Be Moderate… We Only Want the Earth!

John Bellamy Foster

July 22, 2022


The following commentary was written in June 2022 by Marxist thinker and author of Marx’s Ecology John Bellamy Foster. It addresses the first part of the debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy, and Socialism” between the renowned American intellectual Noam Chomsky, the Chilean exponent of Collapsist Marxism Miguel Fuentes, and climate scientist Guy McPherson.

 

I agree with much of what Noam Chomsky, Miguel Fuentes, and Guy McPherson say, but do not agree completely with any of them. My view of the planetary ecological emergency starts with the world scientific consensus, insofar as that can be ascertained, and draws on the long critique of capitalism developed most centrally by historical materialism. In terms of the scientific consensus on climate change, the reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are most important. The planetary emergency is not, however, confined to climate change and also encompasses the entire set of planetary boundaries that are now being crossed, demarcating the earth as a safe home for humanity. Most of my comments here, though, will center on climate change.


In terms of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), published over the course of 2021-2022, it is no longer possible for the world entirely to avoid crossing the 1.5° C increase in global average temperature. Rather, in the most optimistic IPCC scenario (SSP1-1.9) the 1.5° C mark will not be reached until 2040, global average temperatures will go up a further tenth of a degree by mid-century, and the increase in global average temperature will fall again to 1.4°C by the end of the century. We, therefore, have a very small window in which to act. Basically, meeting this scenario means peaking global carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. All of this was outlined in Part One of AR6, The Physical Science Basis, published in August 2021. This was followed by the publication of the IPCC’s Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability report in February 2022, and its Mitigation report in April 2022.


Global surface temperature changes relative to 1850-1900 (IPCC, 2021)


Each IPCC assessment report (AR1-AR6) has three parts, each of which is published separately and is introduced by a “Summary for Policymakers,” followed by a series of chapters. In the IPCC process scientists, reflecting the scientific consensus, write the whole draft report. But the “Summary for Policymakers” for each published part (the only section of the overall report that is widely read, covered by the press, and constitutes the basis for governmental policies) is rewritten line by line by governments. Hence the published “Summary for Policymakers” is not the actual scientific consensus document, but rather the governmental consensus document that displaces the former. Especially with respect to issues of mitigation, related to social policy, governments can obliterate the entirety of what the scientists determined.