This is our warming world, July 2017.
Midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere has been and gone but the mercury just keeps rising. With the June data logged, 2017 goes down as having had the second hottest January — June period ever — putting it on track to be one of the second hottest year on record.
This decade has already seen three consecutive record-breaking years in 2014, 2015, and 2016. But what is truly terrifying to scientists is that those were all El Niño years while 2017 is not. Simply put: it shouldn’t be this hot.
Such statements of numerical fact merely reflect what we already knew: the warming we’ve already caused is killing us right now. In fact, climate change has been killing us for years: a study this month linked 60,000 farmer suicides in India over the past 30 years to climate change. If they take to the streets in protest they also face death.
Though most of the world knows first hand the impacts of even a small amount of warming, it took a viral article in New York Magazine to send social media commentators in the developed world into panic.
The piece, read by 2 million people, painted a gloomy picture of the near future which was criticized by some for being irresponsible, disempowering, and just too damn scary. (Other voices retorted that only by embracing the honesty of doom and gloom can we incite the action required to avoid worst-case scenarios).
While the article ignored how many people have been resisting this apocalypse and its causes since before Al Gore began writing books, the truth of the planetary emergency is indeed gloomy, even apocalyptic, with an “annihilation” of species currently underway that has been deemed a sixth mass extinction.
Any hopes that climate change might not be as bad as previously anticipated ran aground as newly published research into “climate sensitivity” claimed that the slow warming of oceans has not been fully accounted for — meaning that future warming will be more severe than predicted.
If that wasn’t bad enough, more new research this month suggested that the amount of carbon that can be released (the “carbon budget”) before we lock in 2°C of warming is a lot less than commonly thought because the baseline temperatures scientists use are from 1875 rather than 1750 — masking over a century of warming. This means we have even less time to act than we thought to avoid the kind of world described by New York Magazine.
It is already 95% likely that we will see the average global temperature rise 2°C by 2100, given our apparent inability to kick the fossil fuel addiction despite the fact that renewables will soon be the cheapest source of energy. This will cause sea-level rise that could displace up to 2 billion people and make the world “largely ungovernable” according to James Hansen.
Back in the present moment of July 2017, we are witnessing one of the worst droughts in decades devastate countries across Southern Europe. Cereal production in Italy and Spain has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years. One farmer described what this means:
“In this situation… you realise it’s almost impossible to keep going. You think OK, this year I will try to manage, but if the harvest is like this next year you won’t be able to cope any more.”
The very viability of agriculture in areas such as Italy’s Po River Valley is being threatened by climate change as higher temperatures, prolonged dry spells, and earlier snow melts throw the water cycle into chaos.
This hot, scary summer is not confined to Europe: earlier this month Mongolia banned grain exports as it registered its hottest temperatures in 56 years. Shanghai, the most populous city in China, also recorded its hottest ever temperature of 40.9°C, prompting authorities to urge people to stay indoors.
Meanwhile in Siberia, a fierce summer heatwave is thawing the tundra and melting permafrost, causing more anthrax outbreaks and major explosions of methane bubbles.
In East Africa, the great drought rolls on into another month, made worse by a lack of adaptation planning and by plans to dam the Nile in Ethiopia. The drought now threatens not just the lives of tens of thousands of individuals, but their way of life itself. Kenya’s minister for agriculture and livestock is now advising nomadic pastoralists to keep camels instead of cows as the Rift Valley turns to desert.
Similarly, experts are concerned about the “viability of Caribbean life as we know it” as ecosystems strain under a combination of intense droughts and intense precipitation.
This is a general trend: where there are existing social tensions or inequities, climate change is going to make things a lot worse as it provides further opportunities for some to profit at the expense of others, such as the water mafias in India’s “thirst economy.”
Climate injustice isn’t confined to any one part of the world: recent heatwaves across the U.S. resulted in the horrific situation of prisoners in St. Louis screaming for help from their baking hot cells. In fact, a new study published in Science looked at the impact of climate change on American countries, and found that “rising temperatures will cause the poorest to suffer the most, even in the wealthiest nation in the world.”
Simply, the heat is too much for humans to handle. It is too much for many animals to handle: African wild dogs are unable to hunt due to soaring temperatures. And it is too hot for even the world’s northernmost coral reef in Japan, which worryingly is showing signs of bleaching.
Both the Arctic and Antarctic are experiencing melting at alarming rate. This month a trillion tonne iceberg broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in a sign of things to come. Researchers are increasingly worried that rising temperature is allowing for algae to prosper in the Greenlandic ice sheet, leading to a process of “darkening” which hastens and increases melting and therefore sea-level rise.
Heat may be the defining feature of climate change in the past month, but it is not the only one. The past 30 days have seen a storm dump a metre of rain on Southern Taiwan in two days — more than one year of rainfall in many countries.
Elsewhere, flooding in Myanmar has killed several and displaced tens of thousands while flooding in the Indian state of Gujarat has left over 200 dead and over 130,000 displaced. Whatever the fears about a future “uninhabitable earth,” we must first reckon with the current conditions under which many people already live, and die, thanks to climate change.
In recent months we have focused on the war against life which so many bad governments seem to be hell-bent on pursuing. To be sure, the role of the State in environmental and social destruction is not to be understated — just this month the Irish government undermined any goodwill that their recent fracking ban may have inspired by approving oil exploration off the south coast.
Even nominally renewable energy projects, such as the mega hydropower dams Cameroon’s government has invested in, bring untold harm to people and ecosystems. And the collective inaction of all governments is leading us to unfathomably warmer world.
But the bad governments are only part of the story. Another part of the scary story we are living is bad business.
Transnational corporations are major polluters — according to a study released this month, only 100 companies produced 71% of all global emissions — and they are major obstacles to developing international policies to tackle the climate crisis, as a new report highlighted.
Of course this isn’t surprising. The bad businesses of the tobacco industry have long sought to undermine international efforts to curb smoking, and a major journalistic effort by Reuters this month showed the lengths some, such as Philip Morris, are willing to go.
Similarly, the bad businesses of the chemical industry have engaged in widespread collusion and cover up of what they have long known to be true: that many of their products were extraordinarily harmful to people. The fossil fuel industry has launched a well-documented campaign to spread misinformation and doubt about climate change despite knowing of the danger for decades, but new research this month shows that electric utilities companies also knew and reacted the same way.
They all do this for the simple reason that they profit from disaster and from our suffering.
They profit from risking the stability of the global climate system by expanding palm oil cultivation in the Amazon, the lungs of the earth; they profit from illegally mining gold in areas until recently ravaged by civil war.
While the bad businesses profit immensely, the people in the areas they exploit are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives — or die trying, as Guatemalans trying to resist Canadian silver mining know too well.
If it’s even possible, the process of recovery can often take years: Indigenous Krenak peoples living on the banks of the Doce River in Brazil are still struggling to recover from the collapse of the Fundao tailings dam.
Perhaps the most twisted part of this story is that we have made failed heroes of ourselves by focusing on our individual consumer and lifestyle choices, while obscenely rich corporations continue to pollute with abandon. They, along with the bad governments who assist them, must be resisted.
July, like any other month, contained no shortage of examples of people-led resistance to the causes of the climate crisis.
In Colombia, two more municipalities — Pijao and Arbeláez — declared an end to mining and fossil fuel extraction through a popular vote, taking the total to five. Similarly, Tanzania has suspended the granting of new mining licences.
Sometimes, the resistance must take a more direct approach, which is exactly what Solomon Islanders have done in the face of bauxite mining by Australian firm Pacific Bauxite. Realising they had been manipulated by the company, locals of Temotu province withdrew their consent for prospecting and even blocked roads to deny the company access.
With luck they’ll be as successful as Indigenous federations in the Peruvian Amazon, whose resistance helped force oil giant Reliance Industries to quit several projects. This type of David vs. Goliath resistance often results in wins for people over profit, even though the corporate spin merely credits “market forces.”
A few examples: Petronas this month announced the cancellation of their $11.4 billion gas pipeline in Lelu Island, British Columbia, which was fiercely opposed by First Nations communities; TransCanada made noises that suggested they might not build the notorious KeystoneXL pipeline; and it was revealed that companies have returned over 1 million hectares of land slated for tar sands extraction. The absence of any mention of grassroots resistance in their announcements speaks volumes.
Anti-fracking activists in the U.K. will take inspiration as their frontline fight on the Preston New Road escalates after months of protest into a full blown national incident. This month’s “rolling resistance” has seen police brutality and daily blockades of the site in Lancashire as fracking company Cuadrilla finally moved their drill into position.
While not so profoundly obvious in a country like the U.K., struggles against the extractive industries necessarily relate to broader struggles for land rights and gender justice. Communities are far better stewards of the land than big landowners or corporations, as Indigenous Waorani women in Ecuador are proving — they use agro-ecology and cultivation to protect one of the areas with the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet.
So the climate justice movements should be celebrating and supporting efforts such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where women in North Kivu province are challenging customs and asserting their land rights, or Tanzania, where history was made this month as Maasai women have for the first time secured formal land rights.
We should also therefore be aware of the implications on land use and land rights that some of the touted “solutions” to the climate crisis will have. To restore some semblance of balance to the carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, ocean and land stocks will require more than a transition away from fossil fuels — it will probably require some amount of carbon sequestration. But determining the nature and scale of this drawdown and sequestration is crucial, especially in a world where large scale concessions already threaten the rights of vulnerable groups.
As we begin to face the ever-harsher realities of our warming world, the urgency of action increases. But we need it to be a sense of urgency imbued with a sense of justice. This will mean, among other things, finally giving up the idea that “really smart, well-intentioned white kids will save the world,” as Van Jones put it in a recent video about confronting climate change.
It will also mean developing new, compelling narratives and strategies, and imagining a just climate future — as a July “nearly carbon neutral” climate justice conference has tried to do. It will mean working together across our divides, and building power not in NGOs or even a network of NGOs, but in a co-revolutionary movement of movements. As John Bellamy Foster puts it in this insightful interview:
“This has to be a giant movement, it has to unite with workers all over the world, it has to oppose imperialism and war. All of these things are connected. The climate movement is central in the sense of triage, but we can only get somewhere if we fight on all fronts, or make it one big front.”
Which is why we should be interested not only in the critically important goings-on of the Green Climate Fund, but also in examples of communities such as the Mexican town of Cherán asserting their right to govern themselves autonomously. We should stand in solidarity with and also learn lessons from centuries-long struggles against oppression such as those of Afro-Colombians in Buenaventura.
No matter what, we must also find the strength to carry on. Not just for ourselves, or for those who will come after us, but equally for those who have gone before, some of whom paid the ultimate price for their resistance. Once again, John Bellamy Foster puts it succinctly:
“In such situations optimism or pessimism are not the point. What we need is courage and determination in facing up to seemingly insurmountable odds.”
Courage is indeed required: at least 200 defenders of life and its environment were murdered last year. With a rate of four murders a week it was the bloodiest year on record. 49 of those 200 came from Brazil, the deadliest nation for protectors. 60% of deaths took place in Latin America alone.
Berta Zúñiga, the daughter of murdered Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, escaped attack in Honduras only this month. In a consolation that comes as too little as too late, two European banks — the Netherlands Development Finance Institution and the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation — have finally announced that they will halt their financial involvement in the Agua Zarca dam.
New media initiatives are aiming to give this crisis the coverage it warrants. Welcome as this is, those of us who live in countries that host the financiers of such extractive industries must do more to actively support those of us who live in the countries where those industries are polluting the land and killing the people. “We are all connected” must be something we show through our actions, not just something we say.