World has three years to avert dangerous climate catastrophe
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In the last years of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke against what he called "the triple evils that are interrelated" economic inequality, racism, and militarism. If King were alive today, he'd be talking about the five evils that are interrelated, adding patriarchy and Ecocide, the destruction of livable ecology. He'd also be noting the dangerous rise of a new national and global fascism linked to the presidency of a malignant racist who glories in accelerating humanity's environmental self-destruction while the media obsesses over matters of far slighter relevance.
I was given three questions to answer today. The first question runs as follows: "How have you as a historian mapped the trajectory of Climate Change over time? What do we have to worry about right now?"
Let me say as politely as I can that I don't like the phrase "Climate Change." It's too mild. Try Climate Catastrophe. If a giant oak tree is about to collapse onto your little house, you don't say that you are risk of housing change. You say "holy sh*t we're about to die and we better do something fast."
I haven't really tracked climate change as an historian. I am an urban and labor historian, not an environmental one. The climate issue really started being noticeable to me with the often-forgotten Chicago heat wave of July 1995, when hundreds of people, very disproportionately Black, died.
I rely on climate scientists to crunch the time-series numbers on planetary warming and what they are telling us is not good, to say the least. We are at an oak tree tipping point for the house of humanity. It's the biggest issue of our or any time. As Noam Chomsky told Occupy Boston eight years ago, if the environmental catastrophe led by global warming isn't averted in the next few decades, then nothing else we progressives, egalitarians, and peaceniks care about is going to matter.
In 2008, NASA's James Hansen and seven other leading climate scientists predicted "irreversible ice sheet and species loss" if the planet's average temperature rose above 1° Celsius as they said it would if carbon dioxide's atmospheric presence reached 450 parts per million. CO2 was then at 385 ppm. The only way to be assured of a livable climate, Hansen said, would be to cut CO2 back to 350 ppm.
Here we are 11 years later, well past Hansen's 1°C red line. We've gotten there at 410 ppm, not 450. It's the highest level of CO2 saturation in 800,000 years, 600,000 years before the first fossil evidence of homo sapiens. I recently attended an Extinction Rebellion meeting in which it was reported that 22% of all human industrial-era carbon emissions have taken place since 2009, one year after Hansen issued his warning.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report reflects the consensus opinion of the world's leading climate scientists. It tells us that we are headed to 1.5°C in a dozen years. Failure to dramatically slash carbon emissions between now and 2030 is certain to set off catastrophic developments for hundreds of millions of people, the IPCC warns.
The IPCC finds that we are headed at our current pace to 4°C by the end of century. That will mean a planet that is mostly unlivable. Tipping points of unlivable existence are already being reached by millions in Sub-Saharan Africa, Sub Continental and Southeast Asia, parts of Central America and other regions where climate-driven migration is underway, with significant political consequences.
Numerous Earth scientists find the IPCC report insufficiently alarmist. It omits research demonstrating the likelihood that irreversible climatological "tipping points" like the thawing of the northern methane-rich permafrost could occur within just "a few decades."
We really don't know how quickly the existential threat may unfold. This is an experiment that's never been run. What do we have to worry about? Extinction. Current female life expectancy in the United States is 81 years. A baby girl born this year would in theory turn 81 in 2100, when, at the current Greenhouse Gassing pace, Antarctica will have melted and the Amazonian rain forest will have long ceased to function as the lungs of the planet.
I was also asked by this conference's organizers to discuss "connections between Climate Change, class inequity, and imperialism" and to offer ideas on why "this intersectionality [is] often overlooked." Let me to be as brief as I can because that's a doctoral dissertation or two. Eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster are right about capitalism. It is a system not just of class disparity but of plutocratic and corporate class rule, the rule of the owners and managers of capital. And there are a number of environmental problems with capitalist class rule. The first problem is that the owners and managers of capital don't really care about anything other than the accumulation of capital and profit. They are systemically compelled to commodify anything and everything they can get their hands on. They have always been perfectly content to profit from anything and everything. They cash in on slavery, fascism, mass-incarceration, endless war, and even on turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber, a crime that quite frankly makes the Nazis look like small-time criminals by comparison.
The second problem is that the owners and managers of capital are constantly throwing masses of human beings out of livable wage employment and off of social safety nets and out of common lands and public schools and public housing and the only so-called solution to the mass poverty that results from this constant Enclosure process they've ever been able to offer is the promise of new jobs through ever more expansion and growth, an environmental disaster on numerous levels.
The third problem is that Wall Street and Bond Street and LaSalle Street and the rest of the big financial streets and exchanges have huge fixed and sunken investments in a vast Carbon Industrial Complex. They do not want to see that giant portfolio devalued by homo sapiens choosing to survive by keeping fossil fuels in the ground where they belong.