What Are the Near-Term Climate Pearl Harbors? What Will Take Us from Procrastination To Action?

So they [the Government] go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent…. Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger….  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequences….  We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now….

– Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936, House of Commons

What kind of climatic mini-catastrophes might move public and policymaker opinion over the next decade?  Please share your thoughts below.

The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a Dec. 7, 1941 file photo. The ship sank with more than 80 percent of its 1,500-man crew, including Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd. The attack, which left 2,343 Americans dead and 916 missing, broke the backbone of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and forced America out of a policy of isolationism.” (AP Photo/File)

Today marks the 71th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.  In the wake of the extreme weather in the past two years, including superstorm Sandy — all of which served to increase concern about global warming among the public and some politicians — I’m updating my post from 3 years ago, “What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors?” (which I had updated already last year).

The genesis of the original piece started with an October 2008 post, “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 7: The harsh lessons of the financial bailout.”  It concluded that a key driver of serious government action is “bad things must be happening to regular people right now.”  Shortly after that I wrote a post on the paper “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” by Hansen et al.  I noted the authors conclude:

The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II. The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.

A NY Times blogger posed this question, “What kind of wake-up call does Mr. Romm think is conceivable on a time scale relevant to near-term policy?”

My reply was “Multiple Pearl Harbors over the next decade — half or more of these happening” followed by a list of 9 items.

Before repeating that list, let me note that I pointed out that one of the media’s greatest failings is ‘underinforming’ people that “Bad things are happening to real people right now thanks in part to human-caused climate change — droughts, wildfires, flooding, extreme weather, and on and on.” I listed a perfect example: “My article criticizing the NYT on the bark beetle story“.  Things hadn’t changed much by last December but the U.S. weather has been so relentlessly extreme that media coverage has improved a tad in recent months (see the July post, Every Network Gets Extreme Weather Story Right, ‘Now’s The Time We Start Limiting Manmade Greenhouse Gases’ — ABC.)

If FDR had said, “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked. But we’re still working to identify the perpetrators.”  Well, not bloody much would have happened.

Of course, the U.S. military had some warnings, but there was a massive volume of intelligence signals (“noise”) coming in.  Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in 1962: “To discriminate significant sound against this background of noise, one has to be listening for something or for one of several things….   One needs not only an ear but a variety of hypotheses that guide observation.”

The Japanese commander of the attack, Mitsuo Fuchida, was quite surprised he had achieved surprise.  Before the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, the Japanese Navy had used a surprise attack to destroy the Russian Pacific Fleet at anchor in Port Arthur.  Fuchida asked, “Had these Americans never heard of Port Arthur?

So if you have the right hypothesis or worldview, you can make sense out of “noisy” warnings.  If you don’t, then you will be oblivious even to signs that in retrospect will seem quite obvious.  Certainly future generations will be stunned by our obliviousness.

In the case of the almost non-stop series of “off the charts” extreme climatic events that many opinion leaders seem shocked about over and over again — they aren’t merely “explainable and predictable” after the fact.  They were very often predicted or warned about well in advance by serious people.  The powers that be simply choose to ignore the warnings because they don’t fit their world view.

Unfortunately for the nation and the world, there is no American Churchill on climate.  Quite the reverse:

That lack of statesmenship means the country is not going to act on the basis of the increasingly dire warning of scientists (see Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization”).

No, things are going to have to get worse.  And it certainly will take more than one climate Pearl Harbor.  I fear it will take most of these happening over the span of a few years:

  1. Arctic goes [virtually] ice free before 2020. It would be a big, visible global shock.
  2. Rapid warming over next decade, as Nature and Science articles suggest is quite possible (posts here and here)
  3. Continued (unexpected) surge in methane
  4. A [multi-year] megadrought hitting the SW [and Great Plains] comparable to what hit southern Australia.
  5. More superstorms, like Katrina.
  6. A heatwave as bad as Europe’s 2003 one [Russia’s in 2010] but hitting the U.S. breadbasket.
  7. Something unpredicted but clearly linked to climate, like the bark beetle devastation.
  8. Accelerated mass loss in Greenland and/or Antarctica, perhaps with another huge ice shelf breaking off, but in any case coupled with another measurable rise in the rate of sea level rise.
  9. The Fifth Assessment Report (2012-2013) really spelling out what we face with no punches pulled.

And no, to preempt comments similar to one I had in the original post, I’m not “hoping” for those things to happen. Quite the reverse.  I have have been proposing strong emissions reductions for many, many years to minimize the chances of catastrophic impacts.  In any case, hope can’t change what is to come — only strong action now can.

That was my original list [only slightly modified].  I think it holds up, except for number 9.  The IPCC has not only undermined its credibility but demonstrated time and time again that it is incapable of spelling out what we face with no punches pulled — see “Blockbuster IPCC Chart Hints at Dust-Bowlification, But Report Is Mostly Silent on Warming’s Gravest Threat to Humanity” and “IPCC’s Planned Obsolescence: Fifth Assessment Report Will Ignore Crucial Permafrost Carbon Feedback!

The drought the U.S. has been experiencing is slowly getting to the level that can change thinking — let’s hope it doesn’t get to that level, though such Dust-Bowlification is inevitable if we don’t act soon.

I think it’s a little clearer what scale monster heat wave starts to change people’s thinking (see Russian President Medvedev: “What is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past”).  We know that there’s an 80% Chance Russia’s 2010 July Heat Record Would Not Have Occurred Without Climate Warming.  We also know that the Monster crop-destroying Russian heat wave is projected to be once-in-a-decade event by 2060s (or sooner).

Two years ago, Lester Brown explained to me that when the real food instability comes — if, for instance, the U.S. breadbasket gets hit with the type of 1000-year heat wave Russia did — then the big grain producers will ban exports, to make sure their people are fed.  In this scenario, if you don’t have your own food supplies or an important export item to barter — particularly oil — your country is going to have big, big problems feeding its people.  That might wake folks up a tad.

That may well be the biggest evolution of my thinking in the past 3 years, that it is food insecurity — and the daggers that climate change threaten it with — that will ultimately force action (see “My Nature Piece On Dust-Bowlification And the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security“).

Your ideas are welcome.  You can read the original reader comments here.

I did note in the original piece that preferably these “mini-catastrophes”  would not themselves be evidence that we had waited too long and passed dangerous, irreversible tipping points.

One can argue that a big surge in methane would be evidence that we had waited too long (see “Climate Experts Warn Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation!“), but the likely rate of emissions from the tundra don’t change the nature of the actions, only their scale, which are already quite intense (see “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm“).

If you want 350 ppm — or if you want 450 ppm in a (likely) world where the permafrost has begun to turn into the permamelt — then because we have listened to the siren song of delay for so long, we will need a WWII-style and WWII-scale effort.  As I noted in the conclusion to my book:

This national (and global) re-industrialization effort would be on the scale of what we did during World War II, except it would last far longer. “In nine months, the entire capacity of the prolific automobile industry had been converted to the production of tanks, guns, planes, and bombs,” explains Doris Kearns Goodwin in her 1994 book on the World War II homefront, No Ordinary Time. “The industry that once built 4 million cars a year was now building three fourths of the nation’s aircraft engines, one half of all tanks, and one third of all machine guns.”

The scale of the war effort was astonishing. The physicist Edward Teller tells the story of how Niels Bohr had insisted in 1939 that making a nuclear bomb would take an enormous national effort, one without any precedent. When Bohr came to see the huge Los Alamos facility years later, he said to Teller, “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.” And we did it in under five years.

But of course we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, the world was at war, and the entire country was united against a common enemy. This made possible tax increases, rationing of items like tires and gasoline, comprehensive wage and price controls, a War Production Board with broad powers (it could mandate what clothing could be made for civilians), and a Controlled Material Plan that set allotments of critical materials (steel, copper, and aluminum) for different contractors.

How ironic that denial, driven in large part by conservative fear of big government, has created an “era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays” that will ultimately require somewhat bigger government (for several decades) to prevent catastrophe or, if the deniers truly “triumph,” then staggeringly huge government (for a century and probably much more) to “adapt” to [through a combination of abandonment, triage, and misery] a ruined world (see “Don’t believe in global warming? That’s not very conservative”).

Finally, Pearl Harbor #1 is increasingly likely (see Death Spiral Watch: Experts Warn ‘Near Ice-Free Arctic In Summer’ In A Decade If Volume Trends Continue). The fact that what’s happening in the Arctic (and its implications for sea level rise, the tundra, and our weather) isn’t one of the major media stories of the year — comparable to the fiscal cliff — may be the clearest evidence that the media is under- and mis-reporting the story of the century.

What I didn’t realize when I wrote the original list is that the shockingly fast loss of Arctic ice would itself lead to more superstorms and extreme weather (see “NOAA Bombshell: Warming-Driven Arctic Ice Loss Is Boosting Chance of Extreme U.S. Weather“). So the current bout of extreme weather is likely the “new normal.”

The Pearl Harbors are here. The Churchills and FDRs aren’t.

133 Responses to What Are the Near-Term Climate Pearl Harbors? What Will Take Us from Procrastination To Action?

  1. Mark E says:

    Churchill and the List

    #1, Disagree that we lack an American Churchill, because from the perspective of our national psychology we are still in the mid-1930s, when Churchill himself was an outsider. We have several of climate outsiders and a few are even republicans. When the climate Luftwaffe are bombing our capital cities night after night, a cry will rise up, and our Churchills will be recognized (albeit a bit late).

    #2, the list. All but two of the items will not really matter to the overall American psyche because they are abstract. A surge in methane? No one will taste it so only some of the the educated few will care. No, it is only when it is too hot for AC electric lines and too dry for food.

    Not just expensive food, but empty shelves. And then our Churchills will be redeemed. Better late, than never.

  2. Martin Vermeer says:

    > or an important export item to barter —
    > particularly oil —

    It need not be saleable, just deliverable. Think nuclear weapons.

  3. Paul Magnus says:

    Heres one that could happen…. and it probably is more likely than previous as the current pulse of warming is unlike anything in the historical record.

  4. Paul Magnus says:

    Deadly, landslide-triggered tsunamis happen at volcanic islands around the world, and are a potential hazard for the Eastern United States. “We find them everywhere, but we don’t know of any historical cases, so we have to go back in time,” said Anthony Hildenbrand, a volcanologist at the University of Paris-Sud in France, who helped identify the ancient tsunami deposit.

  5. Paul Magnus says:

    The giant landslides seem to happen during periods of rising sea levels, when the climate is also warmer and wetter, Hildenbrand told OurAmazingPlanet. Researchers speculate that the change from lower sea level to higher may destabilize a volcanic island’s flanks, and heavier rains could soak its steep slopes, helping trigger landslides.

    There are at least 15 giant landslides that have slid off the Hawaiian Islands in the past 4 million years, with the most recent happening only 100,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. One block of rock that slid off Oahu is the size of Manhattan.

  6. Lore says:

    There are something’s in life that are late and then never comes.

  7. Solar Jim says:

    It is interesting, notwithstanding your good piece above, that the explosives and “delivery systems” of WWII are now at the base of America’s “energy system.” The primary usage of fossil carbon and uranium for the government is power in war. Too bad our civilian economics are designed for the same, discounting beyond zero (subsidizing) the cost of contamination. Including of the carbonic acid kind.

  8. DRT says:

    A Wave of Destruction Will Destroy America’s East Coast

  9. I hope that rather than a “physical” disaster as a wake up call – that we have an economic one. Along the lines that Paul Gilding writes about in his book “The Great Disruption” – I think that part of our current economic stagnation stems from our dependency on oil and gas and coal.

    The economic upside that will come from moving to renewable energy (which is by definition local and distributed relatively evenly everywhere over the earth) and also moving to local sustainable food production; we will break through the stranglehold that big capital has on us all.

    I think we have already had some food shocks because of the Russian wheat crop failure, and we’ll see what happens next year here in the USA. We may have to stop using ethanol in our gasoline, and we may see factory meat farms struggle and meat prices to go way up.

    Cheap beef steak and bacon may be a thing of the past? But we could have near full employment with small local organic farms producing most food needed in a given area, and this would also remove most of the nitrous oxide from the fertilizer we now make from natural gas.

    Water is certainly a critical thing. Fracking is already causing people to have to think about what is the most important use of water.

    And rising oceans is going to cause havoc – so maybe insurance companies will stop underwriting property in the coastal zones?

    I watched the PBS NOVA program “Extreme Ice” again yesterday (online) and it mentions that about 125,000 years ago we had a warming caused by a change in the earth’s orbit, and Greenland warmed by ~7F – which melted the entire southern portion of the ice – which caused a 10 foot rise in ocean level. Back then, carbon dioxide was released from the ocean because of the warming. Today the level of carbon dioxide is *much* higher and because the current rise is so rapid, the temperature is still catching up – though it is higher than even the peak of that warm period.

    As a layman, my best guess is that the thermal “momentum” of the ice is giving way to more and more rapid melting. We can only guess how fast the Greenland ice will melt – but it is melting very quickly already, and the potential for ocean level rise is about 20 feet.

    That will get everybody’s attention.


  10. Paul Magnus says:

    Laurence Kotlikoff: Is the United States Broke?

    Bracing for the U.S. to fall off the fiscal cliff is nothing compared to the financial free fall predicted by Laurence Kotlikoff. The Boston University economist and failed U.S. presidential candidate joins us with his thoughts on the economic end of times.

  11. NJP1 says:

    faced with the uncertainties of our future, WW2 analogies are tossed around freely—all we have to do etc etc….or the moon flight project of the 60s, another mindfocus we can use to solve our problems,
    unfortunately ww 2 was started by the Japanese with a single hammer blow of fossil fuel energy. They pretty much hit the USA with all they had, and 6 months later after Midway—they were losing the war.
    The USA responded with the same blast of fossil fuel energy, only vastly more of it.
    In other words WW2 was an energy contest, less a contest of military strategy.
    The side that ran out of gas first…lost. It was that simple
    Fast forward to now. We can’t solve the problem in the same way, because it was fuel burning that got us into this mess. Burning more fuel wont get us out of it even if we had it
    ‘technology’ isnt the answer, you can’t create technology without energy input. Believing those who say we can is just digging ourselves in deeper
    As to using the spaceflight analogy, the Wright brothers used exploding chemicals to get off the ground, So did the space programme. The difference was in scale, nothing more.

  12. Tom says:

    I don’t think hunger or thirst will do it -too easy for the deniers to confuse the causal links. It will be an event of human nature – mega floods in the US. The mudslides would do the trick.

    We are closer than we think – the vocal minority is VOCAL! The continued drought, interspersed with flooding, may be enough.

    BTW – this commenting system is MUCH better than the Facebook one. I hope you keep the good one.

  13. From Peru says:

    What would be a better metaphor, a climate Pearl Harbor or a climate September 11?

    World war II was certainly much worse than the 2000s wars against Al Qaeda, but 2001 is a lot more recent than 1941…

  14. rjs says:

    you’re not going to get a pearl harbor, because the climate will not change in one day or one year like a sneak attack…the situation we face is analogous to a frog sitting in a pan of water on the stove as the heat is gradually increased…as the water approaches boiling, the frog will not jump…

  15. M Tucker says:

    Also during WWII millions passively went off to their death. They felt powerless to do anything about it, no one to advocate on their behalf, no recourse but to accept their fate.

    I feel no matter how bad the climate changes are, no matter how awful the catastrophic weather events might be they will seem so spread out over time (on human time scales) and space that it will be easy for many to continue to say it is just the natural fluctuation of weather. Doesn’t Norfolk VA now experience regular flooding even with normal rain events? Isn’t the Naval Station there already making infrastructure changes? But it has generated no alarm. And what of the weather catastrophes we have seen since Katrina? What sort of alarm among our leaders have they generated? The politicians in the affected areas might talk about addressing climate change for a few months after but it always dies down. They run up against opposition in Congress to addressing the problem and that is enough to end the discussion. We saw another historic ice melt in the Arctic this past summer and it is already forgotten.

    I don’t think their will be a “wake-up call” from climate disruption on a time scale that will allow us to end business as usual and stop the relentless increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. By the time enough people are sufficiently suffering to finally admit we have pushed the climate to a dangerous new state it will be too late. Many, many humans will passively scuffle off to the death trains.

  16. Wes says:

    Completely agree with Mark E that only events that actually discomfort Americans will get their attention. That would be items 4, 5, and 6 in the list. The rest of them are too abstract. Americans are used to checking news stories by looking out the window. If it ain’t happening here, it ain’t happening. Perhaps when New York admits that the city can’t be saved it’ll get some attention.

  17. freetoken says:

    There isn’t a good parallel between “Pearl Harbor” and climate change, because the time scales of human warfare and climate change are so different.

    I’ve yet to see a workable solution to this quandary of the human discounting of the future.

  18. Mark E says:

    Sept 11 is a bad metaphor, because the neo-con hawks in the WH were clamoring to depose Saddam long before, and we instantly set that plan in motion, despite little evidence connecting Iraq to the event.

    Or then again, maybe it is the perfect metaphor. We were hit by climate, and attention was fixated elsewhere…. like record PowerBall jackpots.

  19. Nell says:

    It has to be something that hits people in the wallet: Soaring food prices due to floods and drought.

  20. M Tucker says:

    “That may well be the biggest evolution of my thinking in the past 3 years, that it is food insecurity — and the daggers that climate change threaten it with — that will ultimately force action”

    I have thought that too. I think about the problem of continued inaction without limit all the time. But I now think it will just be seen as “natural variability” by enough people to prevent serious action. I mean how long does OK and TX need to suffer before the voters and politicians decide to take action? Even if Iowa and the N plain states suffer a severe drought, severe enough to stop US exports of grain, I don’t think that would cause a change in our trajectory of denial. Just “natural variability”.

    When I see the Arctic reaching a new, never before seen, melt; when I see Seattle, the Oregon coast and Northern California flooded by unprecedented rain only two years after Nashville; when NY is devastated by a hurricane just one year after Irene; AND that can’t even generate even a little bit of a change in our leaders, even the progressives, I fear that we will need to get to the point where we have gone over the climate cliff. We will need to get to the point where the new climate state dominates and we are all struggling for survival.

  21. Paul Magnus says:

    Some grim SLR science just out…

    So heres the twist…

    “Considering that humans have been warming the climate for several centuries, a more significant finding was the short time lag between warming at the poles (as shown in the ice cores), and the response of sea level rise – which implies the disintegration of the ice sheets. In the case of Antarctica, large ice reductions occur within 400-700 years, and for Greenland, ice reductions occur very quickly – within 100 years.”

    sea level history suggests we should expect much higher rates of sea level rise in the future.”

    That last sentence should read near future. ie next 10 – 50 yrs. ie the rate is around 1.5m per century, but we have be heating up relatively rapidly for the last 50yrs or so.

    So the majority of the 1.5m rise is going to happen in the trailing part of the 100yrs.

    So the rate is exponential as Jim Hansen has frequently pointed out and the data is indicating. ie a doubling every 7yrs at the moment.

    So collapse of our society as we know it is inevitable and just around the corner, even from ôñĺŷ a SLR perspective!

  22. Ken Barrows says:

    September 1, 2018: Arctic ice disappears. No biggie, say climate deniers, it will come back.

    August 20, 2019: Disappears again. The extra time to absorb the sun’s rays triggers a methane release. A couple of deniers say they might be wrong about this climate thing.

  23. Rick says:

    Truth. Except for a hand of folks, around the world, no one is doing a thing to curb or slow AGW. And there really isn’t a fix.

    Again, the truth. The way I see it, Mother Nature will put an end to the human race. AGW will soon depopulate the planet. You can’t keep knocking Mother Nature down, and not expect to be knocked down too. And when she does, it will be the end of our species. And most of us deserve it.

  24. Andy says:

    Sandy changed a lot of people’s minds because it hit New York. If we have a devastating drought in our Country’s bread basket our leaders will be fairly well isolated from the pain. The dust bowl didn’t really result in federal action until the black clouds finally blew into Washington.

    What will be our climate Pearl Harbor? I think a drought that kills Maryland and Washington DC’s trees, a Nashville-type flood along the Potomac River, or a water shortage in the eastern third of the Country so dire that towns have to be abandoned.

    I didn’t think this possible until Houston received only 11″ of rain through most of 2011 (it finally rained in November). We usually get 52″. 11″ is essentially a desert. There are thousands of acres of dead trees standing, entire forests dead, in the parts of the region not lucky enough to get a summer shower that year.

  25. Mark E says:

    You’ve made the usual mistake of thinking we HAVE progressive leaders. Everyone in Congress embraces a delusional belief-system predicated on an impossibility: nonstop, never-ending growth.

    Real progressives understand that on a finite planet operating under basic ecological principles, nothing can grow forever. None of those people are in Congress.

  26. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    Seattle? Seattle had 6.5 inches of rain in November, 3.5 inches in October, and not quite 2 inches so far in December – all after the driest 80-day stretch in Seattle’s history (0.07 inches from mid-July to Octoberr 11th). The city is just a bit shy of its normal 38 inches for the year.

  27. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Well I hope some of you can work it out. Certainly there are plenty of people around the world wondering what it is going to take for America to wake up, ME

  28. prokaryotes says:

    Near term could be anything, from heat wave, tsunami, deluge, massive crop failure, massive tornado outbreak etc.

  29. fj says:

    True climate Pearl Harbors are real close and unavoidable.

    Pretty much a sustained sense of things being out of control for what turns out to be an excruciating period of time will drive the seriousness of the problem home.

    After Sandy there was a nor’easter and well if it was a lot stronger it would have amplified the sense of crisis . . .

    The frequency of extreme climate events are accelerating and it’s the clear that it’s not even known how fast the rate of acceleration is increasing. This should bring things to a head real soon.

  30. Joan Savage says:

    Joe’s revised list is reminiscent of conditions before Pearl Harbor. In 1940 the fall of Paris shocked Americans, eroding support for isolationism. In 1940-41 American military build up preceded Pearl Harbor. Congress was ready to support FDR’s declaration of war by the time of the attack.

    In the last two years, combinations of flood, drought, and superstorms have knocked back water transport in the Mississippi and Great Lakes, ranching and farming on the Great Plains, and the security of Atlantic coastal cities. These events shocked Americans and eroded support for denialism.

    The next phase could be worse. Continued drought and heat could kink rails, dry up rivers, and reduce both food crops and the ability to move the crops to market. China could have a famine and call in its chips on US debt, in the form of food. Americans could have to ration food, temporarily, to pay off the debt.

    Similarly, an earthquake, war and/or superstorms could several disrupt oil import ports, leaving the US to fall back on its vaunted national supply. That could mean scarcity and a price jump.

    Neither good. My epiphany a few weeks ago was that we were more likely to see something major in the next 6 to 48 months, than not.

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The evidence of megatsunamis spaswned by collapse in the Hawaiian island has been found along the New South Wales south coast, and megatsunamis spawned by collapsing methane clathrates along the Norwegian coast are said to have devastated easter England and Scotland, and, undoubtedly, lands further afield.

  32. Mark E says:

    ” Americans could have to ration food, temporarily, to pay off the debt.”

    Not all bad…. the only way we will really learn the lessons on both problems is the hard way, like kids wrecking their first car. So I am hoping this comes to pass since we could learn two very painful but essential lessons with one mini-famine, and possibly in enough time to matter.

  33. Paul Klinkman says:

    The day after the election was over and it didn’t matter, reporters took their moral courage out of the safe. PBS just reported that acid ocean was wiping out oyster spawn in Puget Sound starting in 2005. Growers have learned to dump sodium carbonate into the seawater and/or to only open the inlet at times when the ocean has good PH. These good times are getting fewer year by year.

    Let’s see. A megafire completely wiped out a town in Australia, with 120 deaths in Kingslake and 39 deaths in Marysville. Another fire could possibly have wiped out Colorado Springs. If your own neighborhood on the west side of town burned down, it’s small consolation that most of the town was saved.

    89 people died when half of Joplin, Missouri disappeared in 10 minutes last year.

    Katrina killed 1800 people. Pearl Harbor killed 2000 sailors. So, it revolves around on whom the powerful want to declare war.

  34. Paul Klinkman says:

    That’s us, we’re doing it now.

    See you on the other side.

  35. Gestur says:

    The real crux of the problem of AGW from the point of view of our surviving it, is that it has—and will always—manifest itself simply as an increasing frequency of adverse weather events that have occurred sometime in the past. And that means that people who choose to will always be able to more or less shrug it off. And the corollary of that is that by the time it becomes evident to pretty much everyone that it’s way beyond a mere outlier—the second or third time in as many years that you see a Sandy-like event in the same region—it will be way too late to avoid the worst consequences of it.

  36. John H. Cato, jr. says:

    What Are the Near-Term Climate Pearl Harbors?
    What Will Take Us from Procrastination To Action?

    That’s simple…

    … a ‘Climate Pearl Harbor’

    (pardon my cynicism – but my response *is* thoughtful… and accurate)

    — john.

  37. Paul Klinkman says:

    P.S. you can see (and post) a brownish stripe across Joplin, Missouri, running from WSW to ENE, south of the city center, on Google Earth now. When you zoom in, you see block after block of empty lots. Try it.

  38. Brooks Bridges says:

    Why did:

    Nixon create the EPA?
    We finally get anti-smoking laws?
    It take so long to finally get anti-smoking laws?
    We get seat belt laws?
    We get action on the Ozone layer?, Civil Rights?, Women’s suffrage?

    Granted, much smaller stakes.

    No Pearl Harbors
    No large numbers of people feeling direct pain

    However, in every case there were very committed people demanding action, people who sometimes took major personal risks – and lost.

    What worked and why?

  39. KenL says:

    Massive collapse of the ice sheet in either Greenland or West Antarctica

    Causing immense sea level rise virtually overnight. Two or three feet. Immediately signaling that all real estate within several miles of any coastline is at risk.

    …no, it almost certainly won’t happen, but that is what it would take.

    That would be enough, because all the owners of the trillions of $$$ of real estate along the coasts would get the message, immediately.

    Florida would immediately become the “greenest” state of all.


  40. John H says:

    One small comment on the level of effort required – during the 1940’s the world’s population was 1/3 of what it is today.

  41. Merrelyn Emery says:

    A handful of folks around the world? That is so far off the mark, it is laughable, ME

  42. edpeak says:

    Joe, while appreciating your tireless and extremely knowledgeable work and while appreciating the fact that we progressives are too eager to play, “the prognosis is even worse than that..” with one another, there are two problems with hoping enough Pearl Harbors will solve things:

    1. The (brainless, thanks for your update) boiling frog problem – if the disasters happen slowly enough, “normality creep” happens and after initial shock it becomes the new normal and people put up with it.

    This is a major problem us progressives expecting that enough Pearl Harbors (PHs) will at least lead to (even if much later than it ought to have been) good solutions. The even more devastating problem is:

    2. We are not only assuming (with this approach) that action and reaction will arrive in our politics once enough PHs happen – we are also assuming that the actions and reactions will be both sufficiently good, productive, and useful, and enacted quickly enough, and safe (all of the above, or else we’re still in Huge Trouble) But the same dynamics by the Corporatocracy are at play – government captured by industry, and an economy that is based on commodification of all of life, of all of the planet as part of short-term proftis maximization as part of a Perpecual Expoential Growth Forever and Ever based economic model – which will give us “soltuions” that enrich the 0.1%, that endanger the world (geo engineering) more privatization etc etc (not to mention the flat earth ‘free’ market think tanks and other pressures)…

    ..that will lead to solutiosn that are (far, far) too little (far far) too late and/or making things worse, and/or ineffective and/or endandering the planet (geoengineering) and/or pauperizing the 99% more, etc.

    I’m afraid we have to take on the totalitariani tyranical system of Corporate Feudalism, and its deadly omnicidal (I am not trying to be hyperbolic) ideology along with the power of big fossil fuels corporations and campaign finance reform – if the corporatoctracy continues even if we get “Them” to implement “Solutions” because enough PHs happened, they will be “solutions” like medicine from a quack doctor – dangerous to thte patient, ineffective, or both. Sadly,

  43. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    Yeah, Texas got hammered in 2011 and most of Oklahoma has been hit with drought for two years in a row (and as little rain as Texas is getting this Fall, it could be in for a reprise in 2013). Has many minds been changed down here in Redneckistan though? Not really. Jim Inhofe can count on reelection until his rotten heart disintegrates, ’cause the deniers just move on to the next stage of denial, “Ok, the climate’s changing, but the climate always changes – humans couldn’t possibly have caused it.”

  44. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    Yeah, Texas got hammered in 2011 and most of Oklahoma has been hit with drought for two years in a row (and as little rain as Texas is getting this Fall, it could be in for a reprise in 2013). Has many minds been changed down here in Redneckistan though? Not really. Jim Inhofe can count on reelection until his rotten heart disintegrates, ’cause the deniers just move on to the next stage of denial, “Ok, the climate’s changing, but the climate always changes – humans couldn’t possibly have caused it.”

  45. Pangolin says:

    What would exactly cause enough pain in the right places to get the U.S. off the stump and moving? It would have to be a series of events.

    1. A crippling drought followed by a massive flooding event due to a locked jet stream in the U.S. Southeast.
    1a. The same event but in the grain belt destroying grain crops entirely.
    1c. An atmospheric river event in California destroying the rice crop drastically increasing grain prices.

    2. Arctic Sea Ice below 1 million kilometers square before 2016. This is entirely plausible if you look at sea ice volume trends.

    3. An outbreak of wildfires in Canada similar to the 2008 California firestorm. Thousands of wildfires dump ash and soot onto Greenland followed by rapid ice melt and glacial movement.

    4 A slow moving class 5 hurricane transits a major southern city destroying it.

    I don’t think any single event will be enough simply because the voters who tend to support climate change denial are suburban and rural southern and mountain areas and simply aren’t concentrated enough for a single event to affect enough of them.

    The dominant meme in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska right now is that the current drought is no worse than the droughts of the 1930s. While this is essentially correct it ignores the bigger picture where relief in the 30’s came from somewhere else. In future climate change scenarios there might not be a somewhere else with a sufficient surplus to offer.

    Anything that would rack up enough deaths to shift the blockade on the political right is probably crippling our civilization anyway.

  46. prokaryotes says:

    Why do we anticipate a CCPH moment? Because it will justify our alarmism.

    But we need to act before big impacts happen, because PH, 911 etc are isolated events. With climate change we get a wave of big impacts, and each has the chance to cripple an entire nation. But with each failed nation the chances for global action will further diminish, because we require global scale actions to reduce Co2 emissions!

  47. Bernard J. says:

    Perhaps a climate Hiroshoma, just a little slower…

    Like the Japanese populace, one day it was (relatively) abstract dicussion about war and the next it was profoundly too late. As it will be when the average Western joe in the street is sufficiently stirred to want to turn back the clock.

    Also, Hiroshima was occurred at the end of the conflict, just as the results of climate change will arrive after decades of prior conflict between those with the prescience to agitate for change, and those who simply wanted to continue with business as usual.

  48. Bernard J. says:

    What Mark said.

    And as Joe said:

    The Pearl Harbors are here. The Churchills and FDRs aren’t.

    We certainly have Churchillian people in many countries, but they are not in power. And as Joe mentioned the IPCC has been far too cautious in its statements.

    I think the last serious chance for action before it’s simply too late is for the world’s science academies and other organisations to vigorously, vociferously and consistently speak out in every public medium with the most extreme urgency. Brad Werner’s recent speaking up is an example, as is James Hansen’s consistent attempts wo wake up the world.

    It just has to happen across the board – every scientific organisation, every scientific leader, everywhere.


  49. ToddInNorway says:

    Folks, all we need is to convert 5-7 of the most influential climate skeptics in the USA to change their minds and actively support action to reduce GHG emissions. This would be more like a multiple apostle Paul epiphany than a cataclysmic disaster event. If we get the API, Rex Tillerson, the Koch brothers, Senator Inhofe and a few other key Repubs. to “convert,” then the right policy changes should begin to happen. But if we need a climate-change-caused disaster unfortunately it is probably on its way in the form of the drought in N. America. When the Mississippi is no longer navigable I expect a whole lot of pain and soul-searching.

  50. Bernard J. says:

    It’s the US energy system that might serve as a wake-up call to the somnambulent public.

    Much of the grid is a creaking wreak, and with future heatwaves and the concurrent power demand it’s only a matter of time before it fries.

    That will garner people’s attention.

  51. Mark E says:

    Simple: Show them how they will have more power and money by converting.

  52. David Reid says:

    Water shortages and water stress. These will impact on agriculture first, but could also affect power generation, industrial processes and household water supplies.

    Ecosystem collapse. This could include forests dying off on a large scale, river systems and wetlands drying up or major changes in plant and animal communities.

  53. tom says:

    i think we’re already done. We’ve tripped 8 positive feedback loops already and the effects will render the planet uninhabitable in our lifetime. We were warned as far back as the 1970’s with Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb and Rachel Carsons’ Silent Spring. Not enough people care – and no one in any postition of power or “leadership” has done anything about anything impacting the corporate gravy train of resource depletion, environmental degradation and constant growth on a finite planet. Now it’s far too late – the climatological effects combined with natural events like earthquakes, effects & objects from space and volcanos will wipe out our ability to grow food, reduce fish stocks to near zero, deplete fresh water aquifirs and cause diseases to flourish among many other problems. Combined with economic collapse we’ll be overwhelmed and crushed by coming events. Enjoy your remaining days.

  54. prokaryotes says:

    The sad thing is that you might be correct and with knowing this we still not act. Humans are to stupid to prevent catastrophic climate change.

  55. Joan Savage says:

    A famine in China big enough to push the world economy away from the dollar and toward the renbi, or to units of food, just doesn’t seem qualify as “mini.”

    I wasn’t supposing that a brief geographically local event like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or attack on Pearl Harbor or the Gulf of Tonkin or a 9-11 attack is the only way to stimulate a turning of the tide of public policy. Those events tend to bring on wars, rather than more pro-active responses.

    When Dust Bowl dirt reached DC it led to development of better farming practices and reforestation. Those are much better response outcomes than war.

    That’s a good reason to ditch the Pearl Harbor analogy and go for the like of the dust storms that belatedly led to development of the US Soil Service.

  56. Wes says:

    It took a Southern Democrat as President to pass the Civil Rights Act. It took a conservative Republican President to open trade with the commies in China. Likewise it will probably take a conservative Republican to address climate change. Even without that historical precedent, Obama has made it clear that he’s not the one. Eventually he’ll have to explain that to his daughters, but anyone who expects him to take decisive action is dreaming.

  57. prokaryotes says:

    Climate change will create another genetic bottle neck, according to Lovelock. And i start to believe him…

  58. fj says:

    Maybe it’s a whole mind-body thing and the real tipping point comes when humanity reaches some global intelligence quotient and the real problem is that it’s not the heat but the stupidity.

  59. Nan says:

    Worldwide economic collapse just might do it. Have you seen Guy McPherson’s talks?

  60. Spike says:

    I think food shortages and price hikes, drought, and a very significant increase in extreme storms and floods will be the most likely.

    Human constructs such as economies, the modern food chain, and civil order will probably struggle to deal with anything but a few of these early events.

  61. Spike says:

    I’ve been reading a little about the Pliocene – seems it was a lot stormier than the modern world, with broadly similar CO2 levels to today:

    And a lot less ice to explain the 25m higher sea level:

    “Rather, these results indicate that the major contributing mechanism to global Pliocene warmth was the reduced extent of high-latitude terrestrial ice sheets (50% reduction on Greenland, 33% reduction on Antarctica) and sea ice cover resulting in a strong ice-albedo feedback. These results
    highlight the need for further studies designed to improve our knowledge regarding Pliocene terrestrial ice configurations.”

  62. Mark E says:

    As simple denial loses its effectiveness, I expect the denial-funding machine to turn more and more to financing expressions of hopelessness and despair, as their last ditch effort to prevent effective action.

    Suggest we don’t play that game.

  63. Mark E says:

    Is the Pliocene the best climate analog? I don’t know. When I set out to read more about it awhile back I ran into lots of questions about how plate tectonics and changes in relative sea level might screw up the comparison, due to there maybe having been a different pattern to ocean currents. If at our starting gate we are slopping ocean heat around differently than back then, presumably whatever changes happen will be different, since they started from different baselines.

  64. Leif says:

    I was under the impression that Obama is a conservative GOP in Democrat cloths in order to get elected and support the status quo of “socially enabled capitalism.” The “fall back line” in case the Tin Hats did not pull it off. It is up to us, folks. Stop profits from the pollution of the commons. Why do you think Jill Stein was ostracized from lame stream media in spite of being on the ballots of many states? Arrested at the debates?

  65. J.R. says:

    You are asking the wrong question altogether. The assumption is that “something” will cause us to take action. What if something does? Near term or long term?

    Your assumption implies action on some level — which further implies that it will make difference — and this is where your question is both misleading and inaccurate.

    Nothing will make a difference now, 6 major positive feedbacks are now all past their tipping points. Whether we take action now or now it will not matter or change the outcome.

    So it is no longer a question of “when will we finally do something” — it is really a question of “how can some survive this”.

    THAT is the question that should be addressed.

    The vast majority of all living species will not survive what has been set in motion, certainly not 99% of humanity.

  66. J.R. says:

    Too many fail to connect all the many failing dominoes already in motion and will not see the accuracy of your statement. We are done, the juggernaught cannot be stopped.

    Even if 50% of the human population was wiped out tomorrow, cutting economy, industry and emissions, it would not change the outcome of what we are now facing.

    What still amazes me personally is how science can get it more and more right (their assessments) but still fail to see the big picture of what the data means. Hopium is often expressed with no supporting data. This is disingenuous at best.

    Any one of the collapsing systems could wipe out most life on Earth. They KNOW this, yet can’t bring themselves to admit what 6 or 8 collapsing systems means.

    It’s probably not really worthwhile trying to “convince” the “soft-denial” climate truthers of their own blinders. They’ll find out soon enough as every effort to “awaken” humanity fails or is too late and every action to “stop” catastrophe also fails.

    Indeed. Enjoy what time you have left.

  67. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    Do you live in Seattle Timothy? We live in the rainshadow on the northern end of the eastern side of the Cascades. We have had the rainest fall and winter I have ever seen, thats 60 odd years. There is no snow on the ground here, there should be at the very least 1 to 1 and a half feet. Temps have only dropped low enough to produce frost. The ground should be frozen solid by now, it’s not even close. Snow in the Cascades, when it snows is heavy and wet. Easy to melt with just the sun. The rivers here are bank full they should be at a low and covered with ice. These events will impact us severly in the coming summer.

  68. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    Ture but with no action in the offing what would you propose would move the world?

  69. Daniel Coffey says:

    What is little appreciated by even the informed is that late is equal to never. If we go on at the current pace for another 17 years, the period to return CO2 levels to even 350 ppm will last 250 years. As it stands now, what is in the atmosphere would require nearly 100 years to reach back to 350 ppm, even assuming we stopped all emissions.

    We are over the cliff, but Churchill will not arrive. The difference between global warming and WWII is that man-made strife has a resolution, but sun-driven energy accumulation due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has no off switch. We lost control of what is happening some time ago, just no one has awakened to that fact.

    Worst, while Sierra Club was fighting coal and delaying large scale wind and solar, natural gas slipped in to place.

    The battle will not be won because the generals are not competent to fight the enemy.

  70. Mike Roddy says:

    Pearl Harbor has already arrived, but here is American media’s response:

    “There are reports from Hawaii that ships have caught fire. Fortunately, our brave firefighters have doused the flames, and the situation is under control. One theory is a military attack, but some believe that natural causes are responsible.

    “The biggest fires occurred at fuel depots, so our political leaders need to realize that the best preventive measure would be to increase domestic oil and gas production”.

  71. sunflower says:

    A few decades ago I experienced a killer heat wave in Northern India that killed hundreds. Peak temperature was 128. I took frequent showers fully clothed for evaporative cooling. If power had failed from heat then no comfort cooling in New Delhi, no water, and if max temp > 138 millions would have died. This will happen someday in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, perhaps closer to home…

  72. Timothy Hughbanks says:

    I lived in Seattle for most of my childhood and have many relatives still there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no climate denier – it is just that the rainfall level in and of itself this year is not a good measure of climate change. The things you cite are better indicators. BTW, I have lived in Texas for 25 years and it has been hotter here than EVER in its history in recent years. (We’re in the midst of the warmest December ever and in 2011 we endured the hottest July and hottest August ever.)

  73. Derek says:

    Here here. The mainstream environmental community has been as useless and culpable as the mainstream media, suggesting for years that switching lightbulbs and buying Priuses will be enough. It was too late twenty years ago. I try to be hopefuly–nobody knows the future–but a hopeful future just doesn’t pencil out.

  74. Tim in CA says:

    Totally agree. The infinite growth paradigm is the central delusion of the global economy that’s pushing us toward economic and ecological collapse. Gee, thanks, Econ 101!

  75. tonyloman says:

    I had to skim the other comments. So, I hope this is not too redundant. Most, perhaps all, of the items in Joe’s list would trigger action. The question is, which would they trigger action relative to climate change? Only those that can be clearly and unequivocally linked to warming would result in actions re carbon. There was no doubt about who caused Pearl Harbor. No one was saying “there are multiple causes, of which the Japanese are only one,” like some of the statements made about hurricanes, the superstorm, droughts, floods, food shortages, etc. The only items in the list that fit that criteria are 1 and 8 (7 is too vague). An event would have to be devastating and painful with a direct link to global warming. The problem with this, as some have noted above, is that when events like that occur, it may already be too late for most of us. How do we get the all that sea water back up on Greenland or West Antarctica?

  76. Mike Roddy says:

    They will be in state 3 soon:

    “OK, it’s warming, humans caused it, but the solutions are more nuclear energy and good clean natural gas”. That should buy the oil companies another few years.

  77. I disagree that we haven’t seen an American Churchill – James Hansen has been as forthright and direct as the original and, to my mind has the same strength of character.
    He is just not the orator that Churchill was though he is now much better than he was when he started. Its about time he got the widespread recognition he deserves.

  78. Tim in CA says:

    Peak oil, or more precisely a decline in global liquid fuel production (post-peak), is the great missing component from your list. I suspect it is worth as many “points” as the rest of your scenarios combined.

    Let’s be clear. By this point I think we should be skeptical of the ability of any purely climatic event to trigger the scale of societal changes that are required to address the climate crisis. Several of the points on Joe’s list are in the process of being realized, but so far the threshold for the recognition of crisis is far from being triggered, even in the wake of Sandy.

    A decline in global liquid fields production is likely to be DEVASTATING for the global economy. The economy can’t grow on a shrinking oil supply. The IMF recently produced a working paper suggesting a strong likelihood of a decline in global liquids production before 2020, a scenario that could cause the price of oil to spike almost immediately to $500/barrel and rising as high as $1500/barrel over the next decade or two.
    A price spike of this magnitude is likely to send the global economy into a worldwide depression that makes 2008-9 look heady by comparison. Unemployment of 20%-30% is possible. Now, THAT would get people’s attention. Meanwhile, it is likely that if we have such a crisis around the end of the decade, several of your other Pearl Harbors will be in the process of being realized as well. The combination of the two problems will be enough to wake people up to be scale and severity of our energy/environment crisis. It may be sufficent to trigger wartime mentality and wartime measures. The problem is that governments will be broke and will likely use remaining resources to do all they can to stabilize liquids production in the short term. But there may also be a push to deploy renewables and efficiency on a wartime scale as well. We shall see.

  79. I agree with you Joe, but believe we may be too late.
    Only WWII scale effort very soon, could fight Global Warming.

    Global Warming is so overwhelming and the worse emergency that humanity has faced in modern times, that we are unable to fully grasp it. Global CO2 emissions, the main cause of GW, is increasing so massively and rapidly, that only a global effort larger and more intense than WWII may be able to save the Earth’s environment from destruction, and thus its’ ability to sustain life as we know it. And we have been doing nothing significant to date, compared to the magnitude and time-urgency of this problem.

    We have a distorted, idealistic picture of the danger of Global Warming because most scientists do not tell us the full facts since they fear being seen as “advocates.” Finally several courageous scientists are openly stating the gravity and time-criticality of global warming. See 2 attached articles and link.

    We have ample evidence that GW is much worse than we expected and were comfortable with. And it is very hard for most of us who already believe GW is a serious problem, to accept: our human activities have been rapidly destroying our only home, Earth, to the point of no return! No national or international leadership of importance wants to respond to this immense danger to human survival. We are standing still while the problem is getting much worse and may not be any longer controllable.

    Here is the essence of the GW situation as I understand it:

    1. For the last ten thousand years, the Earth’s average air temperature has been fairly stable thus allowing civilizations to develop and prosper. Industrialization broke this stable natural feedback system that kept the Earth a benevolent habitat for vegetation, agriculture, and thus human and other organism.

    2. Global warming has the ability to destroy the stable Earth environment thus Earth’s ability to sustain current forms of life, including human beings.

    3. IPCC 2007 projection was the base line: If we reduce global emissions moderately, we can have a small increase in temperature of 2 Celsius. Conclusion: low urgency, we have time.
    The IPCC selected an “average” emission scenario as our most likely path. They were wrong,! We are beyond the maximum emission path, and going higher than that.

    4. Global emissions of CO2 have increased substantially above IPCC projection and did not go down. China and India are increasing their already massive Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emissions and are projected to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

    5. Our Earth can not survive as habitat for humanity if the average air temperature increases by more than 2 to 3 C degrees C because the temperature will be going into an unstable territory. It is now projected that we are already on a path towards unstable temperature range, 4 Degree C, and that the Earth temperatures will continue to increase towards 6, 8, and 12 degrees C by the end of this century or so.
    6. Several scientists have come forth, starting 2 years ago, to point out that we will soon be passing the hoped for 2 degrees and are on a path to 4 degrees and beyond.

    7. As the temperature increases several known “positive-feedback” effects are expected to bring us to an unstable region where the temperatures will increase without any human ability to control them.

    8. In addition, “We do not know what we do not know.” It is reasonably clear that we do not know a lot of the environmental interactions and potential catastrophic events from increases of several degrees.
    The larger the temperature increase, the larger is the probability of massive catastrophic environmental events that will increase our temperature beyond the Earth’s ability to provide acceptable human habitat.

    9. In 2009 after studying GW literature full time for several years, it became obvious to me that only a global dedicated effort, even larger than WWII scale, was the only way global temperature may be able to remain within tolerable levels.

    10. Globally we have been doing nothing of significance to reduce GHG. The US and California (despite its pioneering AB 32 program) have done very little of significance to reduce GW gases. All the appealing US environmental programs, have been and will be insufficient compare to the increased emissions from China and India.

    11. The most important thing to grasp is that there is a high likelihood that as the air temperature passes some 6 degrees, life on Earth would be so harsh to most or all humankind, that the Earth will be on an irreversible path to drastic destruction of our sustainable, benevolent environment of the last ten thousand years!

    It is natural and human to dismiss all of the above as too severe and unrealistic. Sadly it is not.

    Dr. Matania Ginosar
    Environmental Scientist & Electrical Engineer
    Prev. Mgr. Solar Office, Calif. Energy Comm.

  80. Chris Winter says:

    Suppose Hurricane Sandy had hit Washington, DC instead of New York City. Putting the U.S. government facilities out of action due to flooding and power loss for a week or so might make a difference.

    I say “might” because a) Congress and the President would surely relocate and keep working, and b) reactionary retards like Senator Inhofe would continue efforts to block legislative action on climate change.

    But certainly the rank-and-file government workers would change their outlook. That’s got to count for something.

  81. Mike Roddy says:

    We don’t have Churchill and FDR, but at least we have Gandhi (McKibben), Zhukov (Romm), Eisenhower (Gore), Einstein (Hansen), and Sagan (Mann).

  82. Lionel A says:

    Bill McGuire has much on this theme in his ‘Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes‘, look inside on Amazon.

  83. Joan Savage says:

    Todd and Mark, I like this topic for sure.

    Bear in mind the Biblical parallels for getting the message out include both the city of Nineveh that repented in time, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that did not.

    The highly invested change deniers aren’t showing signs of repentance. I wouldn’t count on financial incentives to be enough to achieve a conversion.

    As has been said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

  84. catman306 says:

    Are there any Republicans, waiting in the wings, to take on that roll, should the opportunity arise? Who should we watch?

  85. DanB says:

    We’ll see progress if there is one thing – Panic in major media and financial centers due to:

    1. Repeated and increasingly destructive weather disasters in major media centers: NYC, DC, London, Moscow, &/or Beijing / Shanghai
    2. Disastrous floods in CA’s Central Valley – precipitating food price spikes (We got close this month but dodged the bullet.)
    3. Loss of snowpack in Sierras – followed by food price spikes.
    4. Continued, or frequently repeated, drought and heat in US breadbasket.
    5. Food panics in US (certain if two out of three above scenarios occur in the same year).
    6. Closure of shipping on the Mississippi River for more than a month.
    7. Severe reduction of shipping on Great Lakes due to low water levels.
    8. Mega-fires in Siberia, western US, and North American tundra that visibly darken the skies in media centers.
    9. Dust clouds from the Midwest engulfing DC or NYC.
    10. Direct hit on Miami by Cat 5 hurricane.
    11. Bankruptcy of Dept. of Interior, FEMA, or major US insurance company due to cumulative disasters
    12. Huge ice shelf collapse in Arctic and Antarctic in same year.
    13. Catastrophic heat wave in the Middle East, especially in oil producing countries
    14. Catastrophic weather in one or more of China’s most populated regions
    15. A huge media campaign by major scientific bodies, especially unexpected organizations (AMA? Surgeon General?), to spell out in words, and images, the catastrophe we face and the solutions at hand.
    16. Economic chaos precipitated by mass migration from devastated zones, collapse of some major insurance companies, and collapse of one of more of the big 5 fossil fuel companies (Peabody?)
    17. Collapse of a major fishery near a major media center
    18. A charismatic conservative leader who builds a coalition within the right-wing Christian community and among right-wing influencers (Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Ailes, Pat Robertson?) to recognize the climate crisis and trumpet it loudly – clearly spelling out the solutions and sacrifices we must make to transition to a safe planet.
    19. A majority of major US corporations awakening to the fact that their businesses will collapse within a decade if fossil fuel companies continue to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In essence we need fossil fuel corp’s pitted against all other sectors.
    20. A miracle.

  86. If we had a climate Hitler, a climate Churchill might have a fighting chance. But even with Hitler, it took the outbreak of hostilities before people acted.

    Pearl Harbor, same thing.

    In both cases, it was too late. The avoidable thing happened.

    With WW2, though, the catastrophe was reversible, albeit at great loss.

    With climate change, a Pearl Harbor moment that even the likes of Sen. James Inhofe must recognize will be too late. We will go to war, but the catastrophe will not be reversible, even at great cost. We will be fighting a losing battle. A terminal battle.

    Action has to happen now, before the Pearl Harbor event. How to inspire that kind of action and sacrifice?

  87. Gail Zawacki says:

    Yes but…it’s not just our current economic system. Humans have been in a growth pattern forever, it’s just been a matter of time until we go over the cliff. It’s just that there has always been some new place to grow into, and now there isn’t. As a species we are incapable of limiting our population to a size that can be sustained and coexist with the other species on earth. We’ve been driving other creatures to extinction for thousands of years, through habitat destruction and by simply eating them. We’ve just about run out of resources, and we’ve certainly used up Earth’s capability to absorb our pollution. Climate change is a symptom of our unrestrained excesses.

  88. Gail Zawacki says:

    Not really. Consider the wars that will likely ensue. Beyond that, consider all the nuclear reactors that are downstream of dams, and all those a sea level. When they flood, they will melt down. That’s enough to make a substantial dent in population all by itself, for thousands of years, by rendering large portions of earth uninhabitable. And that’s aside from incredible heating that will occur as the sulphates dissipate, which are masking the sun, and the forest sink is gone from absorbing ozone. Not to mention the ocean is acidifying and there are many other nasty prospects that are inevitable like crop failure and famine.

  89. Gail Zawacki says:

    Just wait till wildfires engulf many towns because there aren’t enough firefighters to respond:

  90. Solar Jim says:

    Thank you Dr. Ginosar, I concur fully. I also worry that oxygen producers (forest and phytoplankton ecosystems) will not withstand the myriad effects from our onslaught of carbonic acid (gas and liquid).

  91. prokaryotes says:

    Actions from the government. The Climate Act.

  92. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Population growth has not been forever. The ancient cultures were very careful to limit their populations to the carrying capacity of their lands, by contraception and occasionally by infanticide. They also nurtured habitat and ate only what they needed, ME

  93. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I was responding to his estimate of how many people are doing something. I agree that the human population is going to be decimated or whatever the word is for about 9x decimated, ME

  94. Mike Roddy says:

    Interesting list, but I fear that panic in financial centers will lead to hoarding of remaining capital and continued resistance to change.

    #15 would be effective, but is not possible due to the cost of such a media campaign. The media companies have been standing in the way of change, and won’t give away air time. They would rather gather the last crumbs from fossil fuel based industries.

  95. Mike Roddy says:

    The US, through our inaction, is enabling increased emissions from China, India, and Russia. Those countries also have fossil fuel oligarchies, who, as here, are basically gangsters. They will be stopped only when the people rise up, but Americans have been deceived and tranquilized by corrupt media corporations. The only path to change may be to attack and discredit American media, replacing them if necessary.

  96. Mark E says:

    The US government says it owns the airwaves. If Obama declared Global Warming to be a “clear and present danger”, an existential threat to the continuation of the US as we know it, they could simply demand air time.

  97. Superman1 says:

    At Pearl Harbor, the enemy was external. In climate change, ‘we’ are the enemy. We are the analogue of an autoimmune disease. Instead of protecting the ‘host’, we are destroying the ‘host’. This is like asking a Churchill to lead a nation most of whose citizens have taken an oath of suicide.

    The whole model of fighting climate change is wrong, and that’s why no solutions are appearing. We need to cure a nation, or a world, of fossil fuel addiction, and we need to do it essentially overnight. Looking for a Churchill makes us ‘deniers’ in the class of WUWT, albeit a different type of ‘denier’. Until someone convinces me otherwise, I believe the game is over.

  98. Spike says:

    Quote from the first article:

    “We’re interested in the Pliocene, because it’s the closest analog we have in the past for what could happen in our future,” says Chris Brierley, a Yale climate researcher computing at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC).

    So I was taking that statement as my basis of interest – CO2 was similar, temps 2-3C higher than now.

  99. Spike says:

    I pointed the event you refer to out to some denier arguing it was impossible for a very long time to have heat related human mortalities:

    So at our current level of warming in the hot year 2010 we began to see heat related deaths in India. Imagine warming of 3 x the current extent. Also think of how easy it will be to walk, work, and tend your heat damaged crops in such heat.

  100. fj says:

    The climate Pear Harbor will be a combination of extreme events and social change.

  101. FWhite says:

    I might be inclined to change the question from “What kind of climatic mini-catastrophes might move public and policymaker opinion over the next decade?” to

    “What kind of “GLOBAL” climatic mini-catastrophes might move “GLOBAL” public and policymaker opinion over the next decade?

    If the devastation is global, or even localized in huge population centers like the Philippines, has the US reached such a dismal level of moral depravity that it would not be moved to act?

  102. Gail Zawacki says:

    Sorry ME, I misread…although, percentage-wise, I think it probably IS only a handful of people doing anything, compared to the overall population – or for that matter even aware there is some kind of catastrophe of our own making looming.

    When you are inside the bubble like CP conversing with like-minded folks, its easy to forget the vastly greater number who don’t even talk about climate change, or any of the other crisis we face. Personally, I am surrounded by them. People who think the financial crisis is confined to Greece and Spain and France because the workers take long vacations. People who think overpopulation isn’t a problem, there is plenty of land and resources. People who think we fixed the pollution problem over 30 years ago. People who think (to the extent they give it a passing thought), even if climate change is happening and we’re causing it, it doesn’t matter because nothing really bad will come of it for at least a hundred years.

    Is that what you meant? Or just generally laughable that so few are engaged in the problem.

  103. Mike Roddy says:

    Excessive negativity over human qualities and possibilities will not help us. We are in this predicament because of our weaknesses, but the way out will have to come from our strengths.

  104. Mike Roddy says:

    It’s a great idea, Mark, and I didn’t realize that in theory the government owns the airwaves.

    Unfortunately, presidential candidates are preselected to lack a set of balls. Only Hillary has them, and she’s too corporate.

  105. Superman1 says:


    “Personally, I am surrounded by them. People who think the financial crisis is confined to Greece and Spain and France because the workers take long vacations. People who think overpopulation isn’t a problem, there is plenty of land and resources. People who think we fixed the pollution problem over 30 years ago. People who think (to the extent they give it a passing thought), even if climate change is happening and we’re causing it, it doesn’t matter because nothing really bad will come of it for at least a hundred years.”

    You must live in my neighborhood; described it perfectly!

  106. Alan Roth says:

    I’m not ungrateful for the revelations that you, Joe, have presented time and again but this time I think it’s a head-in-the-sand approach which is not thinking independently based on what we have heard from climate scientists without joining their conclusions.
    In the article “Climate Experts Warn…..” it is stated up front that we could have emissions of 100 billions tons of carbon go into the atmosphere this century. You need to take issue with that. We have 1 trillion tons of carbon in the top 3 meters of the permafrost according to Ted Schuur (Univ of Florida). We have had estimations that 90% of the top 3 meters of the permafrost will thaw this century. That’s 900 billion tons of carbon. Okay, some of that may not get emitted even though it has thawed. Also, some of it may go up as weak CO2 rather than 100-times stronger methane. We have a surge of thermal energy in the Arctic Ocean due to melting sea ice and this energy can go up to 900 miles over the permafrost. If you’ve read Richard Alley’s Two Mile Time Machine, you can see that the arctic experience abrupt climate change 23 times in the past 100,000 years. The majority of those times, it went up 14-18 degrees F in 3 years. So we know this rapid increase can happen even though conditions were different then (colder) and we don’t know what triggered those increases. But the reality is that we could have 1 billion tons of carbon go into the atmosphere sooner than later, equivalent to 100 billion tons of CO2. The real threat is much greater than you and others propose. By 2020 it could be “game over”. Please work with the real numbers we have. We need to do everything possible to buy time to do more adaptation before it’s too late.

  107. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Gail and Superman, I’m sure your descriptions are accurate but with respect, there is more concern, and action, in the rest of the world than there appears to be in the US. Many Aussies are reducing their power and petrol useage on top of being careful about water, but I was really impressed by the Europeans – efficiency and public transport are very high and smart, and I couldn’t even find one denier, ME

  108. EDpeak says:

    JR is making an analogy with WWII, not unreasonable, but with so many comments seeming to pray for some Churchill to come, two concerns.

    First, the person. Just like Plato said some smart things, and yet also was not-so-great, by being pro-slavery as well.

    Similarly with Churchill, for whom reverence can be possible only if we deliberately forget some other things he said,

    “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of [poison] gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare..I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”
    -Churchill (proving how “civilised” he is as a white westerner to use it only against “uncivilised” tribes as a “permanent” weapon of war. Imagine the reaction of a leader in Iran said the same thing..)

    The bigger problem is that change will need to come from the bottom – not from “Great Men” (or “Great” women like H Clinton who was a cheerleader for killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in a way so criminal that the chief of sanctions resigned in protest (Denis Halliday) was replaced by another head of sanctions, Hans von Sponeck, who ALSO resigned in protest at the near-genocidal sanctions))

    We need leadership from the bottom – from “common” ordinary men and women (and youth), willing to change our “commodify every part of life” for-profit expoenential-growth economics that makes everything, even life, a “market commodity” and to change the economic system. It’s the economic system, stupid

  109. Solar Jim says:

    We can’t wake up – we’re zombies of the working and unemployed dead. A perverse oligopoly. Say, would you mind lending another trillion. However, we’re good at bomb building, whether financial, ecological or actual.

  110. john atcheson says:

    I believe it will take a series of successive catastrophes of the same kind. Absent that, there is nothing anyone can say or do that will ignite action. We are dealing with a misalignment between the world that shaped our psyche and the world we now live in.

    We are hardwired to deal with the Present proximate, not the future catastrophe.

  111. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Joe Romm and other commentators are saying that President Obama’s room for manoeuvre on capping emissions is limited because the Republicans control the House of Representatives.

    This gives Obama an opportunity to show what he’s really made of. We are in a real emergency now and four more years of Obama being unable to tackle the problem effectively could tip the world over the climate cliff.

    Obama could choose to do nothing and waste those precious four years, simply washing his hands of the problem and watching, in the coming decades, as the prospect of worldwide cataclysm and the decimation of the human race draws ever closer.

    Or he could do something radical. He could tell the American people that it was now time for America, and the world, to launch a World War II-type emergency programme to counter climate change. In order to do so he would need the support of the people. He would have to tell them that this was an all-or-nothing effort to save humanity and it would mean kicking the Republicans out of office, all of them.

    And so Obama would hand in his seal of office and announce to the nation that he was going to the polls once again, in November 2013, in order to get the mandate he required from the people to launch his emergency unopposed. The Democrats would need complete control and only the people could deliver this to him. He would give them eleven months to make up their minds.

    The European Union would quickly fall in behind any such emergency programme, along with Australia, Brazil and others. The main remaining stumbling block would be to bring China, India and Russia on board. Hilary Clinton would be faced with the challenge of her life.

  112. Anders Hsi says:

    With the rise of the individual each and every one of us has an unparalleled potential to make a difference, especially if we can unite and organize into a cohesive movement with shared resources.

    We must agree to bond and execute on a specific practical plan. Everyone has ideas and the power to share them, but if everyone is promoting their own plan, nothing with impact will result.

    We must take a different approach of sharing ideas, gathering participation, forming teams, utilizing our networking abilities, completing projects, measuring impact, building resources, scaling our efforts, and then creating the next project to execute.

    The environmental movement has not yet scaled because the activists have not effectively communicated their actions and the opportunity to mainstream culture. The best analogy I have heard is the titanic, except that it is framed negatively instead of positively:

    There are three groups of people on the titanic.
    The first group sees the iceberg and believes or claims that it is not an iceberg, that it is nothing, or at least that we do not yet know what it is and therefore should not yet do anything about it. “Full steam ahead” they call! We know who some of these people are. Our efforts are not best spent convincing, worrying about, or demonizing this group of people.
    The second group of people is the largest group, and includes most educated Americans. They see the iceberg ahead and realize that we are on course to hitting it and that it will be disastrous. But as one person, they do not know what they can or should do about it. “It is the captain’s job to steer us out of the way”, they believe, and go on with their normal activities on the boat.
    The third group of people realizes that we have already struck the iceberg, are sinking, and that there are not enough lifeboats on board. They are building lifeboats.
    The third group of people has not effectively communicated the opportunity to the second group of people. We need the second group of people to contribute their efforts and resources to building lifeboats.

    One of the major reasons that the third group (environmental activists) has not effectively enlisted the second group (mainstream culture) is that they have tried to motivate them with negativity, with fear, anger, division, and partisanship. Fear can often petrify people. Anger often causes people to destroy rather than create. It is always easier to destroy than it is to create.

    An environmentally sustainable world is an opportunity that we need to create and that we need as many people as possible to cooperate on and realize. Partisanship will make this impossible. Fortunately, environmental sustainability is an opportunity that will benefit everyone. Convincing them to realize this opportunity is getting them to act in their own interest as well for the public good.

    We must unite to realize the opportunity of environmental sustainability. We need to think about what we can do to motivate people to take action, to contribute their ideas, resources, skills, and time. If you ask people what has most powerfully motivated them in their lives, it is almost always something positive, love, friendship, an opportunity, a conviction, or a vision. We must use these positive motivations to help people recognize that they want to be part of this incomparable opportunity to create a healthier, happier, and more beautiful world.

    Some of you have checked out the movement that we are trying to build at Please let me know what you think, whether positive or negative.

  113. Pokey says:

    As the ice melts, taking pressure off of latent volcanoes, isn’t there a chance that they will go off? Also, what if rising sea levels change the deep sea currents, dropping the temperature of Europe? The New Madrid fault has been inactive, but if that sucker goes, we will need to rebuild the mid-west. And you guys are going on about politicians…

  114. Mike Roddy says:

    Obama, unfortunately, is no Jack Kennedy. He’s not even Richard Nixon. We have yet to see him take an important stand on principle, and then go to the people for support.

    Unfortunately, we can’t wait four years. We are going to have to force Obama’s hand.

  115. Kent Otho Doering says:

    German Greens have recognized the problem for decades and pushed for a number of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures that have already cut the ountrires co² and methane emssions by over 50% since 1992, and the pace is picking up.
    We are in the “globsl war against global” warming and the existing sum of already existing technologies can go a long way in alleviating the problems when consequentkly applied. Munich´s per capita fossil fuel consumption is already only 30% of that in a comparative U.S. region, and stedlly dropping.
    It will be off fossil by the end of 2025, two years after the exit from nuclear. Exiting both nuclear and fossil is possible, and German innovation is leading the way..
    not some “big thing”, but the sum of a lot small eneregy efficiency and renewable energy advances make the difference.

  116. Frunobulax says:

    I have three Pearl Harbor scenarios that I’m waiting for.

    The first is out of a novel called “Nature’s End” by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, and it involves the burning of the Amazon rain forest. In the book, it starts slowly, but then — after Brazilian authorities acknowledge that it was out of control — the other nations of Earth try desperately to contain it and put it out. They eventually succeed, but only after over 75% of it was gone.

    The second is more immediate; I think we can have this one within a decade or so, and that would be the drying up of the Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio river system. If we can wade across it at St. Louis, we’ll know at that point we are in serious trouble.

    The third is a massive volcanic explosion — with a VEI of 7, say — with a high sulphur content, that causes a few years to be “summer free”. [Wiki page on “The Year Without a Summer”.]

    Any of these three would cause everyone to wake up finally. But it would probably be too late to prevent a major population correction of a few billion people.

  117. Frunobulax says:

    Then the third stage: “God’s angry at us for [fill in the black]”

    What a lot of people don’t recognize is that there is a sizable part of the population that *want* the world destroyed so that Jesus can return.

  118. Frunobulax says:

    [fill in the *blank]

  119. Frunobulax says:

    Indeed, enjoy your remaining days.

    If humans left the planet tonight, and all the structures that we ever built vanished as well, there would still be a major extinction event going on and would continue for a few thousand years. So even if we were to jam on the brakes and go completely green by, say, 2030, we’d still be in huge trouble.

    I’m beginning to think that the high-water mark for our species was the early morning hours of September 11, 2001. Its been all downhill ever since, and I see no chance of stopping that.

  120. Frunobulax says:

    Food shortages — and the price spikes associated with them — usually bring political revolutions. Looking at the Arab Spring, enhanced by social networking, but driven by the high food prices, I couldn’t help but think about the French Revolution (famine, aided by a volcanic climate change event begun years earlier) and the Russian Revolution (also aided by a harsh winter amid food shortages).

    Political revolutions don’t begin in the streets with dissidents and disaffected youth. It begins in the kitchens. When hungry mothers desperate to feed their children hit the streets to protest, its not long before they are also manning the barricades and tossing Molotov cocktails.

    Napoleon famously said (or was thought to have said) that he would rather face an army of a million men than face his own people when they are hungry. Wait until Washington learns that one.

  121. Frunobulax says:

    Good post.

    For years, the permafrost melt was keeping me up at night. Finally, it seems to be getting some attention.

    What also concerns me — and I haven’t read much about it one way or another — is the impact on the tectonic plates by all this weight shifting from the poles to the equator. One good volcanic blast, and its game over at this point.

  122. Frunobulax says:

    Bingo. I just wrote about that.

  123. Paul Pittman says:

    Don’t forget the 800 billion tons of pre-formed methane locked up in the permafrost submerged under the Siberian continental margins of the Arctic Ocean. The IPCC Fourth Assesment states that release of as little as 1% of this reservior could trigger rapid Arctic warming, which would, in turn, release ever grater quantities of methane from submerged permafrost. Even 80 billion tons of methane, let alone 800 billion, could initiate a warming cycle that would not abate for hundreds of thousands of years.

  124. Sasparilla says:

    KenL I think you stated very well what it would take to make action a for sure thing – hitting the general public in the face triggering the whole, “this is for real, its happening right now and we’ve got to do something” crisis response (to overcome the forces blocking action in Washington DC) that we need – but it doesn’t seem like a realistic prospect – they will collapse, but over a much longer time frame and much too late.

  125. Sasparilla says:

    Peak oil definitely would disrupt things a lot, however over just the last couple of years new ways of harvesting what was previously considered irrecoverable natural gas and oil resources have been economically demonstrated, used and are what are at the heart of the increasing U.S. domestic oil production (and the natural gas boom/bust – caused by the overproduction of natural gas in the U.S.). These methods will of course be used throughout the world and large chunks of these huge previously considered irrecoverable oil and natural gas reserves are now considered recoverable.

    My understanding is that Peak Oil will not be coming anytime soon anymore (it would have been prior to the last couple of years of natural gas and oil extraction tech methods – thank the U.S. for that..) as humanity has unlocked massive reserves of oil and natural gas that were previously considered irrecoverable – and way more reserves than needed to get us way past the point of feedbacks taking over.

  126. Sasparilla says:

    Yes, a slow moving Cat 4 hurricane across D.C. after the summer arctic has gone iceless would probably change things – its just very long odds and if its happened in the past, it’ll to easy to explain away.

  127. Sasparilla says:

    I like those comparison’s Mike, very nice.

  128. Sasparilla says:

    The call on the Mississippi is excellent and one that we’re seeing the effects already. Obviously the climate wouldn’t have to fidget with things to make it unusable as the major water born trade channel that it is.

  129. Aaron Lewis says:

    Much of what goes down the river is grain. No rain, no grain. Lack of water in the river goes deeper than lack of shipping capacity.

    Lack of water in the river also means a food and domestic water shortage.

  130. Mark E says:

    “mini” = short-lived, not mild in impact.


    we will only learn what we need to learn with millions of dead


    although horrified we should be nonetheless be grateful for the teachable moment, if it means we avoid BILLIONS dead later

    A very deep ((((short-lived))) food shortage should be welcomed, if that is the only thing that will work in time.

  131. Mark E says:

    I read it too. Best does not mean 1:1 relationship. Currents were way different. Most warming goes in the ocean. So, circulation of most of the warming was way different, even though those authors said it was the “Best” analog.

  132. Rakesh Malik says:

    Sadly, this is true… the environmental community has been fragmented and unfocused, as well as trapped in the old ways and failing to learn how to use modern communication technology to reach and educate modern audiences.

    The Washington state chapter is so far gone that it no longer even celebrates its founder’s birthday.

    We definitely need a wake-up call. My fear is that said wake-up call will be the collapse of human civilization.