Over the past few years, we have begun to witness the tangible and dramatic effects of climate change. From the wildfires in Australia and the Western United States, which rage to this day and famously turned the skies of Oregon a demonic blood red, to the recent drought in Western Europe that practically drained the Danube and Rhine, revealing medieval famine portents known as ‘hunger stones’ and turning the East of Britain into a brown expanse of dying plants visible from space, and of course, the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan that has submerged a third of the country, killed over a thousand people, and displaced millions.
These catastrophes, world-shaking events that they are, only represent the beginning of the visible effects of climate change. Which begs the question — if it’s this bad now, how long do we have before the climate crisis becomes truly apocalyptic?
It is widely thought that while the effects of global warming will be disastrous “in our lifetimes,” it will be considerably later in the century. For example, most videos you’ll find on climate change topics will hit out with platitudes like “our great grandchildren will grow up without coral reefs”. It’s very much not the case that the big effects of global warming are going to hit when we’re all at retirement age –– they’re going to hit before many of us in the YCL turn 40.
To keep this article at a reasonable length, I’m going to focus on what is projected to befall our oceans by the middle of the century. The exact level of damage caused depends on the level of emission reduction that happens over the next few decades. There are a bunch of scenarios used by climate researchers, but we can discount the case where — presumably — a wizard makes capitalism cease all pollution before 2050.
Instead, we can consider two cases — an ‘optimistic’ scenario where emissions begin to plateau in the 30s with net reductions starting around 2040, and one where capital stays its current course of not giving a single shit about emissions, which continue to accelerate through the century. The models really begin to slightly diverge in terms of effects between the ’30s and the ’50s, so basically everything discussed here will be the exact same regardless of whether useless liberals or malicious liberals win the climate change ‘debate’.
Starting us off, we’ll witness increased marine heatwaves (MHW) –– localised periods of high temperatures in ocean regions. These cause mass deaths of sea life, the destruction of local ecosystems, and the creation of toxin-spewing algal blooms. The frequency of MHWs has already doubled since the 1980s, and they are rapidly increasing in frequency and intensity. In the most pessimistic climate scenario, 50% of the ocean will be in a state of permanent MHW by the middle of the century, and in the most optimistic case, “only” about a quarter of the ocean will be in such a state by then. In both scenarios, MHWs are going to be about twice as strong as they are now by then. This alone would result in a mass extinction event, and we’re just getting started.
We’ve also got ocean deoxygenation –– where areas of water become deprived of oxygen content, rendering the region a virtually uninhabitable ‘dead zone’. This is mainly the result of water pollution, as various species of phytoplankton grow untenably well from all the alien nutrients, die and decompose, and in the process use up oxygen. With CO2 and temperature rises as other contributing factors, deoxygenation is rapidly spreading in the ocean, and will do so at an alarming rate as the ocean is also becoming stratified –– so oxygen in the deep ocean will not be able to reach the near-surface. Just to rub salt in the wound, the entrepreneurial fishing industry has innovated methods of tracking deoxygenation events in order to intercept the migration of affected species, further exacerbating extinction.
On top of that, the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic, due to atmospheric CO2 dissolving into carbonic acid in the water. Without going into technical details about global pH levels (I’d recommend reading the 2021 IPCC report for further information), we’re going to see a swathe of species go extinct and habitats destroyed as the oceans acidify. For example, the shells of many crustaceans dissolve at the pH levels being projected.
As the ocean becomes an increasingly hot, acidic, and oxygen-starved abyss, marine habitats will rapidly disappear. In the 40s and 50s, optimistic and pessimistic temperature estimates overlapped between about 1.5 and 2.5 degrees of warming. At this level of temperature rise (and indeed right now), coral is at the maximum level of risk—i.e., we will see the death of the vast majority of coral reefs by then. Other major ocean habitats such as kelp forests, seagrass, and salt marshes will enter the medium risk category by this point, meaning they’re going to start seeing significant levels of degradation, all of which combine to throw the ocean ecosystem into absolute chaos.
I briefly alluded to the elephant in the room with regards to the destruction of the ocean –– overfishing. The global fishing industry is a criminal, unregulated, hyper-extractive monster that inflicts untold damage on the oceans; whether it’s trawling ripping up country-sized patches of seafloor habitats, fishing nets being the overwhelming majority of ocean rubbish, or just the systemic over-extraction of fish stocks. The fishing industry is poised to annihilate the global ecosystem.
It’s so bad that some environmental experts argue that the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a net benefit for marine life due to the suspension of fishing! The 2021 documentary Seaspiracy made the bold claim that overfishing was going to empty the oceans by 2048. While this prediction is based on a rather old paper and newer models push that date quite a bit later, the majority of ‘expert’ debunkings of the claim just say that the original research assumes governments won’t take action.
With populations of large predatory fish –– including many that are commercially consumed, such as cod and tuna –– depleted by over 90% already, cascading impacts down the food chain are going to cause a colossal mass extinction by the middle of the century. Although it’s likely there will still be some life in the oceans after 2048, there won’t be much, and certainly not enough for viable fishing.
That brings us neatly to the impact on humanity; three billion people rely on seafood as a primary source of nutrition, the vast majority of which are in the global south. Ten percent of these people losing food access would be the greatest famine in history, near total collapse of fish stocks means that nearly half of the global population is going to be starving, putting titanically unbearable pressure on other food sources that will also be suffering from extreme degradation due to climate change. Combine that with sea level rise predicted to displace around a billion people from low-lying areas by 2050 and the cascading collapse of agriculture around the world due to knock-on effects from the oceans, and we are looking at the single worst crisis in human history hitting the globe as soon as 20 years from now.
With about half the world’s population forced to become climate refugees or deal with starvation, governments will collapse, nations will go to war over resources, and a wave of reactionary movements will sweep the crumbling imperial core. This future isn’t here yet –– absolutely unprecedented pressure from the working class to force the end of carbon and extreme regulation of fishing in the next few decades could avert the worst of this, but we have absolutely no guarantee of that happening. As the world hurtles towards imminent climate catastrophe, it will be the task of communists to act as the vanguard of human survival, both in terms of efforts to stop the causes of climate change and also in building dual power structures that can lead our communities and our movement through this crisis.
Chris Lickley, is a member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch