The past few months saw a devastating drought crawl across the United States, leaving withered plants and worried farmers in its wake.
Record temperatures and little to no rainfall left huge swathes of the country with water shortages, and agriculture took a dire blow. Key crops such as corn and soybeans were hit hardest, with 88% of corn affected.
For the countless workers whose livelihoods depend on these crops, the drought brought a desperate mood. It’s easy to get caught up in statistics and the big picture and forget the individual, but for each farm that suffers, so does a family.
The damage has not merely been limited to farmers, either. A drop in key agricultural production sends violent shocks cascading throughout the entire system.
In July, corn prices increased by more than 30% . Everyone from farmers purchasing animal feed to people shopping in grocery stores will feel the effects of that rise.
The average American already spends around 13% of their annual income on food, with poorer families spending up to 17%. So as with anything increasing the cost of living, high food prices will hurt the poorest people the most. And because 53% of global corn exports and 43% of soybean exports come from the U.S., the rest of the world will also feel the pain of rising prices - never mind that they have to deal with their own extreme weather.
The beginning of the year already saw rising food prices cause a food crisis in parts of Africa that affected more than 18 million people. Around a billion people worldwide are starving or malnourished. Extreme weather will only worsen the problem.
The New Normal
The heat wave this summer is not unprecedented, nor is it the worst drought on record (merely the worst in over five decades). What it is, though, is the shape of things to come.
As climate change intensifies, droughts and heat waves like the one this summer will become more common and more intense. Horrific heat waves and water shortages will become the “new normal.”
Not only will this devastate the livelihoods of the farmers and cause billions of dollars in economic damage, it will cause food prices to rise to dangerously high levels, and if it continues, it will lead to mass starvation. Ground water is already being depleted faster than it is being replenished all over the United States. That, combined with rapidly retreating glaciers, will make the effects of the droughts that much worse.
And the United States is not alone - climate change is a global phenomenon. Whereas the United States infrastructure can mitigate some of the problems, many countries all over the world, especially in the third world, will have a much more difficult time. Droughts and other blows to agriculture will be even more catastrophic. It’s hard to estimate how bad it will be and how many people will die as a result, but by all estimates the effects will be chilling to witness. Already, “normal” is being adjusted. An analysis of storm-related disasters shows they’ve been on the rise, from around 133 per year in the 1980s to more than 350 per year now
Why Isn’t Green Change Happening?
Despite the best efforts of the environmentalist movements, climate change is not slowing down; it is accelerating. Carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, and a variety of natural feedback mechanisms will only compound the problem. As the ocean slows its absorption of heat and greenhouse gases, as the arctic permafrost melts (releasing around 1500 billion tons of methane and reflecting less sunlight), and as deforestation continues, climate change will intensify.
On the world stage, there has been failure after failure as bickering capitalist nations refuse to come to any real, binding agreement that would make even a fraction of the progress needed to end carbon dioxide emissions. While most governments seem to love to espouse flowery rhetoric about reducing emissions and changing paradigms, any agreements reached are either couched in terms of vague promises or are postponed until the distant future.
Several conferences have ended in such inadequate messes, with the most recent being Rio+20. There, the 190 governments participating reached no agreement that will even slightly mitigate climate change.
Recent events, such as a heat wave in July causing 97% of the surface ice of Greenland to begin to melt (compared to the usual 40%), or the fact that Arctic Sea ice is once again startlingly below average should serve as reminders to us all that real action needs to be taken.
In the U.S., the Republicans clearly aren’t concerned about climate change. Some don’t even acknowledge its existence. One might hope they would deny the existence of other theories with comparable evidence and then attempt to fly off a tall building after claiming disbelief of gravity. Those that do admit climate change is real either dismiss it as a minor concern or some sort of natural variation. Even when the U.S. faced 14 billion-dollar disasters in 2011, Republicans continued to rail against green technology.
Many people then look to the Democratic Party for solutions to climate change. Indeed, many Democrats like to talk about sustainability, green technology, and saving the environment. Like the Rio+20 conference, some Democrats are willing to issue poetic manifestos about stopping climate change and “going green.” They are not, however, willing to pass rules or regulations that have any real effect on carbon dioxide emissions, never mind other types of pollution.
For example, Obama’s approval of the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline clearly reveals his true colors. BP’s criminal negligence of safety features caused the Deepwater Horizon rig to explode, murdering 11 workers and causing the infamous catastrophic oil spill that did billions of dollars in damage. Obama, however, still not only takes campaign contributions from BP and other oil companies, in 2010 he opened a massive swathe of the U.S. coast to offshore drilling.
Meanwhile, subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuel companies continue to hover around $70 billion, even as the corporations receiving them rake in record profits. The Democratic Party has made no meaningful effort to move the country towards carbon-free power. U.S. carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise.
What are the Solutions?
The truth is, both the Republicans and the Democrats are in the pockets of the corporations and the ultra-rich who are responsible for most pollution worldwide. Similar patterns can be seen all over the world. No capitalist politicians are going to stop climate change. They rely far too much on the campaign contributions of the fossil fuel industries, and the revolving door between the regulatory bodies and the industries they’re supposed to regulate continues to give corporations free reign to ravage the environment. There’s more money right now in gutting the planet, and not much in saving it.
Historically, change has come not by electing the right people, but by forcing the government’s hand through mass movements and popular pressure. Major environmental reforms were made under President Nixon - not because he was an environmentalist, but because of the protests at the time. Other examples can be seen in the labor, anti-war, civil rights, and women’s rights movements. The greatest reforms were made not through elections, but through protest, civil disobedience, strikes, and other tactics.
The solutions to end climate change already exist. We have the technology to build the zero-carbon energy sources we need, to develop clean energy transport (including streetcars, light rail, intercity rail, and major expansion of freight on rail), to retro-fit and build energy efficient buildings, and to drastically reduce the waste of resources and energy in producing our needs. All theses change will make life better and healthier for people and benefit the environment.
We have the labor, too - unemployment could be ended if people were put directly to work in a green jobs program. A jobs program reworking transportation infrastructure alone could provide 7 million jobs (enough to put back to work everyone who lost a job in the 2008 economic crisis).
The problem has never been scientific or physical; it has always been about politics and economics. The ultra-rich and corporations in the U.S. hold the vast majority of the wealth. Through that wealth, they buy power, but only if we let them. If we refuse to play by their rules, if we take direct action and are ceaseless in our efforts, we can not just mitigate, but actually stop climate change. But we need to act soon.
 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jun/23/rio-20-earth-summit-document [rio +20]