Voting on the Future of Life on Earth

One of the key research facilities leading the discussion on the climate crisis is the National Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne, Australia, whose work is arguably a major plank underpinning the Extinction Rebellion mindset. Over the last few years, the team there has been analyzing a lot of the leading climate research and issuing reports based on their meta-analyses of these studies.

Among the various criticisms of the Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were allegations that it had “systematically and grossly underestimated the risks.” One of the foundations for this criticism was that the IPCC had framed the likelihood of an outcome occurring as “unlikely” if it fell outside the central 67 percent probability distribution.

One of the difficulties facing the IPCC is that from the outset it has been required to reach a consensus before reporting, which, as anyone who has tried to build a consensus across multiple parties knows, invariably leads to conservative agreements. This isn’t helped by the neoliberal politicians who have been largely working on behalf of the carbon profiteers. At the 2015 Paris conference on climate change, in response to the cautious tone of the IPCC, the world’s political leaders agreed that they would try very hard to hold the average global temperature increase to below 1.5°C or at the most 2°C.

In the immediate aftermath of Paris, many argued that the agreement was likely to fail on two key points. Firstly, that the agreed course of action would not achieve the targets set, but were more likely to result in a 3-5°C increase. But even if they did achieve the target of 1.5-2°C, that wouldn’t be enough to stop certain climate processes from crossing the safe thresholds into irreversible trajectories anyway.

And it is easy to lose sight of what the implications of an increase of a few degrees in the global average actually means. As early as 2011, leading climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson warned that if global temperatures were to rise by between 4-6°C, which is quite possible once you start factoring in feedback loops, then it is likely that by 2050 we could be facing a climate-related death toll in the region of 8.5 billion people out of a total global population of nine billion. The IPCC’s own studies argue that a 4°C increase will lead to the extinction of between 40-70 percent of all plant and animal species on earth.

One of the more interesting groups working on the impacts of climate change has been a highly influential US military think tank called the CNA Military Advisory Board, made up of retired three and four-star officers from across the US armed forces. In 2014, it issued a report arguing that a fall in the availability of freshwater would significantly decrease the availability of food and energy, which in turn would increase conflicts around the world, both within nations and between nations. A report issued by the US National Intelligence Council in 2017 argued that, based on current trends, over 30 countries would be experiencing this sort of water supply deficit by 2035.

As early as 2007, two different national security think tanks in the US were arguing that even an increase of only 3°C and a 0.5-meter rise in sea levels would lead to “outright chaos” and an increased threat of nuclear war. This is an entirely possible outcome, considering that the European Parliament has already issued briefing documents of the role that water plays in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while in India and Pakistan water has arguably been one of the key flashpoints for decades.

And the route from climate crisis to civil conflict is just as easily mapped out. One of the many triggers for the Arab Spring was the food riots that occurred after a sudden and sharp increase in the price of bread in Egypt, at a time when 30 percent of household budgets were already being spent on food. The rise in the price of bread came about because of an increase in the price of wheat on global markets, which was triggered by the 2010 heatwave and wildfires in Russia and Ukraine and the winter drought in China.

But the real threat of the climate crisis is the compounding nature of multiple interrelated forces at play. One of the most obvious and large-scale predictable climate events will be rising sea levels, caused by the expansion of water as it heats up and the melting of the polar ice caps. Increased sea levels and violent storm swells will cause more severe and regular coastal flooding. And because many of our major cities and urban areas are built along coastlines, this flooding will displace hundreds of millions of people. The IPCC currently estimates that just under 10 per cent of the global population live less than 10 meters above the current sea level.

We are now seeing large sections of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) beginning to show signs of breaking up and melting into the sea. When this occurs, it will release up to two million cubic kilometers of melted ice, raising global sea levels by three to five meters. Scientists currently studying the East Antarctic Ice Sheet are beginning to report similar patterns to the WAIS, which if it melts would raise sea levels by close to 50 meters.

China is a perfect example of how these multiple threats combine. While it has been estimated that the country’s fast-growing coastal megacities are putting 145 million people in the direct path of the rising sea levels, large sections of inland China have already experienced devastating, sustained and widespread droughts. Some 24,000 villages have been overrun by the desert and abandoned and the Gobi desert is fast encroaching on Beijing, with many of the displaced fleeing to the safety of the growing coastal cities. Already 300 million Chinese don’t have access to safe drinking water, and with the country having 20 percent of the global population but only 7 percent of the accessible freshwater, the situation is only set to get worse. The World Bank has warned of “catastrophic consequences” stemming from China’s water crisis.

But there are viable solutions. In 2014, the Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) issued a report entitled One Million Climate Jobs. This was produced by a collaboration between the CACC Trade Union Group, eight major trade unions, seven universities and several climate activist groups and has arguably driven much of the thinking around the Green New Deal being proposed in the US and by the Labour Party here in Britain.

The foundation of the CACC plan was that, while we can all make changes to our own behavior that will help and must happen, to change the path that an entire nation is on will take an organized nationwide response much like the postwar rebuilding plan that brought the NHS into existence.

The CACC plan was to build a national climate service that would employ one million people directly, and increase employment indirectly via the supply chain by a further 0.5 million people. This plan argues that a decrease in CO2 emissions in Britain by 86 percent is achievable within two decades. I would argue that this could be achieved significantly quicker if, for instance, the campaign to recognise ecocide as a crime against humanity were successful.

The CACC plan is based on transitioning the energy sector away from fossil fuels and over to wind, solar, wave and tidal, to insulate and retrofit all existing buildings to better conserve and use energy, and to shift transport to a public system powered by renewable energy. The report estimates the total cost of doing this would be around £66 billion.

For any new government to correct the course of the British economy will require the renationalization of large parts of the infrastructure, specifically the energy and transport sectors. This the Labour Party has proposed. Of course, this would be made markedly easier if the threat of being marched into The Hague in handcuffs hung over the heads of the major shareholders of the transnational corporations that will undoubtedly fight such measures.

The CACC plan argues that the government could generate an income stream of around £25bn from energy bills and public transport fares. Employing 1.5 million people would generate a further £21.5bn in taxes raised and benefits saved. So the net cost to the British exchequer would be around £19bn.

This is not a huge amount when one considers that in Britain alone it is estimated that the exchequer is having to going without about £25bn per year because of legal tax avoidance and £74bn per year because of illegal tax evasion.

If in the upcoming general election, a government is voted in that is willing to make the super-rich and the multinationals pay their fair share, the CACC plan would not only be achievable but would probably be the first of many steps towards ensuring that there will be a future for us and the generations to come.