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Global warming: is it (or will it soon be) too late?

On 28 February, a sizeable chunk (400 square kilometers) of the Antarctic ice sheet toppled into the sea. This was just the latest sign that the planet is heating up more rapidly than the quasi-official forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have led us to expect.

Why does reality outpace prediction?

For one thing, scientists are trained to be cautious. Most are reluctant to “speculate” – meaning to think a possibility through to its logical end result. They are especially reticent when addressing a broad public. Those who occupy positions in or close to government are under pressure to avoid “alarmism” and be “politically realistic.” To preserve a modicum of influence on the ruling class they must maintain an impression of respectable complacency.

It is, of course, extremely difficult to form an adequate understanding of such a complex interactive system as the global climate. Scientists rely on computerised forecasting models to simulate such systems. But such models can only incorporate factors that are already well understood and not subject to excessive uncertainty. There is an inevitable lag, often a lengthy one, between the discovery of a new danger or feedback mechanism and its adequate representation in the models.

Continuous and abrupt change

Thus, the usual prediction for rise in sea level by 2100 is a little under one metre. We can cope with that, surely! But the only factor that it takes into account is thermal expansion, which is fairly easy to calculate. The big rise that will inundate coastal cities and vast lowland areas is that which will follow collapse of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, but no one knows when it will occur.

Standard mathematical models are designed to analyse continuous, relatively gradual change. The greatest dangers, however, are posed by abrupt changes that give further sudden impetus to climate change. The collapse of ice sheets is one example. Another likely near-term event of this kind is a conflagration, sparked by increasingly hot and dry summertime conditions, that destroys much or even most of the remaining Amazonian rainforest, turning an important carbon sink into yet another carbon emitter.

Danger – Methane!

Probably less imminent but even more terrifying is the prospect of the release into the atmosphere of massive amounts of methane as a result of the breakdown of frozen gas-ice compounds in the permafrost as it melts and on the ocean floor as it warms up. Methane is by far the most powerful of the greenhouse gases. It is also poisonous to life, at least as we know it.
These dangers explain why some scientists fear that global warming may reach a “tipping point” beyond which it will become irreversible – that is, beyond all hope of effective human counteraction. Within a few generations, “runaway” climate change would then generate extreme conditions that human beings will be unable to withstand.

This fear is fuelled by our knowledge of the geological record, which contains abundant evidence of past climatic disasters in which numerous species became extinct. It seems that when the biosphere of our planet is jolted out of its not very stable equilibrium – whether by collision with a meteorite or asteroid, by a supervolcanic eruption or by the insanity of capitalist production and consumption – it is susceptible to catastrophic climatic upheaval.

Too late?

Environmentalists often warn that unless adequate action to arrest global warming is taken within a clearly specified and relatively short period it will be “too late.” Some socialists say the same thing, with the important proviso that “adequate action” must mean, above all, the establishment of world socialism. The urgency of the warning, it is hoped, will rouse people from lethargy to frenetic activism, though I suspect it is more likely to reduce them to despair.

These warnings have been repeated for quite a few years now, so it is natural that they should escalate. First, the time horizon shortens – from 15 – 20 years to ten or even five. Then the idea surfaces that time must surely have run out by now. Is it not already too late?

In my opinion, the current state of scientific knowledge does not permit us to make categorical declarations of this sort. We cannot exclude the possibility that it will soon be, or already is, too late. Capitalism may have set in motion processes – perhaps processes that we do not yet even clearly perceive, let alone understand – on which no human ingenuity will have a significant effect. But nor can we exclude the possibility that it is not too late, that even 30, 40 or 50 years from now it will not be too late.

Socialism – our only chance

Discussions of runaway climate change rarely take into proper consideration the potential of cosmic engineering projects such as giant space mirrors to divert the sun’s rays. Although these projects may entail risks of their own, the longer the transition to world socialism is delayed the more urgently the space agency of socialist society is likely to pursue them.

For all the uncertainties, we can be certain regarding some vital points.

* If we do have a chance of survival, it is contingent on the establishment of world socialism. If capitalism continues indefinitely, then sooner or later we are doomed.

* The sooner we establish socialism the better. But better late than never.

* The climatic and environmental threat to human survival will come to occupy central place among the concerns that inspire people to work for socialism, overshadowing all else.    

The Socialist Standard, No. 1257, May 2009 

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