By Martin Empson
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Social change can stop climate catastrophe

This article is over 16 years, 8 months old
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last week makes for stark reading. It examines the consequences of climate change for people and the ecosystems we live in.
Issue 2046

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last week makes for stark reading. It examines the consequences of climate change for people and the ecosystems we live in.

Some sections of the report were toned down at the insistence of officials from China and the US.

US negotiators managed to eliminate language in one section that called for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, according to Patricia Romero Lankao, a scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, who was one of the report’s lead authors.

The US also insisted on removing a part that said there was “very high confidence” that climate change had already affected “many natural systems on all continents”.

Despite this, the report has truly shocking figures.

By 2020, between 75 million and 250 million people will be exposed to “an increase of water stress due to climate change”. That’s scientific speak for dried-up rivers and streams, leading to drought and famine on an unprecedented scale.

With “high confidence” the authors conclude that in some African countries agricultural yields will halve by 2020.


Already we are seeing significant reductions in glaciers and mountain snow which, in places like northern India, are the major sources of drinking water for millions of people.

Climate change will not simply impact on the developing world. IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri concludes, “It’s the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit.”

The IPCC predicts more flooding, heatwaves, wildfires and decreased rainfall across Europe and in areas of the US. Heatwaves will become longer, hotter and more common.

No one should have any illusions that this will improve life – the European heatwave of August 2003 killed over 35,000 people.

The report contains similar warnings for every part of the globe. Given the scale of the problem we face, you would have thought that the politicians would be gearing up to collectively discuss how to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

Instead, even when solutions are offered, we are told it is up to us individually to solve the problem.

We must stop driving cars, reduce flights, turn television sets off overnight and examine our lifestyles.

Many concerned people have done these things, but the truth is that acting as individuals is not going to be enough.

Sadly, millions will face famine and drought in the next few years, which means that governments should already be examining how to protect their populations.


To achieve the massive reductions in emissions that are needed to limit global warming to pre-catastrophic levels requires fundamental social change.

Developed countries such as Britain have far higher emissions than most of the world, so will need to make a greater contribution in reductions.

Author George Monbiot has given a detailed explanation of how this could be done. His book Heat imagines a country that builds properly insulated houses to reduce energy use, where significant amounts of power come from renewable energies, where properly funded collective transport provides an alternative to the inefficient car, and where electricity and heat are generated locally.

Changes on this scale cannot happen through changes to individual lifestyles. And, for all the environmental rhetoric we have seen from Tony Blair, carbon dioxide emissions are now at their highest level since Labour’s election in 1997.

The problem is that our economic system is based on fossil fuels. It is estimated that the US food system consumes ten times more fossil energy than it produces in food energy.

Such inefficient use of energy is at the heart of every aspect of capitalism. So the necessary changes require taking on big business.

Massive investment in public transport would mean the government taking on the power of the car companies and the road lobby. Subsidising renewable energy means confronting the oil and gas multinationals.

It’s the “poorest of the poor” who have the most to lose from environmental destruction. But they have the most to gain from a world that is planned and organised for need, not for profit. They also have the collective power to bring that world into being.

The Socialist Worker pamphlet Climate Change: Why Nuclear Power Is Not The Answer by Martin Empson is available for £1 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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