Cynthia Rosenzweig, climate expert, NASA
The world’s media is dominated by stories of ‘extreme weather’ events, which have struck different parts of the world between June and August 2007. These may be due in part to the 2006-07 El Niño and La Niña ocean and atmospheric phenomenon in the Pacific. But their mounting regularity confirms a pattern predicted by the majority of scientists, who have been warning of the dangers of rapid climate change caused by the cumulative effects of human activity on the environment.
Flooding has hit in the USA and the UK as well as many countries in Asia. A record-breaking heat wave has roasted Mediterranean and Eastern Europe and causing widespread fires and killing hundreds of people. Around the world millions have been made homeless, adding to the growing number of climate refugees.
A week of torrential rains in India caused massive flooding around the end of July and into August. On August 3 the BBC reported that 12 million had been displaced or marooned in India and 5.5 million in Bangladesh. TV coverage shows families camping on the roofs of their houses, waiting for rescue or food and drinking water to come. This follows the massive flooding in northern Pakistan in June and a cyclone that more recently ravaged the country, leaving over 1.5 million people without homes and killing over 250, mainly in the impoverished Balochistan region.
But the effects of climate change are not restricted to the countries of the Global South. Flooding hit areas in Britain in June, inundating large areas of cities like Hull and Sheffield. Within weeks the floods moved to the south and west. Cities like Gloucester suffered widespread damage to housing.
Across the world at the same time flooding in Texas killed 11 people. But water is not the only problem; the incredible heat wave has left much of Europe and South Asia sweltering in record temperatures. In Greece a temperature high of 43 degrees centigrade was recorded, Bulgaria 45 degrees and 41 in Romania were reported. Forest fires have swept many areas, old mines and bombs from the Second World War buried under the ground have exploded in some parts. The BBC reported that 30% of Serbia’s crops were destroyed in the heat.
A heat wave in south-western USA has also seen temperatures rise to near record heights, Las Vegas baked in 47 degree heat, Phoenix Arizona notched up 45 degrees and further north in Eastern Oregon 15 temperature records were broken in various towns and cities on one day.
A commonly heard argument is that the flooding that has taken place recently is nothing special because we have always had floods. Indeed, but anyone who tries to grapple with how global warming is affecting the climate would not be so foolish as to blame every extreme weather phenomenon on climate change. Certainly there are cyclical variations caused by phenomena like El Niño and La Niña. The point is that a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that these weather events will become more common because of the changes in the atmosphere due to human activity. Human pollution of the atmosphere is making these phenomena worse and it is human activity that we can change.
A report published in Britain in the journal Nature at the end of July concluded that ‘extreme flooding events’ would happen with increasing frequency as a result of climate change. Even if primarily the effects of El Nino on the Atlantic cause the current flooding in countries like the UK, the question that will be increasingly posed internationally is whether the current economic and social system can cope with the affects of ‘extreme weather conditions’.
One noticeable trend that has been quantified recently is a year on year increase in global temperatures. Britain experienced its hottest year on record in 1998, which was broken by the 2005 heat wave. This record was itself subsequently broken by the 2006 temperatures. Many climatologists predicted 2007 to be hotter still, and April was the hottest month on record, but the complex weather patterns confounded their expectations. Instead it is on course to be the wettest year ever recorded.
The Washington Post quoted Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, saying "No one should be surprised that 2006 is the hottest year on record for the U.S… when you look at temperatures across the globe, every single year since 1993 has been in the top 20 warmest years on record." She then added "Realistically, we have to start fighting global warming in the next 10 years if we want to secure a safe environment for our children and grandchildren."
A recent study on Tornados in the Atlantic has also pointed to global warming as a major factor. The report, published in July 2007 said “"We are led to the confident conclusion that the recent upsurge in the tropical cyclone frequency is due in part to greenhouse warming, and this is most likely the dominant effect”
Already the cost is being counted, the four storms in 2004 that ravaged the USA, Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne which all hit the coast of Florida, causing over 6 billion dollars of damage each – each one also got a place in the top 10 most costliest storms in US history.
The increasing climate is causing record melting of the polar ice caps, something that not only seriously damages the existing eco system there and threatens much animal life but in places like Canada is destroying the way of life of the Inuit communities. Rising sea levels will cause an increase in flooding and cold weather in the north and south. Some scientists believe that it will cool the Atlantic so that the Gulf Stream is effectively turned off, plunging Britain into much colder winter temperatures and that this could be quite a sudden event.
Flooding in Asia
Heavy rain in South Asia caused more flooding across some of the poorest regions in the world. People who had already been driven from their homes in earlier flooding now found the water washing away their tents in the refugee camps.
Bangladesh is particularly at risk of flooding; it is a low-lying country that has 230 rivers running into the Indian Ocean through it. In June and July over 700 people were killed in flooding there as the heavy rainfall caused rivers to burst their banks and join up with other flooded areas, putting massive areas of land under water. At one point almost half the country was under a deluge as every major river flooded.
One of the major problems is the mudslides that occur because of the rain. Many of poor people live in the outskirts of the cities in shantytown type dwellings at the foot of hills and mountains. Mudslides in India displaced 200,000 people in mid June, whilst in the Chittagong hill tracts over 120 people were killed in July. The poor housing and lack of basic infrastructure in these areas adds enormously to the death toll and hampers rescue efforts. Also because many of the areas affected are so poor the government does not prioritise cleaning up the area and returning people to their homes (or even rebuilding them).
Other areas affected include Nepal and Afghanistan where the situation established in India is repeated. Flash floods, mudslides and the massive spread of waterborne diseases are taking their toll on the rural poor in particular. With more rain forecast and a general increase in temperatures and wet weather in the future, the question is posed, how can these countries escape the cycle of poverty that turns these natural events into man-made disasters?
The aftermath of extreme weather
The dramatic scenes of flooding and the initial death tolls are only the beginning of the disaster for many people. Long after the TV crews have flown back home and reporters returned to filing salacious stories on the trivial lives of celebrities, the climate refugees and those still living in their villages and towns have to deal with all of the repercussions of the weather. Every major disaster disproportionately affects the working class and the poor. In contrast to the rich and the middle classes they often live in the most vulnerable locations, their housing is less sturdy and able to resist the forces of nature; they have less means available to them of escaping the disasters. In addition they are often the ones with little or no insurance or savings to make good the damage.
The death toll in such events can mount as the destruction to crops and livestock leads in the medium term to the collapse of the food economy. Thousands of people up rooted from their homes in isolated places, for instance in the hills of north Pakistan, are left with no food or clean water for considerable periods of time. Many people have to carry on their lives living on hand outs from charities and aid workers.
The problems of living in refugee camps, or in inadequate cramped housing with friends or family is compounded by health problems caused usually by lack of food and clean drinking water. Flooded areas that lie stagnant become infested with insects that cause outbreaks of diseases like malaria, dysentery and typhoid.
The devastation caused to countries like Indonesia by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami is an example of the problems that can come after a major event. Though of course an earthquake and a tidal wave are purely natural event, the location of human population, the lack of early warning systems, the fragility of houses, the absence of flood defences or adequate rescue services are not. They are the result of a social system. Capitalism with its manifest incapacity to plan and make forward provision or to respond swiftly where profit is not involved, imperialism which depletes the resources and inflicts poverty on two thirds of humanity these are powerful, indeed decisive factors in accounting for the misery such natural events cause.
In Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka the process of rebuilding entire villages that had been destroyed was a long and arduous one, primarily held back not only by the sheer cost (even though billions of dollars was donated to the relief effort) but also by the problem of ascertaining who owned which area of land. Property deeds in many semi colonial countries are hard to attribute correctly and the bureaucracy involved in resolving such an issue takes months. This is before any reconstruction work can begin. In addition development companies in the process have flagrantly stolen land from the poor.
Many people who are affected by the extreme weather have complained bitterly at the feeling of being abandoned after the event. An example in Britain was the inhabitants of Hull in the north east of the country where heavy rain had caused flooding in June 2007. After the average summer rainfall fell in less than an hour, the city was closed down, trains cancelled, trams stopped and buses left in the garage, as roads became rivers through the city. The local pumping station could not cope with the amount of water and stopped working when even that became flooded and broke down.
The council estimated the repair bill between £50 and £100 million, but the Brown government has offered only £2.1 million. Now thousands of people are living in caravans and in emergency accommodation and may remain there for months to come. The failure to invest in proper drainage systems by Yorkshire water has contributed to misery for many of the cities inhabitants, this despite over £220 million being made in profits last year by the company,
Hull is just one of an increasing number of examples where government cuts, coupled with private company tight-fistedness and local council negligence has contributed to the problem, making the suffering much worse than it had to be.
If this is what it is like in a relatively rich country like Britain, how can capitalism cope with the disasters in under developed regions like South Asia?
The shadow of New Orleans
A lot of the present flooding brings to mind the man made disaster that occurred in New Orleans in 2005. A massive storm, Hurricane Katrina, one of the biggest ever recorded at sea hit land in the USA towards the end of August killing over 1,800 people and causing $80 billion worth of damage. The real tragedy was the totally ineffective, inadequate and irresponsible actions of the federal and state authorities in failing to ensure that plans were in place for a complete evacuation of the areas in danger. Many of the poor and elderly in New Orleans, a city in particular danger of flooding because it is built on a flood plain, were left to their own devices as a call was sent out to evacuate, but no transport was provided.
The media reported that a number of people had ‘chosen to stay behind’ and ‘ride out the storm’ – pictures on TV of working class black people making futile attempts to protect their property by boarding up their windows and putting mattresses against their front doors hid the fact that they were staying there because they simply had nowhere else to go.
In his article ‘How the free market killed New Orleans’ Michael Parenti wrote, ”It was not until day three that the relatively affluent telecasters began to realise that tens of thousands of people had failed to flee because they had nowhere to go and no means of getting there. With hardly any cash at hand or no motor vehicle to call their own, they had to sit tight and hope for the best. In the end, the free market did not work so well for them.”
The massive hurricane and accompanying flooding burst 53 of the inner metropolitan levees in the city, flooding most of the city. People clambered onto their roofs or tried to get to the super stadium in the city waiting for someone to come and rescue them. But after several days still no one had come – the government made no serious effort to resolve the crisis, instead relying on churches and the Salvation Army to send relief workers and aid.
When the government did intervene it was first of all to send in the National Guard and other armed units to carry out ‘crowd control’ and prevent looting – indicative of how the capitalists cared more about defending their property than they did about the humanitarian disaster unfolding before them. New Orleans is instructive because it exposes the class and racial divisions that exist in capitalism and how ‘society’ decides who will be saved and who will be left to fend for themselves. The fact that such a catastrophe could occur in the country that boasts the most affluence in the world is proof that if you are poor, or a worker, or part of an oppressed minority, then you are not a priority for the government.
Parenti highlights an excellent juxtaposition between the attitude of the imperialists in Washington and the government in Havana, Cuba. Whilst the regime of Fidel Castro is far from being a working class democracy the economy of Cuba is based on post-capitalist property relations and is planned, albeit by a caste of bureaucrats. A nationalised and planned economy gives Cuba a massive advantage when dealing with potential climate based disasters over its rich northern neighbour. For instance in 2004 a massive Hurricane hit the east coast of Cuba, one that could have killed at least as many people as Hurricane Katrina if nothing had been done. However the Government evacuated the entire area and no one was killed, even though many homes were destroyed.
If we do not want more suffering on the scale not only of New Orleans in the west, but also Assam in India or cyclone-ravaged Balochistan in Pakistan then we must take action as a class to defend ourselves, our communities and our lives from not only the extreme weather but the rapacious economic system that we live under.
It is urgent that people take climate change seriously. In a recent poll in Britain most people ranked it lower in their list of concerns than things like dog mess and littering in parks. Although many people have not been negatively affected by climate change, the numbers that have are increasing and the situation will only get worse. In the future what we classify as ‘extreme weather’ now will just be standard weather patterns that occur on a seasonal basis.
The biggest problem facing the world today in terms of dealing with climate change is two things. First the snail’s pace with which the capitalist class is dealing with the issue. Unwilling to place any extra costs on their own major polluting industries, hiding behind a sudden concern for the development of China and India (not unrelated to their new investments in these countries) the United Sates under George Bush resisted all but the most tokenistic measures. If even he is now willing to recognise climate change, the US ruling class is still loath to make any fundamental changes that will damage their profit system.
The second problem is the lack of investment large scale measures to tackle the mounting effects of climate change: flood defences, drainage systems, drinking water systems and infrastructural projects like roads, railways etc, so that populations can be quickly relocated and rehoused in emergencies.
Both of these problems are rooted in the capitalist system. The question is not one of being able to afford rebuilding or relief work, there is plenty of money internationally for that – the problem is one of distribution, or rather who owns the wealth and what it is spent on. The US alone budgeted $626 billion on its military in 2007 and $643 billion in 2008. Add to this the gigantic profits of the corporations and their allocations to the luxury and waste of the rich and the pampered middles classes and it is clear that the material and human resources exist to tackle these urgent needs.
The current dominant economic and ideological trend within the world capitalism, what is called, variously, neoliberalism or globalisation, is a system that makes it money out of sucking the profits and wealth out of the third world, forcing every country to privatise and sell off its public sector industries (like water or health companies) to multi national companies which make more profit by not spending money in improvements or upgrades to the services. This is the natural logic of globalisation.
We must fight for governments to take the initial responsibility for disaster relief. The capitalists secretly prefer the NGO’s and charities to fly in and spend other people’s money on fixing the problems. Prevention is better than cure; therefore workers must demand that the governments spend their money not only on relief but also reinvestment in public services. The privatised companies must be forced to spend their ill-gotten profits on investment and improving the systems, if they refuse they should be nationalised and placed under workers control. The insurance companies in the west must be made to underwrite the costs of all flood damage and forced to provide cover for people, even on flood plains. If they protest or refuse to pay out then they should be nationalised and taken under workers control.
In the poorer countries we must campaign for immediate debt write offs. The imperialists have spent years sucking countries like India dry and exploiting its workforce, leading to massive under development for impoverished countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Some of the profits taken from those countries should be sent back as part of a massive reparations programme.
The long term affects of climate change cannot be accurately predicted with our current knowledge of the worlds ecological systems. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the rich and powerful will pollute us back into the Stone Age unless we take action. Greenpeace predicts that the generations alive today could be the last generations on the planet that could make a difference to climate change. A massive global shift away from carbon fuel burning energy production and transport must take place before it is too late. If the capitalists will not do this, then the working class must take the power and do it, otherwise all our futures are being sold to make a profit today.