What’s in a degree? Last time when the earth’s average temperature went up 4-5 degrees was during the early Eocene period, 55 million years ago. The planet was so unrecognisable that alligators, turtles and other sub-tropical species lived in the then ice-free Arctic. When it shot up 6 degrees at the end of the Permian period, 251 million years ago, it was the closest the earth came to becoming lifeless, with 95 percent of its species becoming extinct.
As warnings are ignored and emissions soar, we are again staring at a 6-degree rise in average temperature in the next 100 years. That’s if it’s going to be business as usual.
A month from now, the world’s leaders will meet in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Much hope cannot be pinned on such meets: The last one in Copenhagen was an abject failure. The issue of global warming will once again make it to the front pages of newspapers in the world, from somewhere in the science section, next to the story of a chimp’s birth in a foreign zoo. A glacier has disappeared, some remote island is under threat. We reserve shock and awe for more spectacular apocalypses — an asteroid travelling miles away from earth, or the absurd — the Super moon.
Climate change is a boring apocalypse. It is ever present, cumulative, slow but sure. However, there is nothing laidback about what needs to be done. Scientists say we are now in Decade Zero: Failing the necessary action, it will turn out to be a runaway phenomenon as the human race watches helplessly.
The World Bank warned in 2012 that “we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world [by century’s end] marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and lifethreatening sea level rise”.
In 2011, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that we are actually on track for a dangerous level of warming. “The evidence indicates that 6 degrees of warming is likely to set in motion several major tipping points… like massive releases of methane from Arctic permafrost,” writes Klein. Accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers also published a report warning businesses that we are headed for “4°C, or even 6°C” of warming.
“These various projections are the equivalent of every alarm in your house going off simultaneously. And then every alarm on your street going off as well, one by one by one,” writes Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate.
Scientists estimate that we can burn about 565 gigatonnes of carbon before we cross over the internationally accepted limit of 2 degrees of warming. In truth, two is an arbitrary number to which we have resigned ourselves, which will spell the death of many islands and risk triggering several non-linear tripping points.
The most significant of the numbers is 2,625 gigatonnes, which is the amount of carbon that the oil companies and the countries that behave like oil companies have already identified and earmarked for extraction. Although this remains underground for now, in economic terms investments have already been committed to these reserves. The oil companies now possess five times the amount of coal that would tip the globe into catastrophe.
The climate change movement suffers from what Klein calls “bad timing”. In the late 1980s, Ronald Reagan came to power in the US along with Margaret Thatcher in the UK. Both had notoriously hostile views about environmentalists.
It was the start of the neo-liberal era of political ideology. Free market fundamentalism became the dominant ideology of the world with the privatisation of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector and lower corporate taxes paid with cuts to public spending.
In a globalised world, multinational companies were free to scour the world looking for the cheapest costs. This meant the capital will go where the wage was cheapest, the working hours were longest and the hassles were fewest. It led to the factories making everything in China and air- conditioned offices of it service companies in India.
“By the end of the 1990s, virtually all roads led to China, a country where wages were extraordinarily low, trade unions were brutally suppressed, and the state was willing to spend seemingly limitless funds on massive infrastructure projects — modern ports, sprawling highway systems, endless numbers of coalfired power plants, massive dams — all to ensure that the lights stayed on in the factories and the goods made it from the assembly lines onto the container ships on time. A free trader’s dream, in other words — and a climate nightmare,” writes Klein.
India is now riding the neo-liberal horse, via Modi’s ‘Make in India’ which is designed to transform India into a global manufacturing hub. “The scheme involves building big infrastructure for companies, destroying forest land and diluting environmental laws,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, writer and environmental researcher based in Chennai. Perhaps another climate nightmare is in store.