Socialist Worker

Tipping points - Are we too late to save the climate?

There are alarming signs that global warming may have passed ‘tipping points’ of no return. This is a cause for urgent action, not despair, writes Dave Sewell

Issue No. 2416

Rapidly thawing permafrost in the Arctic

Rapidly thawing permafrost in the Arctic (Pic: Awing 88 on Wikimedia Commons)

Why are giant holes suddenly appearing in Siberia? Three craters have recently been discovered, apparently formed in the last two years. 

Scientists have now investigated the largest, and found intense levels of methane. 

This is a carbon-based gas with a greenhouse effect more than 30 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

There’s a debate about whether it caved in from above or exploded from below. 

But either way the permafrost that keeps the soil frozen rigid has been thawing. And this appears to be leaving it too weak to hold in the gas that saturates it.

Further north, ocean scientists have found large quantities of methane bubbling to the surface of the Laptev Sea. Climate scientist Jason Box tweeted last week, “If even a small fraction of the Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked.” 

We don’t know how recently these emissions have grown. But the warming of the Arctic could explain them too.

The release of Arctic methane has long been identified as one of the most dangerous potential “tipping points” for climate change.

In mathematics, these are points in a system where small changes of input lead to large and often irreversible changes in output.

If you give your car a slight push closer to a cliff edge, you can undo it with a slight push the other away. But if you push it when it’s on the edge, no small push will bring it back.

Similarly, humans can warm the climate enough to release the Arctic methane. But they won’t be able to put the methane back by reversing their initial damage. 

It’s often impossible to pin down exactly when a tipping point occurs until long after the event. There are a number of other big ones that could be looming ahead or have already been passed. 

Does all this mean that we’re finished? Not necessarily. We certainly shouldn’t be scared into passive acceptance that the worst is inevitable.

The climate in the future will be different to the past, and going back is probably impossible. But how different it will be, and what it means for us, remains to be determined.

Climate change is not an event but a process, and processes can be intervened in.

It is not a linear process that slowly goes up and can be slowly brought down again. It is a complex web of causes and effects that can’t simply be played in reverse. This only makes it more urgent to act while we can.

Even estimates from the energy bosses suggest that if present policies continue, the world could have warmed 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Scientist James Hansen

Scientist James Hansen (Pic: Nasa)

Meeting the official target for “acceptable” warming of 2 degrees Celsius would require a fast and far-reaching economic transformation of the world economy.

The 0.8 degrees that we have seen so far have already begun to reshape the environment. And prominent scientists led by NASA’s James Hansen warn that even 2 degrees is too much.

Politicians like to talk about climate change in the future tense. They promise big reductions in emissions in the future, while pushing policies that increase emissions in the present.

But every year that emissions cuts are delayed means that more greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere in total. And the policies that shape the economy today lock these emissions in for decades.

If the Tories succeed in creating a whole new fossil fuel industry through fracking, it will mean a new generation of gas plants. They could be in operation for between 25 and 50 years. The Tories are desperate to expand London’s airport capacity to compete with Europe’s hub airports.

And they are entrenching the control of the market over housing, transport and industry. This gets in the way of efficiency just as it gets in the way of the safety and comfort of all but the rich.

The bad news is that they will keep doing all this and more to try and stay ahead in the race for profit. The good news is that they face resistance on all of these fronts.

And winning these battles now will be easier and have a more powerful effect than cutting the emissions associated with them a few decades later.

Supporters of the system all want excuses to continue with business as usual—putting profit before the needs of people and the planet.

For some this means denying that climate change is even happening. For others, it means holding up far-fetched technological fixes that might one day neutralise emissions.

But for a growing section it means treating climate change as inevitable.

The insurance bosses increasingly plan for higher seas and more chaotic weather.

Energy firms are keen to exploit the new opportunities to get gas and oil from the Arctic, even if that makes the crisis worse.

They have sunk up to a trillion US dollars into fossil fuel reserves. But this fuel will have to stay in the ground if climate change is to be dealt with. That’s a trillion dollar bet against us.

Some of the most powerful vested interests even play up the worst—not to argue that change is necessary, but that it is impossible to stop.

The Pentagon predicts that climate change will cause riots and resource wars—partly so it can lobby for long term military funding. 

Nestle boss Peter Brabeck-Letmathe has been leading a crusade over the real threat of freshwater scarcity. But he argues that water has been “undervalued” and needs a price. Meanwhile, Nestle is bottling water from drought-hit regions to sell elsewhere.

There is a long tradition of the hard right wing claiming that ecological disaster is inevitable.

They have argued that Earth’s resources are too limited for humanity.  Therefore  to keep them protected someone must own them, hoard them and keep everyone else from consuming them, whatever the human cost.

But their predictions have often been wrong—or self fulfilling.

The way in which capitalism uses the earth’s resources is unsustainable. But humans have the capacity to find new ways of meeting their needs for food and shelter—when given the chance. It’s capitalism that gets in the way of survival.

Some of history’s biggest famines have coincided with food being hoarded or exported for profit.

Natural disasters from heatwaves to hurricanes invariably kill more in places where people are unprepared than where they can afford the right architecture, healthcare or transport. 

So the problem of climate change is inseparably linked with the future of capitalism. This is both in terms of adapting to the changing climate and in terms of preventing the worst of the change.

GWF Hegel (Portrait by Jakob Schlesinger)

GWF Hegel (Portrait by Jakob Schlesinger)

Either the system will survive at the expense of the environment, or we will gain control of climate change at the expense of the system.

But this isn’t cause for despair—because tipping points don’t only exist in the climate.

Although the language is different, the concept would be instantly familiar to the revolutionary Karl Marx.

He used the “dialectics” of German philosopher GWF Hegel to understand human history. According to dialectics, everything is transient, finite and changing. And this change can only be understood as a clash of opposing forces combined in one system.

Little by little the balance between these forces shifts until one overcomes the other, in crises that turn gradual “quantitative change” into sudden “qualitative change”.

Marx saw that every seemingly stable social order had a beginning and would have an end. 

Even as it grew and flourished, it would be gradually getting rid of the conditions that had made it possible. This contradiction would ultimately tear that society apart and create something new.

This is just as it had been created out of the contradictions in the society that came before.

Capitalism is built on a struggle against the working class, which it brings into existence only to exploit. Marx said the system was creating “its own gravedigger”—and that its struggle could end in only two ways. One is “mutual destruction”—which could certainly be on the cards. 

The other is the victory of the workers—replacing capitalism with a socialist society. 

This could redirect the vast productive powers that go into trashing the environment towards building the kind of world we want to live in.

It can seem a very long way away. But you can never be sure which small struggle could “tip” revolution to the top of the agenda.

So capitalism’s days certainly are numbered. Whether we go down with it is still to play for.

Read more

Environmentalism in crisis
by Ieuan Churchill in International Socialism Journal, issue 142

Land and Labour: Marxism, ecology and human history
by Martin Empson, £12, Bookmarks Publications

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

The International Fight for Climate Jobs—For a Future that doesn’t Cost the Earth

Conference hosted by Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group

Saturday 20 September, 12 noon to 5pm

London Metropolitan University Tower Building, Holloway Road, N7 8DB

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