Extreme weather signals major climate shift

August 3, 2021
Flooding in the Ahr River valley in Germany in July. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Taken together, the extreme weather events of this summer suggest a major shift in climate change has taken place, and is continuing as I write these lines.

First, at least in terms of the mainstream media agenda, there was the extraordinary heat wave that hit western North America from late June through to mid-July. This gripped Northern California, Idaho, Western Nevada, Oregon and Washington in the United States and British Columbia, Alberta, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Yukon in Canada. It produced some of the highest temperatures ever in the region, and the single highest temperature ever recorded in Canada (normally one of the world’s coolest countries) — an astonishing 49.6⁰C.

Inevitably, the extreme heat triggered numerous extensive wildfires, some reaching hundreds of square kilometres in area. One fire destroyed Lytton, the village where the record high temperature was set. Obviously, the heat and fires will have done as yet incalculable damage to crops with far reaching economic consequences, as well as claiming numerous lives, with excess deaths estimated to be well over 600.

Then came the massive flooding in Europe from July 12. The floods seem to have begun in Britain, but then spread with growing intensity eastwards across northern and central Europe. Worst hit were Germany — with at least 177 lives lost — and Belgium — with more than 40. At least €2.55 billion in damage was done to infrastructure.

Both these developments led the so-called “experts” — usually quoted to the effect that individual extreme weather events cannot be connected to climate change — and the media to change their tune, saying that these events would have been “almost impossible” without human-generated climate change. The managing director of RTE News (the Irish state broadcaster) actually apologised for its failure to link extreme weather events to climate change.

But these events are far from the whole story. There has also been major flooding in many areas of China. Because of state censorship we do not have a complete picture of the extent of this, but it includes: Guizhou, where flooding has led to evacuation of 26,000 people and damaged 19,000 houses; Sichuan, where 120,000 people were affected; Shaanxi, where 58,000 had to be evacuated; Inner Mongolia where exceptional rain led to two dams collapsing, destroying bridges and farmland; and — worst of all — Henan province.

In Henan, record-breaking heavy rainfall, including 20cm (7.9 inches) an hour in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, caused devastating flooding, in which at least 99 people died, 1.1 million were evacuated and 9 million affected.

At the same time (27 July), exceptionally heavy rain caused extensive flooding in Maharashtra state in western India, claiming more than 200 lives and many thousands had to be evacuated because of torrential rain in the Philippines.

Earlier this month, People Before Profit member Memet Uludag reported a temperature of 51⁰C (123.8⁰F) in South Eastern Turkey and now Turkey is being ravaged by fires that have claimed four lives.

As I write these lines, the weather forecast for Baghdad is 47–48⁰C (118⁰F) all next week. The point about these temperatures is that they are not far off the limits that the human body can sustain for any length of time, and climate scientists are predicting that there will be more such extreme heat episodes in the years immediately ahead.

Far less calamitous — in terms of its immediate effect on human life (because it is such a sparsely populated area) — but in some ways even more extraordinary, has been the heat wave in northern Russia and eastern Siberia.

In May and June, temperatures in the Arctic Circle were above 30°C and the highest ever June temperature of 34.8⁰C (94.6⁰F) was recorded in Moscow. This is 9.5⁰C (20⁰F) above average. The shores of the Barents Sea, which lies above Murmansk in the Arctic Circle, saw hotter temperatures — up to 30⁰C — than beaches in Italy and the South of France for several days.

Another heat surge has hit the area of the Laptev Sea, also within the Arctic Circle, above Siberia but further to the east. This follows on from last year’s astonishing Siberian heat wave, which included a record-breaking 38⁰C in Verkhoyansk (north-east of the River Lena) and which led to large-scale wildfires.

What makes this so dangerous for the future is that it causes melting of the permafrost (permanently frozen ground), already well under way, thus releasing into the atmosphere billions of tons of methane, an even more deadly greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, thus creating a massive feedback loop.

It was reported on July 14, that the Amazon rainforest, known as the lungs of the planet, has been transformed from a carbon sink (an absorber of carbon dioxide from the air) into a carbon emitter. The Amazon’s emissions amount to a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year, according to a recent study. Most of the emissions are caused by fires, many deliberately set to clear land for beef and soy production. But even without fires, hotter temperatures and droughts mean the south-eastern Amazon has become a source of CO2, rather than a sink.

Even before these latest developments, bioscientists based at Oregon State University were speculating that the planet may already have passed key tipping points. That may be premature, but it would appear that recent events have produced a significant shift in public awareness of the crisis. This awareness needs to be translated into action and developed into a deeper understanding of the causes of the crisis in the nature of the capitalist system.

Several political conclusions follow from this:

  • The large majority of world’s politicians, governments, business leaders and rulers are guilty of complicity in allowing the climate crisis to go this far without seriously attempting to check it. It is not that they didn’t know. The scientific facts and their inevitable social consequences have been known for decades, yet year on year our rulers prevaricated or turned a blind eye. They have committed a great crime against humanity.
  • They did so because they ruthlessly put their careers and greed before the vast majority of the people and wildlife of the planet and because they are in the vice-like grip of the logic of capitalism, which always puts a premium on profit and competitive capital accumulation over human need. This is why system change is a necessity for survival.
  • System change doesn’t mean just a mind shift on the part of governments or businesses or the population. It means a transformation in economic, social and political relations, so that production is brought under collective democratic control and subject to conscious planning. That means a revolution based on people power — mass action on the streets and in workplaces by the mass of working-class people.
  • An important opportunity to take a step in that direction, a step towards the mass international mobilisation we will need, is provided by the international United Nations-sponsored COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on November 1‒12. It is very unlikely that this conference will take serious action. It is much more likely to be a huge exercise in green-washing. However, the occasion of the conference can be used to focus action.
  • Saturday November 6 has been designated as a day for street protests in Glasgow and globally, and Friday November 5 as a day for possible strike action beginning with school students. Ecosocialists and environmental activists everywhere need to be preparing for the maximum possible mobilisations.

[John Molyneux is the coordinator of the Global Ecosocialist Network.]

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