Eddie Ford first posted this article for Weekly Worker. He argues that frequent, intense and deadly wildfires are the inevitable result of record temperatures. But this is not simply down to us humans: the climate crisis is driven by capitalism
A LIVING NIGHTMARE
Our screens have recently been filled with apocalyptic imagery from wildfires burning in at least nine countries across both sides of the Mediterranean, from Croatia to Tunisia, with the situation on the island of Rhodes hitting the headlines in Britain. Thousands of firefighters in Europe and north Africa working in extreme heat have been trying to contain flames stoked by high temperatures, tinder-dry vegetation and strong winds.
More than 40 people have died so far – most of them in Algeria, with the country’s National Meteorological Office saying that temperatures had soared to around 50°C in some regions. Witnesses have described fleeing walls of flames that raged “like a blowtorch”, destroying homes and coastal resorts, and turning forest areas into blackened wastelands. Meanwhile, at the weekend, in the biggest evacuation from a blaze in Greece’s history, 19,000 were forced to flee Rhodes – including many British tourists, who said they had been left in “a living nightmare” when the fires began. Greece is now preparing for more evacuation flights, as fires also rage on the islands of Corfu and Evia. Grimly, two firefighting pilots died when their plane – which had been dropping water – crashed on a hillside east of Athens.
As for Italy, fires spreading in Sicily forced the authorities to briefly close Palermo airport, while in Portugal, which is facing widespread drought affecting 90% of the country, hundreds of firefighters scrambled at the beginning of the week to put out fires near the popular holiday destination of Cascais – with especially strong winds complicating efforts. Overall, a total of 180 locations have experienced temperatures of 40°C and above. Apart from Algeria, the highest reading was 46.4°C at the seaside town of Gytheio in southern Greece.
Unfortunately, with each week that passes new records are set. For the last week, it has been Rhodes and Algeria – next week it could be somewhere else. Of course, apart from idiots who reject science, we all know the reason for the fires. Yes, the initial trigger could have been a lightning strike, or someone dropping a match. But the intensity and frequency of such fires is clearly part of a much bigger picture. True, the El Niño event on the Pacific has added about 0.2°C to the present temperature, but the overwhelming factor is human-induced warming that creates greenhouse gases, CO2, methane, etc. Or, to be more accurate, it is a capitalist-caused phenomenon.
In the UK, June was the hottest month since records began, with the average monthly temperature of 15.8°C exceeding the previous highest by 0.9°C. In fact, records were broken in 72 of the 97 areas in the UK from which temperature data are collected. Worldwide, the record for the hottest day on Earth was broken three times this month in an extraordinary seven-day period – the hottest day ever happened on July 6, when the average temperature for the entire planet was no less than 17.23°C (obviously this is a worldwide mean, not the highest temperature in any one place). According to one climate expert at the Climate Reanalyzer unit based in the University of Maine, the chances are that July will be the warmest month ever … since at least the Eemian about 130,000 years ago, though doubtlessly that will be a matter of debate.1
Showing the persistence of this trend, the eight warmest years on record have now all been set since 2014 – with the El Niño effect meaning 2016 is still the leader. But, as we have seen, there are fears that this year could be a warmer overall year and the warmest in recorded history – with July 6 an ill-omen of the future to come. Totally unequivocally, a new analysis by World Weather Attribution said that the deadly heatwaves that have struck Europe, the US, north Africa and China in recent weeks would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused global heating – and there will be worse to come without very radical action. The brutal heatwaves we are witnessing are no longer rare, the report says. If the world heats by 2°C, they will happen every two to five years. Similarly, a series of heatwaves across the northern hemisphere in 2018 was also judged impossible without the human impact. More than 500 extreme weather events have now been analysed by scientists, who found 93% of heatwaves and 68% of droughts had been made more severe and/or more likely because of human-caused emissions. More than 61,000 people died in the European heatwaves of 2022, including more than 3,000 in the UK, with another study estimating that millions have died from heat across the world in the past three decades because of the climate crisis.
As for the hottest place on Earth, that appears to be Death Valley, which runs along part of central California’s border with Nevada. On July 16 it reached a sizzling 53.3°C at the well-named Furnace Creek, which, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, currently holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet with 56.7°C in 1913 (temperatures at or above 54.4°C have only been recorded a handful of times, mostly in Death Valley).
Clearly, in terms of the direction of travel globally, more and more places will become like Death Valley – which is a deeply worryingly thought. If the picture was not bad enough already, we also have record temperatures when it comes to the seas, which are getting warmer and warmer. For instance, in the north Atlantic off the Irish coast, temperatures have been 5°C higher than normal. As for the Antarctic, since 2010 – when analysing the average ice cover of the continent – an area 10 times larger than the UK has disappeared, thanks to melting ice. Another fairly recent study by the University of Leeds found that West Antarctica had lost 3,331 billion tonnes of ice between 1996 and 2021, contributing over nine millimetres to global sea levels. The facts are speaking for themselves louder and louder.
A week ago, the BBC Today programme interviewed Bob Watson, one of the foremost climate scientists in the world – currently he is emeritus professor of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, having previously worked at the United Nations, Nasa, the UK’s department of environment and the White House. The message of this former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was stark and straightforward – the Paris 2015 agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels will almost certainly be exceeded either this year or next, which spells very bad, but hardly unexpected, news.
Indeed, he was “very pessimistic” about achieving even 2°C, predicting that “if we allow the target to become looser and looser, higher and higher”, then governments will do even less in the future, not more – a disastrous situation. Climate Action Tracker has made a similar bleak forecast, bearing in mind that it has a very deterministic view of what is going to happen. That is, it does not take into account the possibility of quantitative change leading to qualitative change – tipping points that lead to runaway climate change and all manner of totally unpredictable, extreme-weather events. But, if for now we discount these tipping points, CAT’s predictions are that, in order to keep to the 1.5°C target, basically you will have to more or less go into freefall, when it comes to emissions – literally go down a cliff if you think of it as a graph. That is because you have got a climate system that has inbuilt momentum: yet again using the metaphor of the oil tanker, you cannot simply just turn it round to safer waters. The warming of the air and oceans will continue, even if all human-produced CO2emissions from power plants, road and air transport, industrial activity, winter heating, air conditioning, meat and dairy production, etc, were closed down immediately. Even then, once you had somehow pulled off this magical trick to reorder the entire world, you would only just reach the 1.5°C target set in Paris.
In other words, this is not a realistic possibility, to put it mildly – there is no serious authority that thinks this is doable. If you had implemented a radical, real-time reduction back in 2015, then it might possibly have been. But, instead, what we actually have are emissions continuing to increase, and the chances are it will stay that way – just look at the nature of industry, power plants, urban planning, housing, and so on. Though the rate of increase looks likely to slow down, CAT believes that we are on target for something like 2.5°C-2.9°C by 2100. In other words, roughly speaking, in three-quarters of a century we could be touching something near 3°C above preindustrial levels.
Now, we all know that, in terms of our everyday experience at a particular time and place, that is neither here nor there. Rather, what we are dealing with are things like sea levels, reduction in ice cover, melting of the permafrost, etc. That brings with it the potential that at some point, or a whole series of points, we will go through a shift to another climate pattern altogether. It is quite feasible to imagine the Mediterranean going from its present climate situation to where it becomes scrub like the Savannah, or even something that tips over into desert conditions. This is conceivable too in the US, with the Wheat Belt turning into desert. Hence we are not talking about this or that statistic or event – rather the future of civilisation itself. None of this is to suggest for one moment that when 1.5°C or even 3.0°C becomes the ‘new norm’, humanity will suddenly face extinction – the planet will still be liveable in some shape or form.
But the real question is how concertinaed that change will be, how disruptive of present-day living conditions. Such a trauma could produce a whole series of undesirable outcomes like an increased tendency towards drought, famine, war and disease outbreaks, ever more deepening inequality and greater state oppression.
The climate crisis cries out for a working class solution.