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Global warming: Who's to blame?

June 1, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

NICOLE COLSON looks at the facts about the devastating consequences of global warming--and explains why a system that puts profits before all else is to blame.

IT'S NO secret that the wealth of available scientific evidence shows man-made global warming exists.

But recent studies suggest climate change may be happening at an even quicker pace than previously thought--and the consequences are already proving devastating for the environment and for huge numbers of people across the globe.

According to reports issued in February and April by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body consisting of more than 2,500 of the world's leading climate scientists, global warming is "unequivocal," with the current concentration of carbon dioxide and methane--two important heat-trapping gases--in the atmosphere exceeding "by far the natural range over the last 650,000 years."

In its most recent report, the IPCC notes that 11 of the last 12 years ranked among the 12 hottest years globally since 1850, when sufficient worldwide temperature measurements began. Over the past 50 years, "cold days, cold nights and frost have become less frequent, while hot days, hot nights, and heat waves have become more frequent."

What else to read

For more on the facts about global warming and its causes, see the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Warming program on its Web site.

For a left commentary on the latest findings of the IPCC, see "Is the New UN Global Warming Report Too Conservative?" by Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster. Lance Newman's "Year of Unnatural Disasters" in a recent International Socialist Review provides another perspective on the issue.

Jeffrey St. Clair's writing on environmental issues and politics appears regularly on the CounterPunch Web site.

Among his many books are Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature, A Pocket Guide to Environmental Bad Guys (with James Ridgeway) and Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War On Terror.

 

The IPCC cites evidence of increasingly severe weather patterns already caused by global warming, including an increase in the intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic over the past 30 years; drier conditions in the Sahel (the boundary zone between the Sahara desert and more fertile regions of Africa to the south), the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia since 1900; and longer and more intense droughts since 1970.

Global biodiversity is being severely impacted as well. An estimated 150 species of plants and animals already disappear each day due to climate change, and an increase of just 2 degrees Fahrenheit could mean "up to 30 percent of the species at increasing risk of extinction," according to the IPCC.

Glacier mass and snow cover have declined, as has ice in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas. Ocean temperatures and sea levels have risen.

Warming and related changes in monsoon and trade winds have triggered an alarming retreat of Himalayan glaciers. Given their current rate of shrinkage, the IPCC predicts that Himalayan glaciers could be gone by the year 2035. Currently, glacial runoff in the Himalayas is the largest source of freshwater for northern India. Half a billion people in the Himalaya-Hindu-Kush region and a quarter billion downstream will face the impact.

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EVEN CONSERVATIVE estimates of the likely consequences of continued global warming read like a doomsday scenario for much of the planet's population.

As NASA researcher James Hansen wrote in the New York Times last year, "We have at most 10 years--not 10 years to decide upon action, but 10 years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions"--or else catastrophic change could be inevitable.

The world's poor will bear the brunt of the climate crisis. As many as 250 million people in Africa alone will have increased "water stress" by 2020, according to IPCC data. Climate change will put an additional 50 million people at risk of hunger by 2020--rising to an additional 132 million and 266 million by 2050 and 2080, respectively.

Crop yields could decrease by up to 30 percent in Central and South Asia by 2050, while rain-dependent agriculture could drop by 50 percent in some African countries by 2020.

"Many millions" living in coastal and low-lying areas will be threatened by rising sea levels. According to a recent report by the British charity Christian Aid, an estimated 1 billion people across the planet could be displaced by the effects of global warming by 2050--including an estimated 250 million forced from their homes because of floods, droughts or famine.

"It is the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit," IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri warned journalists in April. "People who are poor are least able to adapt to climate change."

That includes people like Lakhan Bibi, leader of the indigenous Kailashi people of the Hindu Kush Mountains in northern Pakistan. At a recent news conference called by the UN, Bibi told Inter Press Service that her people are already seeing drastic changes. "We had never seen before what are seeing now," Bibi said. "Our herds are running away. Our homes are getting buried in huge glaciers."

In North America, the village of Newtok in Alaska, once built on stable permafrost, is now literally sinking into the mud, as warming air and ocean temperatures have caused the permafrost to melt.

An impoverished community of the Native American Yupik tribe, Newtok is home to 315 residents. Their houses and boardwalks are now sinking into the mud, while the village itself has been literally turned into an island due to rising waters.

Though there are tentative plans to relocate the village, Newtok leaders say the federal government has been slow to come up with the money. The Bush administration has set aside just $1 million in funds--but cost to move Newtok alone (not to mention the dozens of other villages facing similar problems) will be an estimated $130 million.

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EVERY CREDIBLE report indicates that only drastic action will be able to mitigate the more severe future consequences of global warming.

But many environmentalists point to individual solutions--encouraging people (particularly those in advanced industrial nations) to drive and consume less, use energy-efficient light bulbs and recycle, for example--that will have little impact.

The driving factor behind global warming is the system of modern capitalism, dominated by wealthy nations and companies that rely on the use of fossil fuels, and therefore have a stake in ensuring that environmental considerations don't cut into their profits or access to markets.

The Bush administration is a prime example. With strong ties to powerful oil and energy companies, the administration not only allowed the energy industry to literally write many of its environmental policies, but has consistently attempted to block or water down international assessments of global warming.

Thus, working behind the scene, the U.S. succeeded in downplaying estimates in the most recent IPCC report of how many people will suffer food and water shortages because of global warming.

And though new targets on reducing emissions were to be discussed at June's G-8 summit of world leaders, Greenpeace recently leaked a document from an unnamed U.S. official showing that the Bush administration plans to reject any action which would impose mandatory cuts in emissions--no matter how minimal.

Such disregard for the environment is the norm in a system that puts profits over human life.

As environmentalist John Bellamy Foster noted in Monthly Review, under capitalism, "the natural world is seen as a mere instrument of world social domination. Hence, capital by its very logic imposes what is in effect a scorched-earth strategy. The planetary ecological crisis is increasingly all-encompassing, a product of the destructive uncontrollability of a rapidly globalizing capitalist economy, which knows no law other than its own drive to exponential expansion."

Take, for example, recent Greenpeace revelations that international logging companies have been stripping huge areas of the world's second-largest rainforest--centered in the Democratic Republic of Congo--in return for minimal taxes and gifts of salt, sugar and tools to indigenous tribes.

According to the Britain's Guardian newspaper, the Greenpeace report shows that more than 20 companies, mainly from Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Singapore and the U.S., have signed more than 150 contracts.

If all the forests identified for logging are felled, an important natural "carbon sink" would be eliminated, and an additional 34 billion tons of carbon would be released into the atmosphere by 2050--the same amount that Britain has emitted in the past 60 years.

But that means little to the timber companies, which used all kinds of methods to get their contracts.

In the village of Lamoko, on the Maringa river, for example, representatives of a major timber firm secured the "rights" to log thousands of hectares of forests for the next 25 years--in exchange for building the local village a few schools and pharmacies, and giving the village chief 20 sacks of sugar, 200 bags of salt, some machetes and a few hoes.

The cost to the company? Approximately $20,000--in return for the right to log exotic trees that can sell for as much as $8,000 each for the next 25 years.

While logging operations have been going since February 2005, the villagers have yet to see their schools and pharmacies. "We asked them to provide wood for our coffins and they even refused that," one local man told the Guardian.

As such stories illustrate, the lack of substantial action on climate change is not simply a case of "political inertia," as Bellamy Foster points out. Rather, it is the logic of capitalism, which must continually expand in the drive for profit.

"Capitalism is by its very nature an unceasing treadmill of production," Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark noted on the MR Zine Web site. "There is no conceivable alternative scenario within such a runaway-train system that leads toward a sustainable relation to the environment, much less a just society. What is needed is nothing less than a worldwide revolution in our relation to nature, and thus of global society itself."

In any rational society, the threat of global warming would have gotten attention a long time ago, with every possible resource devoted to measures to slow climate change and alleviate its effects. But under capitalism, greed and profits come first--even at the risk of far-reaching global devastation.

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