This story originally appeared in Jacobin on Aug. 2, 2023. It is shared here with permission.
We have entered uncharted territory when it comes to climate breakdown, after climate agencies declared the first week of July as the hottest week ever recorded. The hottest week on record comes in the wake of the hottest June on record. And all of the warmest eight years ever recorded have come since 2015, with 2016 being the warmest ever, followed by 2019 and 2020.
Skeptics might argue that these records have only been kept for a small portion of human history — global temperature records only date back to the 1850s. But the UN confirmed that over the course of July, fourteen days have recorded global surface air temperatures higher than 17 degrees Celsius — an increase that has not been seen over the course of the last 125,000 years.
Heatwaves brought astonishing temperatures to southern Europe, with Almeria, Spain, experiencing a temperature of 44 degrees Celsius. Rome experienced its hottest day ever, with temperatures reaching 41.8 degrees Celsius, and temperatures of 45.3 degrees Celsius in Catalonia also broke records. Wildfires spread through Portugal and Greece as a result of extreme heat, and fires raged in Italy, Croatia, and Turkey.
This comes on the back of the astonishing scenes in North America, where Canadian wildfires blanketed the region in smoke. And a heat wave that swept across the southern United States brought record-breaking temperatures to parts of Arizona, Texas, and California, with temperatures in Phoenix peaking at 118 degrees Fahrenheit, or 47.8 degrees Celsius.
Toward the start of this year, parts of South Asia recorded temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius, though they often felt higher due to humidity. Climate change made the heat wave at least two degrees hotter than it otherwise would have been.
Ocean temperatures have risen sharply too. In Florida, ocean temperatures reached a shocking 38.4 degrees Celsius — at least six degrees above what should be expected, in what could be a record-breaking rise in ocean temperatures. NASA recently observed that the oceans are changing color as a result of this phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, record-high ocean temperatures have led to record-low sea ice coverage in Antarctica.
Rising temperatures are already killing thousands of people. The scientific journal Nature recently released a study showing that up to sixty-one thousand people died last year as a direct result of heat waves across Europe. In the United States, extreme heat is already the top annual weather-related killer — and 104 million people were placed under heat alerts last week as a result of rising temperatures.
These deaths due to extreme heat are just part of the picture. Already, air pollution causes 6.7 million premature deaths each year. And extreme weather events, like floods, wildfires, and droughts, are becoming more likely — weather-related disasters have increased fivefold over the last fifty years, leading to two million deaths and $4.3 trillion worth of economic damage.
More than 90 percent of these deaths occurred in the Global South. Those forced to bear the consequences of global warming largely caused by the Global North are those least able to bear the economic and health consequences. As Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, passionately attested in Glasgow in 2021, the rich world has been astonishingly slow to provide aid to those places on the front line of the fight against climate breakdown.
And things are only going to get worse. Scientists are now extremely concerned that temperatures will breach the limit of 1.5 degrees above preindustrial temperatures set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier than expected. The break could come as early as next year.
A leading climate scientist told the BBC last week that it was likely the scientific community had severely underestimated the rapidity and severity of climate breakdown. If current trends continue, the earth’s temperature is likely to reach 3 degrees above preindustrial levels over the next century, which would bring catastrophic damage to the ecological systems upon which human life on Earth depends.
The greatest obstacle to our ability to tackle climate breakdown is, of course, a capitalist economic system that views the earth’s natural wealth as a “free gift” to be exploited for private gain. We have known for some time that one hundred companies are responsible for around 70 percent of global carbon emissions.
In fact, scientists at firms like ExxonMobil were aware of the damage that would be caused from burning fossil fuels as far back as the 1970s. But rather than bringing this information to the public’s attention, studies were buried, research budgets cut, and billions poured into lobbying and climate denialism. The company is now facing court cases across the United States as a result of the cover-up.
One study has demonstrated the direct consequences of the emissions released by the biggest fossil fuel companies, showing that BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Total, Aramco, and Chevron are collectively responsible for $5.3 trillion worth of damage likely to emerge from climate breakdown between 2025 and 2050. The companies owe the world — and particularly the poorest nations — $209 billion in annual climate reparations as a result.
So, what is stopping us from taking on the power of the big fossil fuel companies?
Clearly, these firms and the coterie of lobbyists, lawyers, and politicians that support them are very well-organized. But the forces opposing them are not. Rather than banding together to demand that the big fossil fuel companies pay for the damage that they have caused, most people seem to believe that the only way to fix climate breakdown is to stop using plastic straws, take the bus, or go vegan.
This individualistic understanding of the problem, and the potential solutions, is by far the greatest challenge that the climate movement faces. Yet leading climate campaigners can often be found playing up to this dynamic by blaming working people for their “carbon footprint” —a concept that was developed by BP to shift the blame for climate breakdown onto individuals.
No one person caused climate breakdown. While the wealthy are disproportionately responsible, no one group caused climate breakdown. Climate breakdown is the direct result of an utterly unsustainable economic and social system that gives most people no choice other than to pollute in order to survive.
The only way to change this is to transform the very foundations of our society — from the infrastructure we use to travel, live, and work, to the ideologies that allow us to make sense of the world. Alongside capital, individualism is perhaps our greatest enemy in this fight.