ATHENS — According to the United Nations, current national policies put the planet on track to heat up by 4.9 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
“That level of warming,” The Washington Post noted, “would be catastrophic for people and the ecosystems on which they depend, triggering inexorable ice sheet melt and catastrophic sea level rise. Deadly weather disasters, chronic food and water shortages and intolerable heat would become fixtures of life for much of the world.”
In a surprising move in early August, the U.N. scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released Part I of its major new report that was not scheduled to be made public until early 2022. Based on the analysis of more than 14,000 studies, the report concluded that humans have put so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that this warming will continue at least until the middle of the century.
Even if nations take immediate steps today to sharply cut emissions, we are locked into 30 years of worsening climate impacts, like the extreme droughts, severe heat waves, and catastrophic downpours and flooding that the we're experiencing now.
Some other effects will endure for far longer: e.g., global sea level will keep rising for at least 2,000 years.
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However, while the world cannot avoid these devastating impacts, there is still a narrow window to prevent the direst effects of the crisis - climate collapse and human extinction-providing that humanity acts at a level of reality commensurate to our present situation.
With the situation dubbed a “turning point for humanity” and a “last-ditch effort to achieve a global solution” to the climate crisis, many thought that the release of the IPCC report was intended to challenge the delegates representing 196 countries to the United Nations COP26 climate conference in November in Glasgow to work at a level of climate reality commensurate with our present situation.
Adding substance to this suspicion, Parts II and III of the IPCC report had been leaked earlier.
Part II reminded us that “life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot.”
That is why “we need transformational change operating on processes and behaviors at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments. We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”
In Part III, the report emphasized that the “Lack of integration of environmental justice in climate mitigation activities risks growing inequality at all levels and inhibits effective climate mitigation.”
In recognition of those who have done the least to cause climate change yet are most impacted - especially women, Black people, Indigenous peoples, people of color, peasants, and youth - a just transition is therefore required, one that ensures that “workers, frontline communities and the vulnerable are not left behind in low-carbon pathways.”
Additionally, it underscored that the “increasing participation by women, and racialized and marginalized groups, amplifies the impetus for climate action. Collective action through formal social movements and informal lifestyle movements expands the potential for climate policy and supports system change.”
The progressive nature of the IPPC document is evidenced again in Part III that emphasizes that there is no technological fix to the climate crisis.
What is required, instead, is “a massive social transition in material production and consumption.”
The IPCC's use of expressions like “transformational change” and “system change” make clear that its scientists believe we cannot hope to survive short of eliminating capitalism, the fundamental barrier to a sustainable future for humanity.
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COP26 was doomed at the start. Dominated as usual by the representatives of governments and their corporate masters, for whom the demise of capitalism is the very last thing they would consider, there is no way that the conference could succeed in any meaningful way.
That is why five years after making commitments at the much-ballyhooed 2015 Paris Agreement, the signatories of the treaty are on track to reduce carbon emissions by a mere 5.5 percent by 2030, compared to the minimum requirement of 40 to 50 percent, according to the IPCC report.
Meeting their commitments would only result in a 1-percent reduction from 2010 levels, negating efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
That is why earlier drafts of COP26 showed that the critical elimination of coal and fossil fuel subsidies were amended - first to “accelerating the phase out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels,” and then to finally agreeing to “escalating efforts to phase down unabated coal power and phase out inefficient subsidies.”
That is why many developing nations whose people have contributed the least to carbon pollution but suffer the most from the climate crisis, and whose representatives had come to Glasgow hoping for agreement on the provision of finance from the major polluters for loss and damage, left bitterly disappointed because the United States, Australia, Japan, and the European Union blocked moves to create the fund.
And that is why at the conclusion of COP26 many scientists were wondering what planet these leaders were looking at, noting the enormous discrepancy between what their evidence mandated and what the politicians greenwashed, instead.
No amount of spin can hide the fact that we're in very serious trouble, including the likelihood of civilization collapse, of which we're already in the early stages.
What COP26 demonstrated for the umpteenth time is that we can't look to governments, which serve as the instruments of capitalism, to do for us what we need to do for ourselves and our neighbors.
We're on our own.