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El Niño And Climate Change: A Deadly Combination

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In 2022, humanity set all sorts of records. But not the good kind. As our global reliance on fossil fuels continues unabated, the effects of climate change are getting more and more severe. Last summer was one of the planet’s hottest on record, marked by historic heat waves, as well as droughts and flooding depending on the region. To pull a few examples, the temperature in London reached an all-time high of 104 degrees Fahrenheit, Japan saw its hottest June since 1875, and warm temperatures caused 33,000 individual wildfires in Brazil during August alone, the most the country has seen in over a decade.

This summer could be even worse, not just because the global billionaire class and the politicians who do their bidding continue to fail to take any real action on climate change. As of June 8, we are officially in an El Niño weather pattern, which means higher temperatures, extreme weather, and overall bad news for working people. 

That said, we are not in a climate apocalypse movie or on the brink of human extinction. There is a way out, through organized struggle of the workers, youth, and oppressed people living through the worst effects of climate change. To move forward and save ourselves from climate catastrophe, we need to thoroughly understand what’s happening to our planet and why, and we need to mobilize around our most urgent demands. 

What Is El Niño?

An El Niño is one phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a natural climate phenomenon characterized by the periodic warming and cooling of waters in the Eastern Pacific, near the Galápagos Islands. According to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “ENSO is one of the most important climate phenomena on Earth due to its ability to change the global atmospheric circulation, which in turn, influences temperature and precipitation across the globe.” Specifically, the El Niño phase of the ENSO cycle is the “warming” phase, with higher surface water temperatures in the Pacific, which usually has global weather impacts like higher temperatures, higher rainfall, and flooding. 

The last El Niño in 2016 resulted in the planet’s hottest year on record. Since then, global warming caused by capitalist greed has only increased, and 2020 even tied with 2016 for the hottest year on record. Given this, it’s likely that this summer’s El Niño – which could persist into the winter – will have significant impacts in the short and long term, as its natural effects combine with the consequences of climate change. Based on current conditions, scientists say there is a 56% chance of this El Niño developing into a “strong” event, like the kind we saw in 2016, and an 84% chance of it becoming a “moderate” event. 

During El Niño phases we can generally expect to see higher temperatures overall, including severe heat waves. Higher temperatures also result in higher rainfall in some regions, because the heat causes more water to be evaporated into the air, creating flood risks. In other areas, the hotter weather leads to drought and a heightened risk of forest fires. The phenomenon also tends to produce dangerous tropical cyclones in the Pacific, affecting countries like Ecuador, Peru, and others on the Western coast of South America, and can heighten the risk of severe thunderstorms worldwide. 

Additionally, in the same way that the ongoing effects of climate change can exacerbate the effects of an El Niño, the reverse can be true as well, with the effects of this summer’s El Niño threatening to push us above crucial temperature thresholds, which would have a destructive domino effect. Because El Niño events generally raise global temperatures, scientists expect us to, at least temporarily, cross the threshold of 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial global temperatures in 2024. 

Even if temperatures come back down in the following year or two, scientists still predict that, without urgent action, we are set to surpass that threshold for good within the next 5 years, after which we can expect serious, irreversible consequences. Hotter temperatures from El Niño could accelerate some of the most dire impacts of climate change that we’re already seeing, a significant example being the melting of ice sheets and glaciers in the Antarctic region. These ice formations melting completely would have devastating impacts worldwide. Another such example is the endangerment or extinction of certain fish and coral species as a result of warming sea temperatures. 

Human & Economic Consequences – All Burdens Fall On The Working Class

While we can’t predict the exact extent of the damage of the 2023/24 El Niño, we can look at the disasters we’ve faced in recent years to get an idea. One lesson is abundantly clear: whatever happens, it will be the global working class forced out of our homes, suffering from health consequences, and paying the high costs for damages and relocation, while the rich sit back and get richer from their system that is destroying our planet. 

The extreme weather we will almost certainly experience as a result of this summer’s El Niño will have devastating health impacts for working families around the world. Heat waves can be very dangerous and even lethal, especially for children, the elderly, and those with preexisting health issues, as well as in regions that are unaccustomed to high temperatures and don’t have widespread access to things like air conditioning. This was illustrated by the 2022 heat waves striking areas of Northern Europe which are used to cooler temperatures, where it is estimated over 20,000 died of heat-related illnesses. During heat waves, workers in many industries like construction and delivery have to fight for basic safety measures to avoid being at extreme risk of health consequences. 

El Niño events also come with an increased risk of wildfires, as some regions experience drier conditions and droughts, as usually occur in the Amazon rainforest and in Australia. Wildfires pose enormous risks for people, wildlife, and plants in their path, and for those farther away; we saw just last month how wildfires in Canada resulted in over 30 million people in the US being put under air quality alerts. Other regions of the world will be afflicted with higher rainfall patterns and/or rising sea levels due to melting ice near the poles, and will thus be at heightened risk for floods, like those which killed at least 1,700 people in Pakistan in 2022. In fact, the CDC already lists heat waves and flooding, respectively, as the top two deadliest weather phenomena affecting Americans

These risks to our health and our lives are of course also accompanied by economic risks. Extreme weather events can result in damages to our homes and schools, higher energy costs as we become more reliant on air conditioning or heating amid extreme temperatures, and even the need to relocate to a new area entirely because our homes and/or livelihoods have been destroyed. In response to this, capitalism is providing a perfect example of what happens when the things that working people need to survive are treated as private commodities. As the effects of climate change have heightened, the ruling class finds every way possible to place these economic burdens on the working class, increasingly withdrawing things like disaster relief funds and home insurance, for the stated purpose of “disincentivizing environmentally irresponsible construction.” 

Of course, in reality, working people aren’t the ones deciding to build homes in environmentally risky areas; we decide where to live based on what we can afford, where our community is, and where we can find work. The landlords and developers are the ones knowingly cramming us into unsafe living conditions, and are now, thanks to their puppets in the halls of power, completely off the hook for picking up the pieces when our homes are destroyed. 

Considering the economic risks on the largest scale, through its potential effects on aspects of the economy like agricultural production and shipping, a strong El Niño this year could result in about $3 trillion in damages worldwide. We’ve seen clearly how global crises, like the pandemic and the Ukraine War, result in losses for the working class everywhere while the billionaires profit

How Did We Get Here?

Again, an El Niño is a natural climate phenomenon that the Earth experienced prior to industrial capitalism and modern climate change. But without climate change, this El Niño and its associated tiny increase in global temperatures would not find us hovering on the precipice of irreversible environmental damage. 

It is now abundantly clear to many working people that the ruling class has completely and utterly failed to take meaningful action on climate change, which results from their profit-seeking system in the first place, and that we are, sometimes literally, being hung out to dry. This is especially true of working people in neocolonial countries who are facing some of the most severe environmental impacts despite contributing the least to global warming. 

Corporate politicians from anywhere in the world only serve to do the bidding of the domestic or foreign billionaire classes they are beholden to, who of course profit from the continued exploitation of our environment. This is why we see these representatives parading around every once in a while, making promises about action on climate for the cameras and reporters, only to turn around and either do nothing, or actively set us on the path for continued reliance on fossil fuels, as Biden has done by approving the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska. These politicians, including liberals and many “progressives,” offer no way out of climate disaster. 

How Do We Save Ourselves?

Events like El Niño are frightening and threaten real consequences for the global working class and our planet, and each year that the ruling class refuses to take real action does make things more difficult for us. But it would be a mistake to think that, even if we surpass thresholds like 1.5° C, or even 2° C or 2.5° C above pre-industrial temperatures, there is nothing we can do. 

Working people, including those employed in polluting industries, families looking to protect our children and aging parents, young people facing the threat of a limited future, and oppressed people bearing the brutal impacts of climate change combined with the marginalization resulting from capitalism’s social divisions, must unite in independent struggle for the relief we most urgently need, as well as the true, once-and-for-all solutions to the climate crisis. These can only be won with a class struggle approach based on our leverage as workers, and would be enormously aided by independent, working-class representation in our governments. 

We Demand:

  • REAL DISASTER RELIEF, MEDICARE FOR ALL, AND GREEN AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Working families need immediate relief from the disasters caused by the climate crisis, paid for by taxing the rich. This includes immediate relocation assistance for those whose homes are destroyed by extreme weather. 
  • REFORESTATION, A GREEN NEW DEAL, AND A BAN ON NEW OIL & GAS DRILLING: The climate crisis cannot go any further. We need to take real steps toward avoiding the most significant, irreversible damage potentially before us, including the ultimate full transition away from fossil fuels and the building up of a renewable energy industry powered by good union jobs. 
  • WORKERS TAKE THE REINS: We’ve seen enough of what happens when the bosses and board rooms make all the decisions. They will never relinquish their profits willingly, and corporate politicians will never force them to. If we want to see any significant action, polluting industries must be taken into democratic public ownership of the people who work for them and who are living the reality of the climate crisis.
  • SYSTEM CHANGE TO END CLIMATE CHANGE: To rescue ourselves from the most catastrophic consequences of climate change FOR GOOD, we need a socialist revolution, led by the working class, which replaces capitalism with a democratic system that meets our needs by working in harmony with our environment, rather than cashing in on it for profit. 

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