The Warming of the Earth

Rising temperatures are altering the earth’s climate in fundamental ways and threatening life as we know it. The preeminent climate expert in the U.S. government, and perhaps in the world, is James Hansen, who is NASA’s director of Goddard Institute of Space Studies. Hansen testified twenty years ago, in 1988, before a congressional committee on the first hard evidence that human activities were responsible for global warming, raising the concentration of carbon, a major greenhouse gas, to a level above the concentration existing prior to industrialization. Since his original testimony, many hundreds of scientifically peer-reviewed studies have confirmed and buttressed his earlier findings, and further established that fossil fuels (along with deforestation) are central factors in the  steadily rising temperature of the earth, and that the consequences are destabilizing or destroying eco-systems around the globe. Hansen commented just a few weeks ago that the relevant scientific community is now over 99% confident in confirming the reality of increasingly harmful and catastrophic global warming.

One can find a sophisticated and comprehensive analysis of what is known about global warming in articles included in this July-August issue of Monthly Review, the title of which is “Ecology: Moment of Truth.” On the first page of this issue, John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York capture the momentous effects that global warming, and the lack of responses to it, has already produced, in the following statements.

The effects of warming

“Available evidence now strongly suggests that under a regime of business as usual we could be facing an irrevocable ‘tipping point’ with respect to climate change within a mere decade. Other crises [all significantly related to global warming] such as species extinction…; the rapid depletion of the oceans’ bounty; desertification; deforestation; air pollution; water shortages/pollution; soil degradation; the imminent peaking of world oil production…; and a chronic world food crisis – all point to the fact that the planet as we know it and its ecosystems are stretched to the breaking point.”

To amplify what these authors are saying, the earth’s forests and oceans have long been repositories for carbon, absorbing it from the atmosphere and helping to maintain temperature levels within a range that has been conducive to the flourishing of life in all of its forms, including human life, for the past tens of thousands of years. Now these “sinks” are becoming less effective in the face of continuing massive deforestation and the growing inability of the oceans, due to warming and accompanying acidification, to absorb as much carbon from the atmosphere as they have in the past. Rising temperatures are also causing the ice-snow covers in the Arctic, Greenland, and Antarctica to shrink, the earth’s mountainous glaciers to gradually disappear, and millions of acres of permafrost to melt in Siberia and elsewhere, the effects of which absorb the sun’s rays rather than reflect them back into space. This albedo effect serves to accelerate the heating of the earth’s temperature. Additionally, the fossil-fuel driven economic growth of China, India, and other “developing” countries, combines with the similarly grounded growth of “developed countries” like the U.S., in fostering an accelerated  heating of the earth’s atmosphere.

The authors of the Monthly Review article further quote, as follows, James Hansen’s recent views on global warming:

“Our home planet is dangerously near a tipping point [or many tipping points] at which human-made greenhouse gases reach a level where major climate changes can proceed mostly under their own momentum. Warming will shift climatic zones by intensifying the hydrologic cycle, affecting freshwater availability and human health. We will see repeated coastal tragedies associated with storms and continuously rising sea levels.”

Hansen says that we only have a few years to reduce the concentration of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. On this crucial point, the authors quote Hansen again: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggests that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm [parts per million] to at most 350 ppm.” Under current policies, the level of concentration is, under the best of circumstances, predicted to rise to at least 450 ppm over the next 15 or 20  years, and likely into the 500 ppm range after that. At 450 or 550 levels of carbon concentration, average temperatures will be much higher, and their effects much greater, than in the present. As Mark Lynas notes in his book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet: “climate change…refers to the increase in global atmospheric temperatures as a result of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the air around us.”

How do progressives fit in?

The list of expanding problems that beset us and others across the globe is long. Those of who are progressives, representing a minority across the political spectrum of the society, are particularly challenged more than ever by this increasingly multi-faceted and fast-moving situation. By definition, progressives in the context of the U.S. include those who favor, for example, more equality, more democracy, fair trade, international institutions and relations that are shaped by the goal of peace, as well as public policies that will produce environmentally sustainable economies. Progressives generally hope to realize their goals through incremental changes, often through an agenda of comprehensive incremental changes. And they tend to favor action that stems from the grass-roots, as, like Populists, they distrust those in positions of political and in economic power.

Insofar as action, it’s not unusual for progressives to be involved in a multiplicity of ways to affect change, in the electoral and political processes of the country, in a host of different types of social movements, in local efforts to build democratic participation and protect communities against harmful development while looking for ways to regenerate and sustain economies and eco-systems, and in life-style changes that are identified as environmentally-friendly. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that, whatever the scope of change they seek, progressives typically envision reform within the framework of some sort of liberal or social-democratic capitalist economic system. They thus typically do not seriously consider whether the corporate-dominated, neo-liberal capitalist system should itself be an object of comprehensive reform, if not transformation.

Within this bevy of activity, global warming is an extraordinary challenge for progressives. Whatever other changes are sought, if global warming is not contained and reversed, their actions may be for naught. The current levels and rates of global warming are unprecedented in human history. We are not talking about economic or historical cycles of change that come and go, so that after a period of decline there is a recovery and expansion. We are facing climate changes, and their consequences, that are irreversible.

Where does all this lead?

What is the implication? While the climate-change crisis is certainly not the only great problem we face, it may be one that will serve to help spur or galvanize a political movement strong enough to jump-start the system toward the needed structural and comprehensive change. If we can solve the problem of rising temperatures, we may also simultaneously go a long way toward solving other major problems we confront, wherever there are powerful interests trying to preserve the status quo.

Finding a way around corporate power

A key question, then, is whether progressives can build or help build a political force capable of making the necessary changes and do it quickly, keeping in mind that progressives are a minority in the political landscape of our society.

The economy is dominated by large corporations, whose principal goals are profit and capital accumulation. Progressives typically address the problem of corporate power with calls for tighter regulation, higher taxes, or the threat of withdrawal of government subsidies. But they have not yet figured out, or dared to address, how generally to reduce corporate power, or to reduce it without harming jobs, undermining pensions funds, or provoking a decline in corporate investment and an economic crisis. They too rarely consider the option of expanding the public sector. As Michael Harrington, one of the best-known American socialists in the 1960-1980s, suggested many years ago, why not build a public-sector solar-industry in New England, that would stimulate innovation, jobs, profits for re-investment, much smaller executive salaries, much less lobbying, much less advertising, and no or very little out-sourcing. Progressives need to take such views more seriously when they confront the crisis of climate change and chart new courses of action outside of the corporate-dominated private sector of the economy.

Political Obstacles

The political obstacles are just as great. Progressives are embedded in an economic- political system that has proven, as yet, to be unable to respond to unfolding crises, and this is certainly true of climate change. It is not hard to figure out why there has not been sufficient reform or transformation. The problems require comprehensive and structural changes, yet the system yields, at best, incremental changes. Congress does not have anything like a progressive majority that would advance the radical and comprehensive reform that is needed. Corporate lobbyists have disproportionate influence over legislative issues. At the same time, the executive branch of the federal government is filled with appointees from the corporate world. Like the legislative branch, those in the White House and executive branch of government are pressured to focus on short-term interests and too often swayed by powerful lobbies, the demands of big contributors, in the limits imposed by already existing institutions and infrastructures.


Given all of the structural and political constraints, what are the possibilities for action among those who think of themselves as progressives?

The global challenge regarding climate change is daunting, though it may, it we are lucky, spur the creation of innovative local models worth emulating, vibrant social movements, ecological regenerating and sustaining technological developments, a government that becomes far-sighted in its policies and decisions, and inspired international cooperation. If Jim Hansen and his fellow scientists are right, we don’t have much time. In the meantime, check out the website: