Fish returning to ponds not spotted in in decades, birdsong becoming more audible, goats invading Welsh towns, and pterodactyl spotted flying above the river Tyne. Such were the reports of the ecological bounce back in the first UK lockdown of 2020. Indeed, the most featured climate paper of the year in mainstream and social media was on reduced global CO2 emissions, globally, due to lockdowns.
Nonetheless, emissions were still vast, and built on years and decades of ever-accelerating greenhouse gas emissions, to deliver the joint-highest global surface temperatures on record — alongside 2016. For ocean heat, the highest.
Despite many acclaimed bourgeois economists, institutions, and politicians calling for it, there are no serious signs of a “green recovery”. Instead, a bounce back and a fossil-fuelled reboot seems currently on the cards — not to mention other types of pollution and environmental degradation. We should not expect more from the MPs’ letter on 25 January to the Bank of England urging a green recovery; nor from the IMF head simultaneously encouraging greater support for climate adaptation.
On the same day, Monday 25 January, a new review article has found that global ice loss has been accelerating faster than ever, tracking the “upper range” of scenarios predicted by the IPCC (see Solidarity 560: bit.ly/s-560).
This dire predicament makes radical class struggle environmentalism more important and urgent than ever. We can still halt, then start to reverse, the environmental crises which we are experiencing. We must simultaneously acknowledge that some catastrophic climate change is happening now, and will continue.
“[The] world must increase efforts to adapt. 2020 was not only the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also the year of intensifying climate change: high temperatures, floods, droughts, storms, wildfires and even locust plagues. Strong action is needed now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming this century to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C. Adaptation — reducing countries’ and communities’ vulnerability to climate change by increasing their ability to absorb impacts and remain resilient — is a pillar of the Paris Agreement.”
So said the UN Environmental Programme, publishing their “Adaptation Gap Report 2020”. This “finds that while nations have advanced in planning, huge gaps remain in finance for developing countries and bringing adaptation projects to the stage where they bring real protection against climate impacts such as droughts, floods and sea-level rise.” They emphasise the need for “nature-based solutions”.
Recognising that the ruling class and their institutions cannot be relied on, the environmental and labour movements must fight for a just and necessary adaptation ( bit.ly/sea-r).
Environmentalists have often shied away from raising adaptation. We are wary of beingperceived as accepting defeat, as giving up on drastic carbon reductions. We do not want to give an easy get-out for those who want to kick the can down the road, belching out yet more greenhouse gasses with the promise of a future solution.
Understandable concerns: tackling climate change at its root remains our central task. We cannot limit ourselves to administering palliative sticking plasters. No matter how well we adapt, if we carry on driving the climate change juggernaut at comparable speeds, it will rapidly overwhelm us. We will be left playing an endless and futile game of catch-up. Yet the two are not mutually exclusive: indeed, they can be intimately linked. Technologically — rewilding and afforestation can reduce river flooding while promoting biodiversity and sequestration — but more crucially, politically linked.
Adaptation can seem like a more immediate and scalable response to environmental catastrophe. The impacts of carbon emissions are dispersed — unevenly — over the whole planet and ensuing century. But the impacts of whether or how adaptations have been made can’t help but stare you in the face as the water climbs through the streets and laps around your ankles.
This makes its class nature and division more obvious. We know that under capitalism the impacts of climate change will be disproportionately burdening the exploited classes: locally and internationally. But when working class homes are getting destroyed while unaffordable elite abodes remain protected, it may be that bit more visceral.
Adaptations to the harms caused by environmental crises, even more visibly than the attempts to limit or “mitigate” the crises themselves, are not a politically neutral one-dimensional scale running from “no adaptation” up to “maximum adaptation”. By whom? For whom? The answers to these questions shape adaptation in its entirety.
Adaptation and mitigation are both necessary, and will happen one way or another. We must campaign for them, and contest how they are done. Starting from the immediate struggle around concrete environmental issues facing working-class people — campaigning over adaptation — could be a route into wider class-struggle environmentalism, and building the mass movement we need.
Stop killing bees
On 8 January, the UK government authorised the use of a bee-killing previously banned neonicotinoid pesticide (see Solidarity 577). On 22 January, a new global study found a continual decline in the number of bees found each year since 1990, with “approximately 25% fewer species reported between 2006 and 2015 than before the 1990s”. Sign a petition against the government’s decision here