“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.
U.S. Navy battleship USS West Virginia burns and sinks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii December 7, 1941. Reuters/USN
Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Seems like a good time to update my post from 3 years ago, “What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors?”
The genesis of that piece starts 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 haven’t changed much.
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:
- One of the two major political parties in this country has chosen to double down on denial
- The other political party has a remarkable number of feckless people on this crucial issue, including its nominal leader
- We have an extraconstitutional, supermajority 60-vote requirement in the U.S. Senate for legislation, that gives the minority a stranglehold on our future
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: