Climate Catastrophe, Racism, and the Necessity for Immediate Revolutionary Action

by Peter Scheckner

August, 2020

“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all.” This is the first sentence in the 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Although the book is typical of mainstream literature on climate change in that it has only idealistic ideas about what to do next, based on a non-existent or very naive political, class, or race-based analysis, it does provide a wealth of detailed information about the lethality of climate change—now everywhere on the planet.

            The overriding takeaway from this book is this: Five mass extinctions have taken place over the past 450 million years ago, each so severe that they functioned as an “evolutionary reset” of the planet, where, in the case of the third event, as much as 96% of all species were killed off.” All but one of these mass extinctions—the exception being the one that killed the dinosaurs– involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas and, as Wallace-Wells reports: “There is right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years—perhaps in as long as 15 million years,” and this sixth extinction, if or when it comes, will be in the age now called “Anthropocene,” the human-dominated, geological epoch in which human activity has transformed (mostly despoiled) between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet. With the advent of capitalism and industrialization, the combination of fossil fuel combustion, deforestation, and the over-exploitation of fresh water, the planet’s climate has been irrevocably derailed.

            The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued in 2019 made clear that the world’s land and water resources are being exploited at “unprecedented rates. A half-billion people already live in places turning into desert, and soil is being lost between 10 and 100 times faster than it is forming”, according to the report. Already, more than 10 percent of the world’s population is undernourished.

In May, 2019, the humanitarian group Refugees International, a global independent advocacy organization, drew these conclusions about climate change and refugees:

“There are now about 70 million people around the world displaced due to conflict, persecution, and violations of human rights, with about 40 million who are internally displaced and about 25 million who are refugees—outside their countries of origin. In addition, and on average, as many as 25 million people have been displaced by disasters borne by natural hazards. And there is no question that the displacement of many of these tens of millions of forced migrants has been exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. The numbers of people exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty would increase by several hundred million over the next 30 years. The World Bank estimates that by that time, an additional 140 million would migrate internally, and there would also be substantial increases of movements between borders.”  

As the pandemic Covid-19 is now horribly demonstrating to the world, especially in the USA, the effects of climate change, like that of diseases generally, affect the poor and people of color in hugely disproportionate numbers. The continents and countries in present and future danger of drought, hunger, extreme heat, and flooding are mostly, no surprise, in the poorest, most exploited areas of the world—Africa (by 2050, between 350 million and 601 million people in Africa alone are projected to experience increased water stress due to climate change, much of Asia and South America (with significant decreases in agriculture and fresh water, flooding, deforestation, and increased sickness and death due to diarrheal disease). The implication is as clear as are the pandemics of everyday neo-liberalism, racism, poverty, or Covid-19. Although the richer parts of the world will die off more slowly, Planet Earth is imminently next in the line for the sixth mass extinction from, take your pick: fires, flooding, droughts, excessive heatwaves, hurricanes, or pandemics that are directly related to a planet with a very high fever. No conventional war will produce a comparable planetary catastrophe, although climate disruptions may lead to more wars. The earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old, and capitalism now only about 300 years old, has just about brought the planet to its knees.

Marxists, socialists, revolutionaries, progressives — communists—that is, all of us who understand that capitalism (nowadays called neo-liberalism, capitalism in its even-more ravenous form) is an incurable fatal disease, believe a better world is not merely possible, but absolutely necessary, mainly because this world for billions of us will not be sustainable for very long. During at least the past 150 years or so, global capitalism in its insatiable thirst for more and more profit, has added a new dimension to its violent day-today catalogue of poverty, war, gross social and health inequities, racism, famine, sexual and exploitation of every sort—namely climate “change” –or more accurately climate catastrophe. While not as sudden or spectacular as, say, a nuclear or conventional war, the warming of the planet is, probably, even a more-deadly threat, one which will, within this century, devastate along with those responsible for bringing the entire planet to its knees, our own class. Climate change has, within the past decade, clearly become a class issue, and of course a racial issue, since those already being victimized by wars and climate-forced migrations, 70.8 million of them, are overwhelmingly people of color. 

Here is how climate catastrophe is already devastating every corner of the world.

Fires, Flooding, and Hurricanes

“California’s wildfires are 500 per cent larger due to climate change. Each degree of warming causes way more fire than the previous degree of warming did. And that’s a really big deal. A new study, published this week in the journal Earth’s Future, finds that the state’s fire outbreak is real — and that it’s being driven by climate change. Since 1972, California’s annual burned area has increased more than fivefold, a trend clearly attributable to the warming climate, according to the paper.” (The Atlantic, 2019) According to the New York Times in August, 2020, fires have burned 1.4 million acres as compared to 56,000 a year ago. Similar increases in fires are occurring in Siberia and Australia.

“Major hurricanes are by far the world’s costliest natural weather disasters, in some cases causing well over $100 billion in damage. There’s now evidence that the unnatural effects of human-caused global warming are already making hurricanes stronger and more destructive. The latest research shows the trend is likely to continue as lang as the climate continues to warm.”(Yale Climate Connections)

Right now, six major cities are threatened by flooding as a result of the fever now raging as a result of climate warming: New York, Miami, New Orleans, Mumbai, Osaka and Guangzhou. The 2020 Climate Risk Index was presented in Madrid during the last United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP25 Chile) and determines ten countries are presently most affected by climate change based on facts from 2018. In order of risk they are Japan, Philippines, Germany, Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Rwanda, Canada and Fiji. In other words, no continent is spared, and although countries in Africa, Asia and South American are currently suffering the most, developed countries, including our own, are at imminent risk or, more to the point, are already seeing their lands being submerged.

Health, Pandemics, and Climate Change

How is climate change connected to pandemics and disease? According to the WHO: “between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. As usual, the poorest countries with the most flawed health systems will be the most severely impacted.

Climatic conditions strongly affect water-borne diseases and diseases transmitted through insects, snails or other cold-blooded animals.

Changes in climate are likely to lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases and to alter their geographic range. For example, climate change is projected to widen significantly the area of China where the snail-borne disease schistosomiasis occurs.

Malaria is strongly influenced by climate. Transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes, malaria kills over 400 000 people every year – mainly children under 5 years old in certain African countries. The Aedes mosquito vector of dengue is also highly sensitive to climate conditions, and studies suggest that climate change is likely to continue to increase exposure to dengue.”(https://www.who.int/health-topics/climate-change)

Trapped in Arctic ice are diseases not present in the air for millions of years as well as those from more recent times. These include smallpox, bubonic plague, and anthrax.  Global warming is also creating a hash of ecosystems so that mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks, insects that have killed hundreds of millions over centuries—as in malaria, yellow fever, bubonic plague, and Lyme diseases—now exist where they before they did not. Malaria alone, which thrives in hotter climates, may affect 3.6 billion people by 2030, according to the World Bank; that’s half the world’s current population.

This is how Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the Director of Harvard C-CHANGE at the School of Public Health connects Covid-10 and all future pandemics with climate warming:

“Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people. Less demand for animal meat and more sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions.”

Climate catastrophe, in other words, comes in a multiplicity of lethal forms: pandemics, flooding, hurricanes, fires, death by warming, dying oceans and freshwater, starvation from the end of agriculture and husbandry, and unbreathable air. It is hard to see how conventional or even nuclear war could be more cataclysmic. 


Climate Change and Racism

The introduction of slavery in 1619 in North America serving as the prototype of the later industrial revolution, began a centuries-long process of the despoliation of clean water and land to grow cotton, tobacco, and sugar. From then on, in the slavery fields of the South in the US, throughout the Caribbean, Brazil, and in factories throughout Europe, land and water—like people—were fair game to be exploited insatiably. Over hundreds of years of capitalist “development,” and the subsequent warming of the planet and the poisoning of our air, land, and water, the earliest and most persistent victims of the environmental and social injuries brought about by industrialization have been people of color and poor white workers. And right now, in 2020, COVID-19 is killing black Americans at twice the rate of their white counterparts in large part because of environmental issues like pollution-caused asthma and heart disease and the fact that people of color in the US are far less likely to have decent medical coverage.

Racism, which for centuries justified slavery and now in the twenty-first century gross social inequities, is “inexorably” linked to climate change, said Penn State meteorologist Gregory Jenkins, because it dictates who benefits from activities that produce planet-warming gases and who suffers most from the consequences. Listing the innumerable ways in which the poor, and nonwhite people generally are most victimized by the climate, he concludes: “Unless inequity is addressed now, …future impacts from climate change will disable many communities of color.”

On August 29, 2020 The New York Times printed a three-page study detailing the effects of racist housing guidelines and climate change. The “Decade of Racist Housing Policies Worsen a Climate Crisis,” documented that like every aspect of a capitalist society—from housing, to health, to education, to lifespan, income, family wealth, the legal system, even to the air we breathe and the water we drink—racism plays a deciding role. Redlining, the practice all across the United States by state and federal authorities to enforce racial segregation in residential areas, put black, Latino, and immigrant families next to highways, hazardous dumping grounds, and generally away from parks. As the article puts it:    

          “Weather shouldn’t discriminate. Yet in cities like Baltimore, Portland, Ore., and New York, neighborhoods that are lower-income and have more Black or Hispanic residents can be up to 20 degrees hotter on a scorching summer day compared to whiter, wealthier parts of the same city. The areas often have less cooling tree cover and more heat-absorbing pavement from roads, parking lots and courtyards.
          Across more than 100 cities, a recent study found, formerly redlined neighborhoods are today 5 degrees hotter in summer, on average, than areas once favored for housing loans, with some cities seeing differences as large as 12 degrees. Redlined neighborhoods, which remain lower-incomeand more likely to have Black or Hispanic residents, consistently have far fewer trees and parks that help cool the air. They also have more paved surfaces, such as asphalt lots or nearby highways, that absorb and radiate heat.”  
“As to quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink, racism and climate play a critical role. The American Lung Association concludes that “Socioeconomic position appears tied to greater harm from air pollution. Multiple large studies show evidence of that link. Low socioeconomic status consistently increased the risk of premature death from fine particle pollution among 13.2 million Medicare recipients studied in the largest examination of particle pollution-related mortality nationwide.” (https://www.lung.org/clean-air/outdoors/who-is-at-risk/disparities)

Climate Catastrophe and the Need for Revolution        

At the conclusion of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 Marx and Engels called for “Workers of the world [to] unite.”  Now 170 years later that has never been more relevant or urgent since, for the first time, workers around the globe are facing an existential, planetary crisis. The capitalist class for all that time inexorably, systematically, and with greater and greater acceleration has been ravaging the planet and, with it, creating a global climate catastrophe. In 2020 sections of that class even deny climate changes are man-made, even though from under the soil, to the bottoms of the oceans, to the tops of the mountains, capitalists have shamelessly exploited nature and with it human labor. It is hardly an hyperbole to point out that from California to Bangladesh, Lagos, Nigeria; Yemen, Haiti, the Maldives, Key West, Florida; Mumbai, India; and Rio de Janiero, Brazil, life will become unsupportable in a relatively short time.
        It has been a little under four years since 196 countries negotiated the Paris Agreement under which they committed to taking steps to limit the increase in global average temperature this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels, and ultimately to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). Despite the 2015 agreement, global carbon emissions increased 1.7 percent in 2017 and a further 2.7 percent in 2018; it has been estimated that the rate of increase in 2019 will be amongst the highest on record. The last four years have been the hottest on record, with 2019 on track to make it five.        

By 2020 various lawsuits had been brought against the world’s four largest oil companies– BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell—and against the Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute, arguing that they had known, undermined, and discredited for decades the science relayed to the causes of climate change and the dangers climate disruption poses. Meanwhile, under every president since the 1970s and Nixon, oil production has gone up. Crude oil production grew during Obama’s presidency — up 77 percent—and, in fact, Obama presided over the biggest increase in oil production in American history. As for the so-called landmark Paris Climate Accord in Paris in 2015 signed by 195 countries two years on no major industrialized country is currently on track to fulfill its pledge, according to new data from the Climate Action Tracker, not the European Union, not Canada, not Japan, and certainly not the United States, which withdrew in 2018. “One year after the Paris Agreement entered into force, we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future,” said Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Program.
         
Why have faith that capitalist countries—that is, all of them–will want to radically endanger their profits? Even as this article is beginning written in late August, 2020, Greece, Turkey, France, Cyprus, and Italy have sent warships and fighter jets to secure or mediate the rich gas deposits discovered over the past decade under the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Climate catastrophe or not, when it comes to mining the earth or seas for profit, capitalists will gladly sell each other the rope to hang themselves—and us with them. In this complicated struggle for fossil fuels—the very resources threatening the life of the planet—here is how The New York Times at the end of August described this extraordinary imbroglio now unfolding in the Mediterranean:
          “What is peculiar in this crisis is that competition for fossil fuels should have given way by now to competition over how to stop using them, especially among countries that have subscribed to the Paris climate agreement. Besides, with the slowdown in the global economy from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting drop in energy prices, Europe has plenty of gas. It also seems bizarre for Mediterranean and European countries to be plunged into extraneous tensions when there are so many serious crises to keep them busy, including the economy, the pandemic, the political suspense in the United States, the street clashes in Belarus and Russia’s threat to intervene in Belarus.”
What We Must Do
The way the capitalist world from slavery to the present has managed or mismanaged the global economy has set into motion a pandemic of climate warming for which there is no vaccine, no evolutionary solution, no herd immunity. The fever that is gripping the world, destroying now millions and soon hundreds of millions of lives, will not of its own accord die out as did the Bubonic Plague in the fourteenth century. Only a political, class-based violent revolution could do that. As usual, only the class that suffers most from racism, social inequities, poverty, war, mental health issues, and now pollution and diseases of all sorts—all preventable diseases under capitalism—can be relied upon to fix this problem. To reduce global warming, to provide the planet with a livable environment, requires a radical restructuring, a society, whose starting point is not greed, profit, or the exploitation of labor and natural resources.  At the center of such restructuring is the question of who owns the means of all social and economic production, transmission, distribution and consumption.
         
By the end of the summer, 2020, the world is experiencing and reacting to a multitude of pandemics, a few of which are directly or indirectly to the consequences of racism and climate change. These plagues have largely been seeded by capitalist production—a system run primarily for profit, wholly dependent on the labor of working people, and entirely indifferent to the welfare of either people or nature. To continue having illusions that the same system that apparently got blindsided by Covid-19 can ever fix the world is proving to be just as fatal as the virus itself. Trusting the preservation of the physical world to the hands of the free market would be like leaving an infant to the tender mercies of ravenous wolves. To put the matter very simply and directly– fight for a communist world or prepare yourself for a slow extinction.

One thought on “Climate Catastrophe, Racism, and the Necessity for Immediate Revolutionary Action”

  1. Capitalism really is toxic. (And law suits won’t do it.) Truly, if the world’s workers unite, we really do have nothing to lose but this toxic system.

    Like

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