Michael Wallace explains why the world’s weather is going crazy
Ireland has enjoyed a relatively quiet winter but in early 2014, the country was lashed by extreme storms that caused record tides, severe flooding and damage to homes and lives.
While these storms have receded for now, other parts of the world are being hammered by extreme weather directly linked to a warming planet. Extreme weather events are a major consequence of climate change, and they are becoming more frequent, powerful and erratic.
Series of disasters
In February 2014 the UK was hit by devastating floods resulting from the heaviest winter rainfall in 248 years. In the same month Tokyo was hit by the worst snow storm in 45 years .
In March, the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu were devastated by one of the most powerful storms in history. A massive cyclone flattened 90% of all buildings leaving 24 people dead and 3,000 more homeless.
March also saw mudflows and flash floods in the world’s driest desert. A freak rainstorm dumped seven years worth of water in just 24 hours onto the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Worsened by melting snow from the nearby Andes Mountains, many small villages and town were destroyed leaving 26 dead, 125 missing and 30,000 affected by the worst floods in 80 years.
In Australia, falling rainfall levels, high temperatures and drought created bushfires that raged across the continent. Cutbacks to firefighting services and funding to deal with new climate threats made the problem worse.
Two massive cyclones also devastated areas of northern and eastern Australia, leaving many homeless. Thousands were left to fend for themselves with little or no government support. This was the first time twin cyclones of this intensity struck Australia.
As Australia burned, North America froze. February 2015 was the coldest month on record for many cities, including New York, as cold air normally experienced over the polar region reached as far south as Miami, Florida. Nearly 100 million people in 30 states suffered under brutal cold and endless snow pile-ups.
But while the east froze the west coast burned. For the fourth consecutive year, extreme drought plunged California into crisis. With rainfall and snowfall at record lows and wildfires sweeping across the state at higher than average rates, scientists have calculated this year to be the area’s driest in 434 years.
California has just one year’s water supply left in its reservoirs and river basins, and even the oldest of water backup supplies -groundwater- could soon be gone after the reservoirs dry up.
In July the strongest typhoon in 40 years struck Southern China killing 16 and affecting 3 million people. Then in September ranging monsoon floods in Pakistan killed more than 440 people and left tens of thousands homeless. Meanwhile Brazil experienced both record flooding in the Amazon basin and drought in the south.
These events are just some examples of a pattern of increasingly chaotic weather – a pattern produced by an overall rise in temperatures.
Two U.S government agencies, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) reported in January that 2014 was the Earth’s warmest recorded year since records began. This is the 38th consecutive year that annual global temperatures rose above average, while nine of the top ten warmest years in the last 135 years has happened since 2000.
And, as 99% of scientists recognise, what causes this long-term warming is the greenhouse effect produced by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal. The damage caused by the endless burning of fossil fuels is highlighted by the fact that the amount of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is now higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years.
The link to capitalism
There is a direct link between all of this and capitalism.
The burning of fossil fuels is central to global capitalism’s energy needs. Seven of the top ten world’s largest corporations are oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobile, which has revenue of $496 billion annually. Along with other fossil fuel giants like Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Sinopec Group, they collectively made profits of $900 billion between 2001-10.
These companies continually block any serious attempts at tackling global warming by lobbying politicians, financing climate science denial and downplaying climate destruction in order to protect their massive profits.
California drought and the fracking boom
Another factor in this crisis has been the stampede of oil and gas energy corporations into California over the last few years to get in on the new hydraulic fracking boom.
Fracking involves blasting huge amounts of water into the earth to release pockets of natural gas and oil. This unregulated and destructive process that the state’s politicians have eagerly embraced sucked up 70 million gallons of water last year. The big oil companies in California are also pumping contaminated water containing radioactive material and arsenic into reservoirs and groundwater supplies adding to the misery of the drought crisis
Air pollution and people’s health are also being affected as some of the 750 chemicals used in the fracking are causing serious illnesses for local populations, including severe organ damage, infertility, birth defects and cancer. And of course the extraction and burning of all this oil and natural gas causes further global warming and extreme weather.
Nestle, the world’s largest food corporation, are getting in on the act too. While ordinary residents of California are having severe water restrictions imposed on them, Nestle are extracting undisclosed amounts of the precious resource from several local wells to sell for profit as bottled water. Unsurprisingly, the chairman of Nestle, Peter Brabeck-Lemanthe, recently declared that water in not a human right and should be privatised.
What links all these phenomena is the systematic sacrifice of the planet and its people for the sake of profit.
It’s not too late
The fact that numerous climate conferences have ended in failure shows that a world dominated by rival competing capitalist nations cannot solve the problem of climate change and the extreme weather it is bringing about.
And we are running out of time. According to scientists, global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase over the next few decades by between 50 and 90% if nothing is done. This will lead to apocalyptic environmental consequences for the world, with some regions suffering flooding, others drought, complete melting of the polar caps and dangerous sea-level rises threatening coastal cities.
Food and water shortages will worsen, as unstoppable increases in global temperatures will eventually make large parts of the planet uninhabitable. Extreme weather will become the new normal.
This nightmarish future doesn’t have to happen. An ageing economic system run by a tiny wealthy elite hell-bent on destruction in the name of short-term profit must be overthrown and radical social political changes that place the earth’s resources in the hands of the working must be implemented. It’s not too late to win such a world but we need to start fighting for it no