It is customary, in Britain at least, during the days of the winter solstice from late December to early January, for most people to succumb to the spirit of “the festive season.” This is understandable and there is much about the festive celebrations that is genuinely warm-hearted and convivial. There are no national day celebrations in Britain as there is no national day and no notion of what might be acceptable as one. So the family Christmas lunch or dinner is the closest this country gets to the US Thanksgiving. Most people celebrate Christmas, but only a very tiny minority of them celebrate it as a religious festival. This is something that must be quite puzzling to those who follow other religions such as Judaism, Hinduism or Islam, whose festivals and holy days are times of religious observance. After all, unlike the United States and France, England and Scotland have an established church – the Church of England and Scotland, which have a legal position in the state. The Queen is the head of the church and is officially named “Defender of the Faith.” Yet only 1.5% of the population attend church on anything like a regular basis. According to Christian theology, the three most sacred days of the year are Christmas Day (the birth of the divinity in human form), Good Friday (his death) and Easter Sunday (his resurrection from the dead). Yet in the consumerist bonanzas that have come to dominate all three commemorations, they are associated predominantly with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Easter eggs and Easter bunnies. Religion hardly gets a look-in. Regarding Christmas, it might be said that if a committee had been set the task of expunging every element of religion from the festival and replacing it with an appeal to “shop until you drop”, they couldn’t have come up with anything better than this. The “success” of Christmas is measured in terms of sales figures and profit margins and for the legions of cash-strapped parents struggling to make ends meet, in the increasing volume of personal debt. But Prime Minister Cameron, in his Christmas message, tells us that Britain is a Christian country.
It is also customary at this time of the year for the communications media to cast cares aside in favour of entertainment and encouragement of a “feel good” mood. This year it was not so easy to bring this off. The UN climate change conference which ran from the 30th November to the 12th December opened in Paris just weeks after the terrorist atrocity in the city. Demonstrations planned by climate activists to take place there were banned. The man-hunt for perpetrators of the mass killings extended to Brussels. Both cities have been operating under emergency conditions ever since. London and other European cities were placed on high alert. The traditional New Year’s Eve firework displays were either called off or strictly policed for fear of terrorist attacks.
The UN Conference on Climate Change
The Paris conference was hailed as a great success in that delegates eventually agreed in a final draft that their countries would seek to limit global temperature rises to no more than 2 degrees C. compared to pre-industrial levels. They would “pursue efforts” to hold rises to 1.5 degrees. Commendable though this sounds, it doesn’t amount to much and on the basis of precedent there are few grounds for optimism. Some climate scientists believe that in order to stand any chance of achieving these aspirational goals, during the next 20 years or so greenhouse gas emissions will have to be reduced to zero. The conference produced no timetable for any such reduction, settling for the aim to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gases as soon as possible.” Cameron for the UK government added his voice to the optimistic rhetoric despite having made clear much earlier that he couldn’t wait to get rid of the “green crap” that he had felt obliged to commit to under pressure from his Lib Dem coalition partners after 2010. He and his Tory partners in hypocrisy and dissimulation have plumbed new depths of duplicity, seemingly unconcerned about the glaring contradiction between their words and their deeds. For this government the relentless pursuit of austerity has meant drastic cuts in funding of renewable energy programmes. While paying lip service to the Paris commitment to cut demand for fossil fuels, Cameron is actually committed to maximising their supply. George Monbiot recently pointed out that “The UK government has even imposed a legal obligation upon itself, under the Infrastructure Act 2015 to ‘maximise economic recovery’ of the UK’s oil and gas. Extracting fossil fuels is a hard fact.”
Flooding: The Shape of Things to Come
The indirect impact of climate change on Britain has been alarmingly evident over recent weeks in the extensive flooding of large parts of northern England and Scotland, driving thousands from their homes. The recurrence of such disasters, resulting this time in the inundation of parts of cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Carlisle, has put paid to the complacent assurance that they would only occur once in a hundred years. Funding has been cut to flood defences. According to Monbiot, part of the explanation for the increasing intensity and range of urban flooding is the acquiescence of UK governments in the farming and grouse-shooting lobbies’ insistence on deforestation of uplands and flatlands to accommodate sheep farming and grouse shooting. This results in rapid saturation of the soil from which torrential rain cascades directly into the rivers which burst their banks directly into the urban centres through which they flow. Through subsidies to agribusinesses the government is actually facilitating the flooding. As long as this insane situation is allowed to go unchecked the disastrous consequences flowing from it will continue to be repeated, year after year, until it is beyond control.
Far more could be said about this but the bottom line is that to stand any chance of keeping the rise in global temperatures at 1.5 c. above pre-industrial levels, 90% of existing fossil fuels must be kept in the ground. Either this target is achieved during the next 20 or 30 years or a tipping point will have been breached from which there can be no return.
Facing the Storm
The term “perfect storm” is so over-used as to render it platitudinous. But if it was intended to describe a confluence of alarming and seemingly uncontrollable events into a cataclysmic whole, then the multi-faceted global crisis facing humanity at the present time might be so described. The increasing sense that the world is facing what John Bellamy Foster in the November 2015 issue of the US Monthly Review terms “The Great Capitalist Climacteric” appears inescapable. The impact of anthropogenic global warming and climate change is increasingly evident, not solely in the increasing frequency of severe droughts and flooding, the melting of the polar ice caps, rising ocean temperatures and sea levels. It is also frequently a factor contributing to social breakdown, civil war and the mass migrations of peoples in the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. One need only mention some of the most salient examples to confront the inescapable reality of a global crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions:
The Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine-Israel, Saudi-Arabia – Iran, the Sunni-Shia conflict. Chaos and destruction on a vast scale stemming largely from the 2003 illegal US/UK invasion of Iraq. Millions of Syrian refugees.
Libya – the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 NATO military intervention to effect regime change. Afghanistan – the resurgence of the Taliban 15 years after the US/UK invasion and occupation to oust them and capture Osama bin-Laden.
Of course global warming and climate change has not played a direct part in many of these examples, but US Imperialism and its Western allies have been, and continue to be involved as they seek to retain and extend their dominion over territories that were once ruled and exploited by the European colonial powers, often in their insatiable quest for oil. Their nurturing of Islamist militias has produced the Frankenstein’s monster of Isis – a fascistic Sunni terror group that is now able to wreak havoc in the heart of Europe. The US/NATO support for the fascist-backed 2014 Maidan coup in Ukraine has brought the European Union and the US into conflict with Russia which is quite rightly not prepared to tolerate further expansion of NATO on its borders.
There can be little doubt that during 2016 one or more of these crisis points will blow up. Wherever and whenever it may occur, the consequences could be extremely dangerous and increase the likelihood of ever widening military engagements. But however serious such a prospect may be, of all the dangers facing the world in the years ahead, nothing is more serious than the threat posed by climate change and global warming. Every socialist - everyone concerned for the future of humanity should understand that this cause takes precedence over all others.
John Bellamy Foster concludes his powerful analysis of the ecological crisis facing humanity and indictment of the capitalist system that is responsible for it, with these words: “Turning this economics of exterminism around, and creating a more just and sustainable world at peace with the planet is our task in the Great Capitalist Climacteric. If we cannot accomplish this, humanity will surely die with capitalism. The prophesy of all defenders of the current order over the last century will then be fulfilled. Capitalism will mark the end of human history by bringing to an end human civilization – and even human existence. The Great Capitalist Climacteric presents us with a fatal choice: System Change Not Climate Change!”