Reportage. It is unfortunate that the most crucial years of the climate emergency will be guided by a morally corrupted political class, which denies science and fans inequality. Through floods and fires, we have already glimpsed the fate of our planet.

Capitalism vs. the planet: toward an apocalypse of water, fire and record profit

This Fall of 2019 may be remembered as the moment in which the “slow motion catastrophe” of climate change finally came to be perceived as an actual emergency. 

In these months the United States formalized its renunciation of the Paris climate accords — that insufficient but essential piece of an attempted global response to the environmental crisis. 

It was the season in which a teenager addressed the UN, expressing all the outrage and the righteous rage of a generation that, it appears, will be left to deal with the woeful failures of those who come before and a future that looks increasingly dire. Greta Thunberg’s dramatic address was followed by a North American tour in which the young Swedish activist sought to spotlight the issue of climate change and its impact on the planet’s diverse communities.

In November, Greta sailed back toward Europe and the COP 25 Global Climate Conference in Madrid (Dec. 8-12) at the same time a once-in-500-year flood devastated Venice. Anguished residents tweeted images of the sea water engulfing the city in an Acqua Alta event with few precedents. The level of the tide which submerged medieval streets and priceless monuments equaled a previous record set in 1966. The city’s San Marco Cathedral was inundated with knee-high salt water for only the sixth time in its 1,000-year history. Two of those events have now been recorded in the last 20 years.

The great flood of Venice came on the heels of increasingly urgent warnings from the scientific community about the accelerating speed of antarctic ice melt and its foreseeable effects on global sea levels.

Sounding the retreat

In mid-October, just as the Caribbean hurricane season was giving way to fire season in the Western United States, a wealthy enclave in Northern San Diego county caused a controversy by refusing to comply with California Coastal Commission requirements. 

The agency, which has jurisdiction over the state’s coast, asked every community with Pacific shoreline to prepare contingency urban plans that take into account forecasted coastal erosion and coastal flooding due to rising sea levels. Local administrations must show they are prepared to deal with coming floods with planned barriers and sea walls, shoring-up projects and other measures. Among these, the Coastal Commission is also requiring “planned retreats” in which cities must show plans for abandoning frontline and low-lying areas more prone to flooding and likely to be at risk. 

In light of ever-harsher climate phenomena, and while the political establishment is largely still in scientific denial, “coastal retreat” has become a reality at the local administration level. Cities have in fact been building the abandonment of at-risk areas into their urban planning. From New Orleans to Miami (not to mention Fiji and Bangladesh) planned retreat from the coasts has already begun, as well as, of course, the very much more chaotic exodus of climate refugees. 

What made news in Del Mar was the refusal of the wealthy residents to even contemplate abandoning luxury homes in the face of advancing waters. In fact they — and many other coastal residents — may soon no longer have the luxury of that choice.  

The California coast is actually rated as one of the best prepared. Elsewhere many battles are already being lost. After Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic landfall, for example, Louisiana has already forfeited lands as “indefensible.” Case in point, the small Isle de Jean Charles, the ancestral home of the Chitimacha, Biloxi and Choctaw native people, has lost 98% of its landmass, and its last inhabitants are being relocated en masse. 

In Florida, whose 1,350 miles of coastland are statistically some of the most at risk, coastal retreat is also a reality. A University of Florida study estimated that 80% of the Florida Keys may end up underwater before the century is over. In the Sunshine State, six million people may have to relocate inland — three million just in Miami-Dade County. Each successive hurricane season determines an advance of the water — and the retreat of homeowners who decide not to rebuild — or are redlined by mortgage banks and insurers and have no choice but to leave.

Elsewhere, like in New Jersey, the state bought out 3,000 owners whose houses were destroyed or damaged by superstorm Sandy in 2012, and their land has been designated to remain permanently uninhabited while it builds a 5.3-mile barrier on its Southern coast meant to keep the water back — for now. 

The startling truth that emerges from a growing number of studies and scientific projections is that up to 13 million Americans may have to abandon the coasts by the year 2100. The Great Flood of Venice may just be a taste of things to come. And the same fate may soon befall the citizens of Dakha, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Mumbai and Kolkata. The resulting refugee crisis could dwarf the current exodus as well as presumably lead to commensurate xenophobic reactions which some are already calling “climate fascism.”

Before the flood

Rising sea levels recently became headline news again. A new climate study published by the journal Nature at the beginning of November modeled the topographical elevations measured with a variety of laser (LiDAR) and satellite methods and cross-referenced them with the most recent forecast for sea level rise to produce an interactive, searchable map of what the world’s coasts might look like in 2050.

The results are dramatic to say the least. Up to 190 million people worldwide currently live under what is projected to be the level for high tides by 2100. But those projections refer to a best case scenario, one in which aggressive measures are immediately adopted to contain and reduce carbon emissions. In the worst (and more probable) forecast, in which emissions continue to grow at current rates, climate refugees forced to abandon land that will become uninhabitable may total 630 million — 150 million just by 2050. 

Miami, Shanghai, Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City, Venice and New Orleans are among the cities that would lose land to floods or be largely engulfed. Great deltas the world over, traditional draws for population centers, risk becoming flooded. At the mouth of the Nile, Alexandria may disappear altogether. In the Mississippi, much of Louisiana’s Bayou could be lost. A similar fate could befall the Mekong delta, threatening 20 million people, one quarter of Vietnam’s population.

California on red alert

Before leaving North America, Greta Thunberg spent some days in California. Speaking in Los Angeles, she referenced the wildfires raging in Southern California at the time. The tens of thousands of people evacuated in those days, she proposes, should by all rights be counted as climate refugees, victims of flames fanned by annual drought and winds whose incremental intensity ha produced ever fiercer fire seasons and are directly tied to a climate ever more demonstrably out of balance. 

All of it highlights the glaring absence of a political response. On the contrary, Donald Trump, whose administration considers climate change a “scam,” blames the victims. He threatens to withhold federal aid because local authorities did not “rake the forests” like he told them to (never mind that this year’s wildfires have burned almost exclusively in brush — and that the majority of California forests are actually on federal land). It’s the “depraved indifference” denounced by Robert Redford in a scathing op-ed commenting on the American exit from the Paris treaty on Nov. 4.

The episode is tragicomic, but the mounting clash between California and the Federal government well represents the absence of a political response capable of rising to the dire occasion. 

The squabble is also part of a larger environmental fight pitting Sacramento, the California capital, against Trump’s climate-denying White House. Since his swearing in, Trump has been on a mission to reverse Obama-era regulation — none more vehemently than the strict rules enacted on carbon emissions — part of his dismantling of the EPA and the entire environmental apparatus on behalf of the carbon industry. 

That in turn has pitted him squarely against California, which was granted a special waiver in the 1970s to set its own strict fuel efficiency standards to which automakers have traditionally conformed. Trump is now threatening to revoke the waiver and force the state to conform to more lax efficiency standards. 

The dispute has given rise to regulatory chaos: Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW, representing approximately 30% of the US market, have publicly adopted California rules. Toyota, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler signed on to the Trump plan. Decades of progress on air quality and the nation’s largest market for electric vehicles hangs in the balance.

Sounding the alarm

The California standoff is emblematic of the damage in the wake of the populist-liberal regression taking place at precisely the wrong moment: just when the accelerating climate change would require creative and responsible politics and time is running out. That fact became even more unmistakable with the publication in BioScience of yet another study on Nov. 5. 

The document reads in part: “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat. … On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” 

The signatories go on to detail the threats and outline a necessary response in six points. The sixth is remarkable.

  • Reduce emissions of carbon, methane and hydrofluorocarbons
  • Replace fossil fuels with cleaner, renewable energy sources
  • Protect and restore Earth’s threatened ecosystems
  • Reduce meat consumption and reform industrial food production
  • Population control
  • Shift economic goals from GDP growth toward sustainability and prioritize reducing inequality

This statement of factual truth by the scientific community underscores the political nature of the crisis as well as a necessary precondition for its solution. If we are to escape the vicious spiral of consumption and forced growth which have brought us to this point, we need to radically rethink the system which produces it. Markets cannot supply the solution because they have in large part produced the problem. 

As Naomi Klein details in her latest book, On Fire, neoliberal tweaking of the system is doomed to fall short, now that the problem has been ignored for so long. Capitalism is incompatible with the survival of the planet — as became abundantly clear in Venice where a fragile lagoon system was never protected and turned into a docking pond for cruise line behemoths, which further damaged the seabed and broke the ecosystem’s ability to self regulate.

The dynamic was underscored in California this Fall. As the flames from the wildfires lit up the skies red and the Diablo and Santa Ana winds howled in the canyons and brushlands, millions of residents also had to contend with power blackouts. For days on end, the anxiety of approaching danger was compounded by the lack of electricity in wide swathes of the state, plunging millions of citizens of the vaunted technological utopia, and fifth world economy, into pre-industrial uncertainty. 

The shutoffs were intentional cautionary measures by the state’s electric utilities whose power lines have been blamed for a growing number of fires. Winds wreak havoc on exposed electrical wires, causing short circuits and sparks which have ignited blazes, including one that destroyed 1,200 homes in Santa Rosa and last year’s deadly fire that killed 89 people in the Northern California town of Paradise.

The California singularity is that two-thirds of electrical utilities have been privatized. Companies like PG&E and Southern California Edison have had little incentive to maintain the aging infrastructure, concentrating instead on the business of private corporations: maximizing profits, distributing dividends and generous bonuses to executives. At the same time, as the fire damage and environmental devastation mount, utilities have been driven to bankruptcy by lawsuits and liability and left the public with the bailout bill as per the familiar model of private profits and socialized losses popularized by Wall Street. The latest instance of market forces bespoiling the planet and leaving us to pick up the pieces — and the tab.

There could not, in short, have been a worse regime to deal with the growing emergency than the neoliberal status quo that arose with Reaganism to engulf the planet with financial oligopolies culminating with today’s runaway inequality and rise of unstable extremist, authoritarian regimes. A global regression which coupled with environmental imbalance is literally a mortal double threat. 

Such is the stage for what is arguably civilization’s greatest challenge, one that will have to answer the question posed by British theorist Mark Fisher: Will the death of the planet come before the demise of capitalism? Or will we be able to imagine an alternative?

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