Certain years inevitably become associated with world-changing events, their utterance a shorthand for war, uprising or the emergence of a new order. While 1914 will forever be synonymous with the outbreak of World War I, for 1917 there’s the Russian Revolution. 1929 has the Wall Street Crash, 1945 the triumph of the Allies, and 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall. More recently, 2008 saw a global financial crisis, the aftereffects of which remain with us today.
While it’s still only August, 2020 looks set to join this clutch of dates. This year is already identified with a pandemic which, in less than six months, has claimed the lives of 170,000 Americans – higher than the number of military casualties the country endured in World War I and Vietnam combined. A similar number have died across Europe, with the pandemic not only taking lives but exposing the shortcomings of our political institutions, cultures and, in some instances, politicians.
But while this year will long be remembered for the coronavirus, what drives history is less singular moments – the spectacle of an uprising, cessation of a conflict or, we hope soon, the production of an effective vaccine – than trends and habits. The engines that created the modern world, rather than any single edict or battle, were the gradual emergence of the printing press and Europe’s engagement with the Americas. Thereafter came capitalism, nation states, modern bureaucracy and the domination of the West over the rest.
Beneath the surface, similar shifts are afoot in our own time. One is automation, and what it means for jobs, power and inequality. Another is the rise of China and the geopolitical implications of a non-western superpower – particularly if it assumes technological leadership. Less frequently cited, though no less consequential, is demographic ageing and the changes it will wreak not only on our economic model, but culture and politics too. Yet none of these transformations compare, in the long term, to man-made climate change.
While the coronavirus has grabbed the headlines, with no little justification, 2020 was the year runaway climate change became normal, the mundane background noise to a world increasingly out of control. There is no longer any need to talk in the future tense as parts of our planet become increasingly uninhabitable, speculation rendered reality.
Towards the end of July, the Middle East saw record-breaking temperatures. Iraq’s capital Baghdad reached an unprecedented 52°C, while Basra, perched on the Persian Gulf, hit 53°C – just short of the record it set in 2016. Syria and Lebanon also hit new highs, while Kuwait City and Abadan – Iran’s oil capital – both went north of 50°C.
Far from this year being an outlier, such ferocious heat offers a glimpse of the future. According to a 2017 report by the United Nations, average temperatures in parts of the Middle East could rise more than 4°C by the end of the century. At that point the number of days over 40°C would have dramatically increased, while precipitation would be down. Such changes aren’t limited to West Asia, of course (though in a number of respects the region is on the front line of climate systems breakdown) – according to one report, as many as three billion people could be living in ‘uninhabitable’ conditions by 2070.
At the same time as shoe soles were melting on the pavements of Baghdad and the city saw power cuts caused by the extreme weather, Canada’s Milne ice shelf – the last whole shelf in the country’s Arctic region – fragmented. At the beginning of the last century, Ellesmere’s northern coast had a single shelf spanning some 8,600 square kilometres, but by the turn of the millennium this had fallen to slightly over a thousand square kilometres. Today, just two decades later, it is half that, with temperatures in May around 5°C higher than the thirty year average.
Things are just as bad in northern Russia, where May temperatures in parts of the Siberian Arctic were 10°C higher than the monthly average. In late June, the Russian city of Verkhoyansk, 3,000 miles east of Moscow, reached 38°C, and there are already indications that this year’s Siberian wildfires have reached worst-case scenario forecasts predicted for 2050. Such deadly transformation is explained by the fact the Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, with researchers now predicting the possibility of no summer ice in the region as soon as 2035 – although the mid-point of this century is regarded as more likely.
Then last Sunday saw a potential new record for the hottest temperature anywhere on Earth as California’s Death Valley hit 54.4°C. The following day in Hamamatsu, central Japan, temperatures hit 41°C as part of a heatwave which had seen consecutive days above 40°C. This tallies with recent studies which claim that by 2100, many places in the Northern Hemisphere can expect around 69 days of extreme heat per year – eight times more than in 2012. The direction of travel, from the Arctic to the Persian Gulf and California, is inarguable.
If such rapid acceleration sounds implausible – convenient, cherry-picked data for the climate Cassandras and their confirmation bias – consider this: more than half of all carbon emissions generated in human history have been produced since Taylor Swift was born. China, re-emerging (after a brief hiatus) as a millennia old superpower, now pours more concrete every two years than the US did in the entirety of the twentieth century.
The singular tragedy of global warming is not having insufficient information to act, but rather being entirely aware of the situation – with often worst case predictions coming to pass – and deciding to still turn things up a level. When the ledger for this century’s ‘excess deaths’ is determined, those most responsible for unnecessary suffering won’t be dictators, generals and ideologues, but media tycoons and politicians who denied the reality of climate warming or failed to act.
What the coronavirus crisis has usefully demonstrated, however, is that behavioural change at the level of the individual is inadequate to deal with global warming, rising sea levels and declining crop yields. This has been confirmed by the fact that despite the spectre of empty motorways and a spectacular downturn in consumption, lockdown had a negligible impact on rising global temperatures. What’s more, decisive efforts by states around the world – from lockdown measures to building new healthcare capacity, and even redirecting production and labour to socially necessary areas – have saved the lives of millions. It is hard to acknowledge this while defending the motto of neoliberalism over the last four decades – that the market always knows best, and the state should just get out of the way.
In a crisis, everyone becomes a socialist. The problem is that even now, the powerful can afford to ignore the greatest crisis of them all.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.