by Nate Rosenberger

Do you deny climate change? If you are reading this particular article, in this particular zine you would most likely answer, “of course not.” At this point, climate change is a globally-recognized problem and there is only one major political party in the world that still denies its existence and humanity’s role in it, and that is the Republican Party of the United States of America. Yet despite a dwindling number of outright deniers, there is a large portion of Western society and even the “Left” that are not ready to accept climate change and the effects it will have on their lives. 

Humor me in another question: if grocery store shelves went empty today, how long could your household feed itself?  If you are like most working Americans, the probable answer is not for long, given that the average American household visits a grocery store 1.6 times a week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that you have a two weeks supply of food, medication, and water for disasters, yet most of us do not follow that recommendation.  Recently, Forbes magazine published an article by Maggie McGrath exposing what working class people already knew: 63% of Americans don’t have enough savings for a $500 emergency. For millions of households in the US, this expectation to be prepared is simply not realistic. It is nearly impossible to lay groceries and supplies aside for a rainy day when workers are scraping the bottoms of their cupboards on a daily basis. As I am writing this, COVID-19 is exposing the fragility of the capitalist world and while individual preparedness can prevent you from participating in panic buying and thus hoarding resources from those less fortunate, “prepping” is fraught with ideas about individualism and toxic male behavior. What this virus has really exposed is that these disasters do not happen in a vacuum. No matter how healthy, how prepared, or how much better off YOU may be, these disasters affect communities rather than individuals. If your community is unable to survive, then neither will you. In this article I will attempt to summarize the current science on climate change, explain that we have less time than we think, highlight a recent natural disaster that foreshadows what we can expect, and, finally, what the hell we can do about it. 

 

The Current State of the Planet

Planet Earth is currently at 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has acted as the scientific standard for assessments of the state of the planet and its future, considers 2.0 degrees of warming as catastrophic and has, for over a decade, pointed to this standard as the threshold we should be working as hard as we can to not exceed. Most of the literature on climate change tends to agree with this threshold, partially because of the IPCC. However, as David Wallace (author of The Uninhabitable Planet) explains, another reason for this fixed focus is that scientists and the journalists that report on their findings are often worried about coming across as alarmist, specifically in the United States where one of the two major political parties maintains the position that climate change simply does not exist. This situation has led scientists to restrict themselves so that their findings are taken seriously and not dismissed as alarmist tree-hugging. 

If all countries followed the carbon emission goals and deadlines laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016, the IPCC says that we will likely not reach 2 degrees by 2100. However, not a single country that agreed to those goals and deadlines are actually slated to reach them and President Trump, leading the world’s largest polluting nation, has backed out entirely. This means we are still barreling down the path to hit the IPCC’s projection of 4.5 degrees of warming by 2100. To understand these effects better, here are Wallace’s own words on what each of these degrees of warming mean for us:

“At two degrees, the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer. There would be thirty-two times as many extreme heat waves in India, and each would last five times as long, exposing ninety-three times more people. This is our best-case scenario. At three degrees, southern Europe would be in permanent drought, and the average drought in Central America would last nineteen months longer and in the Caribbean twenty-one months longer. In northern Africa, the figure is sixty months longer—five years. The areas burned each year by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple, or more, in the United States. At four degrees, there would be eight million more cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone and close to annual global food crises. There could be 9 percent more heat-related deaths. Damages from river flooding would grow thirtyfold in Bangladesh, twentyfold in India, and as much as sixtyfold in the United Kingdom. In certain places, six climate-driven natural disasters could strike simultaneously, and, globally, damages could pass $600 trillion—more than twice the wealth as exists in the world today.” 

You may be tempted to simply reject 4.5 degrees of warming by 2100 as a worst-case scenario, but unfortunately it isn’t. In the half-century that we have been monitoring the climate crisis, the “safe estimates” – like the IPCC’s 4 degrees by 2100 – have never been correct. In a climate model created by leading economists Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman and using the IPCC’s own findings, there is an 11% chance we reach beyond 6 degrees of warming by 2100. The true absolute worst-case is the chance that we hit 8 degrees of warming or higher. In that circumstance, anyone living along the equator or the tropics will die from heat alone. If you still have a shred of hope that we can avoid more warming, know that even if we cease all emissions today, we should still expect more warming just from the carbon already in the air.

Do not let the fact that 2100 is 80 years away fool you into believing you will avoid these nightmarish consequences; they are already here and will be rapidly worsening. In the next 2 decades we can expect each year to bring record-breaking hurricanes, wildfires, tornados, avalanches, and other natural disasters. The intricate ways in which ecosystems are tied together and the possible outcomes of their destruction are literally too numerous for scientists to calculate. Here in North Carolina, hurricanes are one of our most frequent climate-induced disasters and current models show a 20% overall decrease in hurricane frequency but a 45% increase in frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the early 21st century. As these catastrophic storms become more frequent, already thinly-stretched FEMA funds will be unable to replenish before another disaster strikes and requires more resources.

All this destruction still does not factor in the man-made problems that will arise as resource scarcity increases and large swaths of the global south continue to be hit with disasters. The countries of the global south are unable to effectively respond to such disasters due to neo-colonialist institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which keep those countries underdeveloped for imperialist gains. Another current climate-induced crisis is the rising number of climate refugees. The famed “migrant caravan” that made headlines in 2018 was fleeing Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador because of the increasing food scarcity brought on from heavy draughts and soil degradation in the area. This crisis is only going to worsen as the UN predicts that by 2050 there will be 200 million climate refugees. That is, unfortunately, the “reasonable” estimate given, with the high estimate being “a billion or more vulnerable poor people with little choice but to fight or flee.” 

One billion climate refugees. 

To date, the Syrian Refugee Crisis beginning in 2011 has resulted in less than 10 million refugees, and yet it has already sparked the newest wave of fascist populism that has swept across Europe and the United States. What horrific levels of unbridled fascism will we see in our lifetimes when 200 billion people are seeking shelter? What walls, camps, and raids will liberals silently allow without ever raising a hand to stop them? While we can only speculate about the response by studying past imperialist projects, those of us in the US actually have a direct blueprint for what climate disasters, their toll, and the government’s response will look like. Let us turn back the clock and recall Hurricane Katrina.

The category 5 hurricane named Katrina made landfall on August 23rd, 2005 and serves as a prime example of the United States’ ability to respond to the upcoming climate crisis. While many of us remember the devastation it caused and the many lives it took, there are details about Katrina that the U.S. government has no interest in publicizing and chief among them is the invasion of New Orleans. Before civilian response services like FEMA and the Red Cross reached New Orleans, private military contractors had already infiltrated the city. The largest of these contractors was the company Blackwater, which was infamously used by the US in the invasion of Iraq and whose personnel have been convicted of war crimes. The Department of Homeland Security contracted Blackwater while wealthy business owners contracted many other smaller companies to protect their properties. These private contractors treated New Orleans like a warzone thanks to their last minute deputization by then-Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. This deputization gave contractors the authority to make arrests and even use lethal force while “securing neighborhoods.” The number of racially motivated killings by these contractors, the police, and white vigilantes during the disaster will never be fully known. Despite the exposure of multiple police cover ups, less than ten officers faced any consequential action. When the National Guard arrived, they also treated the two-thirds Black city as a warzone. Brigadier Gen. Gary Jones, who commanded the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force, told The Nation, “[t]his place is going to look like Little Somalia. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”

This notion of “taking the city back” is ridiculous given that before the storm hit the city was reported as being “calm” with the only exception being the preemptive militarization of the police, who violated the 2nd amendment rights of the citizens of New Orleans by confiscating all firearms. This effort did not impede the white supremacist militias’ ability to arm themselves as they held entire neighborhood blocks, shooting at anyone who approached their territory and robbing at gunpoint other people throughout the city. One group of white supremacists attempted to rob a health clinic in the primarily black neighborhood of Algiers but were halted by a multi-racial armed group including Malik Rahim, a former member of the Black Panther Party, and Scott Crow, a Texan anarchist who had come to New Orleans to help

During Katrina, Malik and other organizers created the Common Ground Collective. Together, they established medical clinics and distributed resources. The Collective enlisted the help of the same gang members from whom the National Guard and private military contractors were “taking the city back” to distribute supplies and provide aid to their communities. This is the silver lining of disaster: in times of crisis, we see differences laid aside and moments of clarity regarding class consciousness. It becomes apparent who looks out for one another versus who buys hired guns to protect their vacation homes. After Katrina, the Common Ground Collective went on to reorganize with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR), an autonomous collective of relief efforts that has grown to be involved in nearly every climate-induced disaster since. 

These organizers are not alone; following the devastation of Hurricane Florence, the Socialist Rifle Association, at that point less than one year old, worked to deliver aid to the North Carolina and Georgia coasts. A month later they did so again with Hurricane Michael, delivering supplies down to the Florida panhandle. A year following, after Hurricane Dorian and under the new title of SRAid, they delivered over $4,000 in supplies and sent three teams to the coasts of North and South Carolina. SRA, MADR, and similar organizations operate under the philosophy of mutual aid with the understanding that state response will always be an echo of Katrina: racist, classist, and rarely adequate for what the working class needs. They also believe in working with community organizations already in the affected zones rather than simply propping up the state by assisting with organizations like the Red Cross or FEMA. 

This is how we will survive the impending climate crisis. This is how we will mitigate the effects of climate disaster for those who have contributed the least to the causes of this crisis, yet are left to bear the brunt of its consequences. We must act in solidarity and work to build networks between communities now, before we face more and more frequent Katrina-scale disasters. 

 

What should we do?

As people dedicated to helping our fellow humans, it is crucial that we embrace the science and material reality that faces us. If you are under the age of thirty you can safely put aside any ideas of retiring peacefully into whatever safety net you may have been able to scrounge up. You must abandon the idea that in thirty years the world will look the same as it does now, that the tech industry, our own capitalist government, or even a Green New Deal will somehow save us from this future hellscape. However, we cannot let ourselves fall into nihilistic despair over the future. As dark as the future may be, it is our responsibility to our communities and the vulnerable within them to not let our despair discourage action. The groundwork we lay now is the foundation on which we build a better future. Community aid in the face of the disasters of capitalism is how we will build the future we want. We cannot afford to wait until it is too late. We cannot afford to abandon those who are least responsible for the crisis created by the bourgeoisie, whether they are fellow members of the working class or migrants from the global south. It is our responsibility to soberly embrace the current reality of the climate crisis and prepare our communities for it. We cannot fall into “prepping” on an individualistic or alpha mentality in which the rich survive and the rest of us are left to our own demise. Preparing our communities means building solidarity through action and relief. As our current health crisis wrecks the US and travel bans, supply chain problems, and the stock market wreak havoc on our world, we must constantly remind ourselves that we are only as resilient as the community we build. We are only as prepared for disaster as our community is. We keep us safe.

For more information on these outcomes I encourage you to read the works that I am citing which go into far more detail and far more science than I can within this article.

_

Nate Rosenberger is a member of the Piedmont Left Review
editorial collective.

Notes:

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/251728/weekly-number-of-us-grocery-shopping-trips-per-household/
  2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2016/01/06/63-of-americans-dont-have-enough-savings-to-cover-a-500-emergency/#23e6041a4e0d
  3.  Wallace, Pg. 30
  4.  Jem Bendell, “Deep Adaptation,” in Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability, (Carlisle: University of Cumbria IFLAS Occasional Paper 2, 2018), Pg. 3.
  5. Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman, Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences for a Hotter Planet, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).
  6.  IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.
  7. Mark Saunders and Adam Lea,Extended Range Forecast for Atlantic Hurricane Activity in 2020”, Dept. of Space and Climate Physics, (London: University College London, 2019)
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america
  9. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/numbers-syrian-refugees-around-world/
  10. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/us/politics/blackwater-security-contractor-iraq-shooting.html
  11. https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2009/08/secret-history-hurricane-katrina/
  12. Ibid.
  13. https://www.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=618