Don’t Wait for Cooler Times!

Global Warming as challenge for Science, Politics and Alternatives

In the last two decades there has been a virtually complete scientific consensus on the core statements on climate change. In its latest version, this consensus is best summarized in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report: Global warming is real, it is extremely likely that the dominant cause of it is human activity, and it will have strong negative consequences for humans and environment already in the short term. Limiting the temperature raise well below 2º Celsius is crucial to avoid the most catastrophical scenarios, and we have as little as twelve years to take the crucial steps, which are mainly to drastically reduce the greenhouse gases emissions.

Although the basics of the greenhouse effect produced by the gases emitted due to the human activity are already relatively well-known by a great part of the population, there are crucial aspects of this phenomenon which are less known to broader audiences. Let me point out here two important ones.

Irreversible Greenhouse Gas Emissions

First, if we reduce or stop the emissions, we may manage to slow down and eventually stop the temperature raise, but whatever changes we finally produce will be irreversible for a very long time. Once the greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, there is no known procedure to eliminate them in an efficient way, nor natural neither with the use of current technology, or with the technology we reasonably expect in the nearby future.

Self-reinforced Temperature Raise

Second, the temperature raise may become at some point uncontrollably self-reinforced. This is because, among the consequences of the global temperature raise, there are some effects which themselves tend to raise the temperature even further. For example, the content of water vapour (a natural greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere increases itself with the temperature; the loss of ice in polar regions leads to more absorption of sunlight, and thus to more warming; the loss of permafrost releases great amounts of methane (another greenhouse gas); and the increase of the ratio and extension of wildfires due to the higher temperatures both contributes itself with greenhouse gases due to the combustion, and destroys the forests that naturally capture CO2. A catastrophically self-reinforced scenario, in which these effects become dominant and even stopping the human emissions would not make the temperature to stop raising, is what the IPCC believes that can be avoided by staying well below the 2º Celsius increase.

Political Instead of Scientific Challenges

There are more important facts that could be mentioned on the science of climate change. I am however of the opinion that there is, at this moment, just one crucial fact to be known: All what science needed to say has already been said. Science will keep telling us more things, and will stay with us as a tool that we will surely need in order to face the challenges to come. But at this moment our challenge is fully political.

In fact, science already had enough material for politics to start acting since long before. What is now a full scientific consensus on the greenhouse effect started just as a reasonable hypothesis by the physicist Svante Arrhenius in the late nineteenth century, although by that time the negative consequences of a temperature raise could still not be foreseen. The hypothesis gained plausibility along the twentieth century thanks to the scientific advances in the study of climate. It stood over all the controversies appearing in the way, some scientifically legitimate, but most of them spuriously created by the interests of big energy companies. Already in 1988, the physicist James Hansen gave the first notorious alerts on the damaging effects of global warming.

The Predictions Become True

We are now beginning to face the first negative consequences of the warming predicted decades ago. Massive emigrations in Central Asia and Central America due to droughts and other changes in climate, or the ongoing wildfires in Australia, are clear examples. And here is an important note for those who still cast doubt on the scientific predictions: Having scientifically compared the predictions previously done with what has really happened until 2020, we can now say that those predictions were very accurate. But, even when the predictions are becoming true and a critical situation has been reached, what we see on the side of the ruling politics and economics are tons of propaganda on good intentions, but very little concrete action. The major disappointment of the recent COP25 conference is the latest evidence.

Market Before Climate

But this clearly insufficient reaction is in perfect alignment with the neoliberal narrative on what politics and economy should be. After all, such narrative is based on the absence of society as a political subject which can take democratic decisions on what is best for the society as a whole, leaving no one behind. All drifts of society should be just the emerging result of individual decisions in a free market economy. Well, it seems that those who have the economical power to really make important decisions have decided to save their asses and leave the rest of us behind. UN has already alerted that the consequences of global warming will mostly affect the poorest people in the world. In contrast, many of the great fortunes are buying lands and houses in the few places in which the effects of global warming are expected to be mild, or even locally positive.

In view of this, we can state that global warming is arguably the clearest example on how capitalist economy drastically fails to confront the challenges of our time. We knew that there were many other examples, such as the increase of social inequality or the persistence of structural poverty and of racial or gender discrimination. But, while other problems lie on the side of social science and may be (deceptively) retort, global warming is an uncontroversial phenomenon within the realm of natural sciences. And it is a scientific statement that our economical system is being incapable of handling it.

What Should the Left Do?

We should use this fact as a spearhead against the self-claimed superiority of unbridled market economy to rule the destiny of mankind. This should not mean, however, that we must relegate the rest of the social problems to second order issues. A solution to climate change based on leaving a great part of the society behind would not only be unfair. It would also be impossible, since any solution will require the political support and mobilisation of those who are suffering the worst consequences of the economical model that we need to change.

Let me finally briefly address what might be a crucial question crossing the alternative leftist minds with respect to the action on global warming. In view of the dimensions of the challenge, we know that a full and quick change of direction would be needed. But shouting it on the streets is not enough, and the correlation of forces in society does not seem to allow for an abrupt turn in the short term. What to do? Of course, no one has a definitive answer to this. But maybe we could point out a few things not to do. Giving up in front of what seems a deadly fate is, as a matter of principle, no option for us. Staying as outsiders shouting the harsh reality, and waiting for things to go worse so that people join may sound tempting. But in my opinion it is also a failure. In a completely desperate situation, many people will be more tempted to hear the siren calls of the extreme right easy slogans than any harsh truth, at least until it is too late.

Austria and Spain: Two Different Approaches to Climate Policy

Waiving our core left principles to support some program with apparently significant green measures, but which further strengthens the ruling economical model, might also sound the least bad option in view of the emergency. This seems to be the path taken by Die Grüne in Austria with their government coalition. I would like however to compare this possibility with the government coalition in Spain between the Socialist Party and the alternative left party Unidas Podemos. The net weight of measures on green policies is apparently similar in both government programmes. However, the Austrian government will take the path of tax cuts and “market incentives” for the companies implementing ecological practices; that is, more wealth and power to those responsible of bringing us to this situation. In the last decade, the number of billionaires in Europe and their wealth has wildly increased, while the rest of the society struggled with a crisis. Is it really even more “incentives” what they need to turn green? The government in Spain has rather opted for a (mild, admittedly) tax raise for the highest incomes, in order to have more public resources to implement the policies needed, also against climate change. This goes in the direction of subtracting power from the big companies and putting it in the hands of democratically elected institutions. Any guess on what is the best direction to take, if we expect some day to have the capacity to implement the really alternative policies that, more sooner than later, will be needed?