Climate Change Disaster Isn’t a Future Threat — It’s Already Here

From the historic heat wave tearing through the Pacific Northwest to temperatures "too hot for humanity" in Pakistan, the consequences of climate change are no longer a far-off threat — they're here right now.

People take to the beach during a hot summer day in Karachi, Pakistan, on July 2, 2021. (ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images)

British Columbia, Canada, reaches so far into the north of our globe that I once saw the northern lights close to its border with the Yukon. Canada’s geography perhaps makes it all the more stark that its recent heat wave has seen approximately three hundred excess deaths amid temperature highs of 49.5°C (121.3°F).

Many of the dead were elderly and living alone in unventilated homes. Shocking moments like this, now a more than annual occurrence, can jolt us into a renewed sense of urgency to do something about climate change.

Undoubtedly, Canada’s heat wave has garnered such attention in the Global North because it is a major economy, predominantly English-speaking, and largely white. We must not ignore the realities of extreme heat in parts of the world even more vulnerable to climate change’s impacts.

The UN World Food Program (WFP) has warned that up to four hundred thousand people in Madagascar are currently approaching starvation following back-to-back droughts. In a country where 1.14 million people are food insecure, fourteen thousand are already in catastrophic conditions. This crisis has caused thousands of people to walk for hours from rural to urban areas in search of food. WFP executive director David Beasley has been clear that these droughts, and therefore this internal displacement of people, are down to climate change.

Central Asia and the Middle East already contain some of the hottest places on Earth. Over the last week, Jacobabad in Pakistan reached temperatures reported as “hotter than the human body can handle” with highs at 52°C (126°F). This is all in a context where air conditioning is limited, blackouts mean there is regularly no electricity, and 40 percent of Pakistanis live in multidimensional poverty.

In the Middle East earlier in June, countries reaching highs of 50°C (122°F) included Oman, Kuwait, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. We are on a trajectory where parts of the region will likely become uninhabitable within our lifetimes, and even faster than expected.

This planetary crisis of extreme weather is not in the distant or even near future. It is already here, and it will only intensify year after year. Overall, we are not on track to reverse this trend — and we are not prepared to live safely with its consequences.

The Green New Deal

This context makes the recent surge in support among government, corporations, and NGOs for decarbonization targets of “net-zero by 2050” look pathetic. These targets reliably grab a cheap green headline, but, more seriously, they expose their proponents’ shared ambivalence about the scale and pace of action needed. Supporting net-zero 2050 is tacit admission that you’re happy to let the death toll carry on rising while delaying the elimination of emissions by three decades.

In 2019, Labour for a Green New Deal campaigned for the UK Labour Party to adopt a target of zero emissions by 2030. The debate around that aim focused on feasibility and implications for the UK, but our proposal to decarbonize within just one decade was led principally by a commitment to global justice. The UK has a responsibility to eliminate emissions faster because of its disproportionate historic contributions: one report puts the UK’s fair share of emissions reductions at 200 percent by 2030. That’s cutting our own to zero while financing equivalent reductions internationally.

Such a rapid target sets the pace for actual measures of a Green New Deal. Among the most crucial is a just transition out of fossil fuels and into clean energy. One striking thing about the heat wave in British Columbia is the domination of the province’s politics in recent years by debates around the Trans Mountain oil sands pipeline: Justin Trudeau was so committed to forcing the pipelines through (against British Columbia’s general will) that the federal government spent $4.5 billion to nationalize it.

The general trend internationally is a drive toward further extraction, supported by both governments and the financial sector. In Canada and beyond, it is the poorest and the working class who suffer while elites profit from the root cause of extreme weather.

A socialist Green New Deal aiming to meaningfully transform the economy is not just an ideological preference but now a necessity. Phasing out fossil fuels must be complemented with huge levels of investment in new industries and technologies, and this requires a decisive break with the austerity which has eroded state capacity over the last decade.

To ensure that the transition is both fast and fair, we must expand public ownership across the economy to supplant the failed and parasitic private sector. From that basis, we can embrace democratic planning to coordinate a mobilization of the entire economy, putting justice for the many ahead of the profits of the few by reindustrializing and creating millions of good green jobs.

In all of this, we cannot limit our ambitions to self-defeating attempts to decarbonize within the borders of just one nation. The heightened vulnerability of the likes of Madagascar and Pakistan to extreme heat is substantively down to a history of colonialism and an imperialist global political economy which continues to reproduce extreme inequalities within and between nations. Any Green New Deal in the Global North must include transfers of resources to support decarbonization internationally while adopting proactive public procurement strategies to promote environmental justice and workers’ rights in global supply chains.

A Just Adaptation

These moments of extreme heat rightly inspire fresh motivation to push for ambitious decarbonization strategies, but they also underline that it is too late to focus only on avoidance strategies. Even if we end all fossil fuel extraction tomorrow, many consequences of climate change are already with us, and they will keep on coming.

The Left and the climate movement should organize for programs of socially just adaptation to climate change to ensure that adequate resources and procedures are in place to deal with extreme weather as it intensifies, without throwing in the towel on mitigation. Climate adaptation could easily be geared toward preserving the profits of the rich; we have to make sure it prioritizes safety and justice for those least responsible for emissions.

Are our emergency services well funded to respond to disasters? Do we have robust health care systems prepared to expand capacity when required? Do we have evacuation plans including safe conditions for those displaced? Are there contingency plans for the distribution of food during shortages? Have we invested in our buildings to withstand storms or flooding and to cool during extreme heat? Do we have a socialized insurance system capable of providing sufficient cover for loss and damage to homes or businesses, regardless of cost? Do we have employment rights fit for an era where work will be made impossible by new conditions?

In too many places, the answer to most or all of these questions is a resounding no. Capitalism prohibits action to effectively decarbonize for the same reasons it limits investment in measures to live with the consequences of climate change: short-term profits are more important than safety and justice.

That’s why we cannot abide the false choice between mitigation and adaptation. The same measures of transforming the economy by expanding the public sector, increasing state capacity, mobilizing investment, and promoting economic democracy give us the tools to decarbonize and adapt at the same time, while meeting basic needs for all.

We should not accept from the ruling class a future where we live with the extreme weather of climate change — but we must prepare to do so. The Left and the climate movement should of course prioritize leveraging the state to meet those needs through a Green New Deal, but we cannot put all our eggs in the basket of political success. We need to prepare for multiple possibilities, including that we do not capture state power in the necessary timeframe, and the inevitability that capitalist states will not step up to the mark at the eleventh hour.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the beginnings of our capacity to build networks of solidarity and mutual aid in our communities in response to the state abdicating its social responsibilities during a crisis. Such organizing must be made more resilient and long-lasting, and always keep political transformation at the core of its mission. It may well prove a more permanent feature of our efforts if we are to defend ourselves from the extreme effects of climate change, and of the cruelty of the rich.