Climate change is a ticking time bomb

July 14, 2017
A polar bear tests the strength of the sea ice in the Artic. Photo: Mario Hoppmann

The news that a trillion ton piece of ice just broke off from the Larsen-C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula is a reminder that global warming is real and dangerous.

While climate scientists say this had been expected, they also say it is connected to global warming. As ice shelves help keep land ice in place, when one breaks it allows land ice to slip into the ocean and drastically contribute to sea level rise.

For years climate scientists have been warning that time is fast running out to stop the worst effects of global warming.

The Paris Agreement to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C — sparing the world’s lowest-lying islands from inundation — is virtually impossible now. And in the wake of the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement, a group of prominent climate experts has issued another wake-up call.

One of the report’s authors, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber said: “The maths is brutally clear: while the world can’t be healed within the next few years, it may be fatally wounded by negligence [before] 2020.”

Greenhouse gas pollution has already reached dangerous levels. For the first time in recorded history, carbon dioxide levels have reached 400 parts per million (ppm). NASA climate scientist Dr Michael Gunson said that this milestone should be a “psychological tripwire for everyone”.

This year’s weather has beaten high temperature records in some regions, and 2014, 2015 and 2016 were the hottest years on record.

To stay below 2°C, the atmosphere can only absorb a maximum of 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. Right now, 2795 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide is stored in conventional coal, oil and gas reserves — five times more than the maximum carbon pollution scientists say the earth can handle. The fossil fuel industry is being allowed to access those reserves to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Atmospheric warming is not only rendering previously fertile land uninhabitable, it is melting Arctic ice faster than all the modelling predicted. At current rates of emission increases, scientists predict the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by 2020.

Climate scientists say the tipping point in the Arctic may already have been reached due to the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, previously trapped in permafrost. They say the collapse of much of the West Antarctic ice sheet may now be irreversible and the sea level will rise three metres as a result.

The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is proof of the acceleration of climate change. But its effects are being felt unevenly. Bushfires, droughts, floods and cyclones hit the poor the hardest. Rising sea levels have already swallowed five Pacific islands. Millions have been displaced globally by extreme weather and climate events.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicts that by the middle of this century, coastal flooding, shoreline erosion and agricultural degradation will create 150 million climate refugees worldwide. More than half a billion people are already dealing with climate-change driven food and water crises.

Canadian author Naomi Klein famously said: “Climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about … it’s a civilizational wake-up call … telling us that we need an entirely new economic model.”

Klein is right, the system is broken.

Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus, there is a huge discrepancy between the scale of the crisis and government action. The greedy corporations and the governments that rule for them do not have an “off” switch.

Capitalism’s constant drive for profits cannot be reconciled with Earth’s defined boundaries. Ecological destruction is not a side-effect of capitalism, it is built into the system: there cannot be infinite growth when the planet has finite resources.

While the economic system that privileges a rich few at the expense of the majority continues, corporations will continue to plunder the Earth and commodify society’s natural wealth.

There is no real democracy under capitalism. The vast majority have no say in what, or how, things are produced, or what technologies are supported. A democratic system would involve the majority of people in collectively figuring out how to halt and reverse runaway climate change.

History shows that only those who do not stand to profit from wrecking our land, air and water can be entrusted with such important decisions. We cannot do this under a system that prioritises profits over human needs.

The People’s Agreement from the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia, summed it up neatly: “The capitalist system has imposed … a regime of production and consumption that seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples and life itself.”

Our options are clear: changing the system won’t automatically create an ecologically balanced world but it will make it possible. Only once we remove the systemic barriers to building a sustainable world, will we be able to address the emergency facing us.

[Mia Sanders is a member of the Socialist Alliance National Executive. Socialist Alliance’s climate action plan is here. This article is based on a paper Sanders presented at the Students of Sustainability conference.]

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