of dollars that must be spent for recovery. Nor were they able to turn their backs on the statistics and conclusions of the IPCC report and similar scientific studies that were made public. Corporate capitalism and its supporters have increasingly seen the need to respond. On the one hand, many ruling-class politicians as well as the more savvy corporations have upped their “greenwashing” tactics. On the other hand, the climate-denying troglodytes have also seen the need to change their tactics to a certain degree.
One of the new ploys of the deniers is to grudgingly admit that climate change might exist, while declaring that its damaging effects are far overstated by “liberals” who act to undercut the growth of business. Some deniers have launched charges that scientists who have dared to express “certainty” of the effects that human beings have had on the climate are actually betraying the scientific process. The deniers say that this cuts off the opportunities for critical thought and discussion, as well as the process of discovery and experimentation! It should be obvious, however, that the discourse of the climate deniers is not meant to open up discussion but to clamp down on it.
Nevertheless, this attack on modern climate science has had a hearing in the mass media. A new book taking this point of view, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Doesn’t Tell Us,” by Steven Koonin, a former undersecretary in the Dept. of Energy in the Obama administration, was published in May 2021. It received favorable reviews in the conservative press, including The Wall Street Journal, although other publications, like Scientific American, have pointed out some of the many mistruths in the book. George Will, a conservative syndicated columnist, quoted from Koonin’s book soon after its publication to prove his thesis that climate change is a recurring natural phenomenon that has taken place over the eons and that it is hardly the “existential threat” that proponents of the “theory” of climate change claim it is.
On the other side of the very narrow bourgeois political spectrum, Biden toured hurricane-battered Louisiana dressed in work clothes. “I know you’re hurting,” he told residents and used the occasion to call for greater public resolve to combat climate change. A week later, he toured sections of New Jersey and New York that had been hit by Ida. The president said there that the United States is facing a “code red” danger from climate change and that time is running short to act to keep it from getting much worse.
But just how far is Biden willing to go to have some chance of seriously mitigating the effects of climate change? Right from the start, the Biden administration and the Democratic Party rejected the reformist rhetoric of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other politicians for a “Green New Deal.” To those who dominate the party, even the moderate proposals of the GND went too far.
During his election campaign, Biden made clear, “I’m not banning fracking,” though he allowed that he might try to move gradually away from it some day. In fact, since he took office, the White House has approved some 2000 permits for drilling and fracking on federal land, while permitting the environmentally damaging Line 3 pipeline to proceed. Recently, the Interior Department, responding to an order by a Louisiana judge, announced it would hold a sale of 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling.
The White House has cut in half the amount of money they originally claimed they would ask Congress to appropriate to deal with climate-associated problems. The pending bill, which might never get passed by Congress, includes vague proposals such as a “clean energy payment program.” Billions in subsidies are going to burning hydrogen (derived from fracking methane gas) and carbon-capture projects, which U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Ganholm states approvingly could act to increase fossil-fuel production.
The signature climate measure of the Biden administration is to convince the auto companies to step up the production of electric cars—which currently entails the use of environmentally destructive mining practices to obtain the minerals used in batteries. Lately, schemes have been put forward to mine mineral-laden stones from the ocean floor, although the process might have dangerous environmental consequences, including disturbing deep-sea microorganisms, which could hinder the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide.
A huge expansion of mass public transportation, especially rail, would be the main way to get cars and trucks off the road. While transit would receive additional funding within the 3.5 trillion budget deal that Democrats hope to get through Congress, it is not nearly enough for what needs to be accomplished, and appropriates almost nothing for upkeep. In other words, transit systems might be able to build a few more rail or bus lines, but lack the funds to maintain them.
The Biden administration’s stated overall goal is to bring the U.S. to “net-zero” levels of greenhouse emissions by 2050. This would mean that the country could continue to extract and burn fossil fuels, though their use would gradually tail off. Emissions would allegedly be offset by programs and techniques such as carbon trading, carbon capture, burning hydrogen or biomass, etc. This array of weak, unworkable, or even harmful reforms put forward by the Democrats as ways to offset carbon emissions are based on a major fallacy—that the advance of climate change can be significantly set back while capitalist profits, including those of Big Oil, are boosted in the process.
It is pointless to expect the capitalist system to take the major steps that would effectively deal with the problem of climate change and mitigate its worst dangers in the future. As Marx wrote, the historical mission of the bourgeoisie is “accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake … production on a constantly increasing scale.” This fact nullifies any significant effort by the capitalist class to take measures to conserve the earth’s resources. Moreover, the drive for private profit within the capitalist market system, with one bloc of capital constantly striving to out-perform competing blocs of capital, one imperialist country constantly jockeying against another imperialist country, precludes any system of rational planning that would produce goods solely to fulfill human needs.
Build a movement for mass action!
The fact remains, however, that under pressure by the mass movement, the government and employers can be forced to give important and even crucial concessions. For that reason, it is necessary to mobilize millions of people in mass action in the streets to confront the governmental and corporate purveyors of climate change with hard demands and the strength of our numbers.
This is not the time to seek compromises with the government or with Big Oil. The world no longer has time for delays or weak measures that are gauged according to whether they might generate profits for the capitalists in the future. We are facing a worldwide environmental emergency, and measures to combat it must be implemented quickly. Scientists say that in order to limit global warming to no more than a 1.5C increase over pre-industrial levels (a goal that many think is itself too high), it would be necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 50% of 2010 levels by the end of this decade.
While many of the damaging effects of climate change are already “locked in” and cannot be reversed for perhaps hundreds of years, concerted emergency action can help the world avoid far worse effects—especially those of the type that will ensue if some environmental feedback loops are activated.
Building a powerful movement geared to mass action requires the construction of democratic coalitions on the local, national, and international level, in which the voices of all the victims of climate change can heard, and where the demands and tactics of protest actions can be fully discussed and decided. An essential tool in this process are regional conferences, in which the environmental movement can interact with organizations of workers, community groups, and oppressed people to build a united coalition of struggle.
Building such coalitions necessitates a strong organizational push from environmental, antiwar, and racial justice groups, and all other organizations devoted to progressive social change. At the same time, the mass-action coalitions, by necessity, must stay independent of the campaigns of the Democratic and Republican parties. The two major capitalist parties would only seek to compromise the movement’s goals, short-circuit the drive for mass action, and turn its organizing efforts into support for their electoral campaigns.
It will be essential that the trade unions give muscle to this movement, mobilizing their members and the entire working class in the effort. Ultimately, it will be the working class and its allies—those who suffer the most from climate change and environmental degradation—who will take charge of restructuring the economy for human needs instead of profits, and of building a fully democratic and sustainable society.
There are indications that some sections of the U.S. labor movement are willing to act on this crucial question. Following the onslaught of Hurricane Ida on the Louisiana coast, UNITE HERE issued a statement in solidarity with working people who were victims of the disaster. The statement said in part: “Climate justice is an economic and racial justice issue, and as a labor movement we know how to bring people together in moments of crisis, and we know how to build a movement that can accomplish extraordinary change and overcome enormous obstacles. UNITE HERE is working quickly on the frontlines of the disaster spread across the Gulf Coast, supporting families in need as our Union has done throughout the pandemic. Together we will get through this—and together we must act—not just to provide relief but to tackle the underlying causes of climate change that put people at the economic margins worldwide in the greatest jeopardy.”
The climate movement in this country and abroad will have an opportunity to gear up for action in protest demonstrations in the weeks leading up to the COP21 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. The movement must stress the need to bring the use of fossil fuels to a rapid halt.
Looking ahead, the United States must be rebuilt to deal with climate change. Socialist Resurgence believes that the oil industry should be nationalized and placed under the control of the working class in order to convert it for the production of sustainable energy sources. The U.S. also needs an emergency program of public works in order to construct a huge and accessible system of mass transit; to upgrade and expand the electrical grid and fresh water and sewage facilities; and to build sustainable housing for all as well as hospitals, schools, child-care centers, etc. We need to reverse suburban sprawl and close down the factory farms that pollute the land and water—replacing them with a restored natural landscape and waterways, and land for ecologically sound farming. All this and more will provide tens of millions of jobs at union wages. The U.S. can pay for these programs by redirecting all the funds that now go to the military budget and converting military production to production for human needs. Close all U.S. military bases around the world and end the predatory actions of U.S. imperialism abroad!
All of the above items need to be carried out in conjunction with a national plan and with international coordination to fulfill the needs of human beings and all life on earth. This requires building a new social system on a world basis that is democratically run for and by working people; such a system would no longer function according to the dictates of the capitalist class and their insatiable quest for private profit.
Working people in the United States should form a party with those objectives in its sights—an action-oriented workers’ party with a clear program for socialist revolution. The road ahead will not be easy; there is little doubt that the capitalist class will resist any efforts to supplant their rule. But our efforts will be well rewarded, as climate change puts at risk the survival of life itself.
Photo: A house in New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Ida. (Michael deMocker / USA Today)