Socialist Worker

Climate change and the struggle for existence

The horrors of the Asian tsunami will be repeated a thousand times over if we don’t act now to stop climate change, says Phil Thornhill

Issue No. 1934

Illustration by Eric Drooker (

Illustration by Eric Drooker (

The drumbeat on climate change in the media was never deafening, but it has been growing steadily louder of late. And now a horrific natural disaster fills the headlines for weeks: the Asian tsunami.

But has this got anything to do with global warming? Surely it was just an unlucky freak of geology - so we don’t have to worry unduly for the future?

Well, no. The destabilisation of the global climate has not gone away just because it has been temporarily upstaged by a movement of the Earth’s crust. The evidence for it is as overwhelming as it was before the tsunami struck.

Plot a graph of global temperature and atmospheric carbon concentration against time, you see peaks and troughs that rise and fall together, through the ice ages. Right at the end - that’s now - the carbon goes way up out of the range of all those previous variations.

So unless some miracle prevents temperature and carbon from closely tracking each other - as they have done for the last 400,000 years without fail - then temperature will also very soon rise off the scale.

That means a world a whole lot different to the one we know now. It means rising sea levels, desertification, flooding, mega-storms, extinctions, spreading diseases.

It means the tsunami disaster a thousand times over. It means disasters way beyond “compassion fatigue”. The rich will be too preoccupied with an insurance crash and a devastated economy to worry about the poor.

And by the time it starts actually happening, it will already be too late. We will already have stepped over the brink into irreversibility - the “delayed effect” nature of climate change means we need to act well in advance.

Many people think it’s already too late. But even if catastrophe is already on the way it will matter just how bad things get - whether millions or billions die.

It may be that the greatest struggle humanity has ever faced for its existence has already started. We need to get started on fighting that battle right now, for the sake of all who come after us.

Fight it? So how do we do that? Well, it’s us that’s responsible, isn’t it ? So surely all we have to do is stop emitting carbon fumes, ditch the car for a bike, get our electricity from a renewable source, and so on?

But what if the guy next door doesn’t do these things? People have to reduce carbon emissions everywhere, otherwise all that virtuous bike riding gets wiped out millions of times over by, say, some new coal burning power station in the US Midwest.

That is why we need an international climate treaty to make sure carbon emissions come down globally. Hence the importance of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated at the end of 1997, but only now due to come into effect.

Now Kyoto is far too weak to really bring emissions down to where we need them. But it’s a start and it means countries accept the principle of mandatory emissions cuts. A principle that you might see as the thin end of the wedge to lever away at further progress.

Some people certainly do see it as the thin end of the wedge - because they’ve been fighting it every inch of the way.

You know who they are: George Bush, who rejected Kyoto completely in 2001, and all those corporate heavyweights in oil, coal, and other fossil fuel industries whose energetic lobbying impelled Bush to take that action.

They make money, lots of money, out of burning carbon. And they want to keep on doing it. Never mind the “tsunami times a thousand” that’s coming our way.

Their money funds a network of Republican think tanks that are the spawning ground for Bush’s energy policy. And they don’t stop at political lobbying. By pumping money into lunatic fringe “science”, they have manufactured a fake controversy over global warming that otherwise simply wouldn’t exist.

Yet despite their efforts, the impending climate disaster is now writ so large in science that the rest of the world has muddled its way through to doing something at last.

The EU has bribed the Russians into ratifying Kyoto, so that the quorum for the protocol (countries that together account for 55 percent of world emissions) has finally been reached. That means the protocol - for the countries that have ratified it - comes into force next month. For one fleeting moment the world has acted together in defiance of the US, whose isolation is now exposed for all to see.

This is the moment to seize for all it’s worth. We must protest as noisily and powerfully as we can on behalf of those millions of victims of the future, who will be injured, dying, maimed, heartbroken.

Those victims will be just like those tsunami victims we see on our television screens - except that they will not be the victims of a “natural” disaster, but rather a disaster created, in no small part, by the greed and cynicism of the people that currently run the most powerful country on earth.

Phil Thornhill is a co-ordinator for the Campaign Against Climate Change. March against climate change on Saturday 12 February, central London. For details go to

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Sat 15 Jan 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1934
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