I will offer my thoughts below and am interested to hear yours.
This weekend’s climate question is inspired by a Washington Post op-ed from my friend Mike Tidwell, “A climate-change activist prepares for the worst.”
Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and, like most climate hawks, better informed than 98% of policymakers and the media on climate science and likely impacts. Still, I don’t do any of the things he does — nor would I recommend them:
Today, underneath the solar panels, there’s a new set of deadbolt locks on all my doors. There’s a new Honda GX390 portable power generator in my garage, ready to provide backup electricity. And last week I bought a starter kit to raise tomatoes and lettuce behind barred basement windows.
I’m not a survivalist or an “end times” enthusiast. When it comes to climate change, I’m just a realist.
I have the PV panels [and a solar hot water heater and a waste heat recovery unit for the showers and ... see "Is Climate Progress 'low carbon' and does it matter?"] — not as adaptation, but because I think it’s a good idea.
I didn’t get the expensive batteries to let the system operate after a storm when the power goes out. I suppose if, like Tidwell, we had lost our power multiple times I might get a generator, but for me it isn’t an urgent purchase. I live on high ground, and we’ve lost power in my DC home for several hours only once in 10 years , so the cost equation just doesn’t work, at least for me, even though I work from home.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to get a generator, but my intention was to buy a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle for my next car, to replace the Prius, and most of those will have the capability of working as a portable generator.
I’ve studied and written as much as anyone else how climate change drives extreme weather and how it’s going to get much, much worse in the coming years. And it’s likely that half the years this decade will be hotter than 2010 with weather as extreme if not more so. And, as readers know, I’ve been researching, talking to experts, and writing extensively on food insecurity and how it drives political unrest.
But the United States simply isn’t in any plausible danger from internal political instability from extreme weather or food insecurity this decade. We’re rich, and we’re the bread basket of the world. Food prices are at their highest level in two decades, yet most Americans hardly notice. Sure, if you’re an Egyptian, and food is 40% of your budget, that’s devastating. But even if food prices ran up 50% from current levels, again most Americans would barely notice. If the 1000-year Russian heat-wave and drought hit Iowa or Chicago it would be brutal, but, mostly for other countries.
I think it’s perfectly reasonable to start to grow your own food, because you can save money, the quality can be higher, and it’s a good skill, especially to pass on to your children. But you aren’t going to be feeding yourself in some sort of Mad Max scenario. If it comes to that point, your garden won’t be much help.
I don’t think food insecurity will hit the U.S. directly this decade — in the riot-creating sense that it has hit the poorest countries now (we do obviously still have malnourishment in this country). Nor do I think it likely we will in the next one (except, again, through global political instability). By the 2030s, though, all bets are off (see Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path). I don’t expect the electric grid to become less reliable — the impact of extreme weather will cause havoc locally, but improved technology and growing demand response strategies should in general improve reliability.
Peak oil is another matter, though, and that is worth thinking about and planning for, though, again, most European countries are already paying higher gasoline prices than America is likely to average this decade, so even $7 gasoline isn’t the end of the world, and I’m skeptical we would see that this decade for any length of time (mainly because the global economy would contract first).
My three main suggestions for what people should do in the next few years are:
- Sell your SUV, sooner rather than later, unless you really need all that interior room on a regular basis, since resale prices are certainly going to collapse when gasoline prices sustain at $4 or higher for any length of time. Get a hybrid or, even better, PHEV.
- If you live in a 100-year flood plain, move. You can wait for housing prices to recover a bit, but the risks here are just going to keep growing.
- Plan to sell your coastal property, especially if you live anywhere between Manhattan and Corpus Christi (and thus also have to worry about hurricanes). Coastal property values are going to crash at some point (see “What year will coastal property values crash?“) I think the peak in prices come some time in the 2020s. Coastal property values crash long before you actually get the devastating sea level rise (SLR). They crash when a large fraction of the financial community and of opinion-makers “” along with a smaller but substantial fraction of the public “” realize that it is too late for us to stop 4 to 5 feet of SLR. The staggering success of the fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign — and the ongoing lameness of the media — may put off that awareness a few years, but I still think the peak comes by the mid- to late-2020s.
Of course, if you are in college or planning to enter soon, then I would also recommend thinking about studying relevant areas (clean energy, water, sustainable agriculture) that will be highly-in-demand careers in the coming decades (see “How can you be most employable in a world of global warming and peak oil and food insecurity?“). Stetson University taped my talk on this, so I’ll leave a longer discussion on that for later.
Interestingly, Paul Gilding just came by the house this morning for a chat. I taped some video interviews of him for when his new book, The Great Disruption, comes out in April. I was thinking that some of Tidwell’s ideas might make more sense for Australia, since they are the most arid habited continent, as well as having a large tropical component that is the subject to intense rain storms. They are, as I’ve said, the canary in the coal mine for climate change, a good indicator of what Americans will face. But Gilding said that while people are constantly asking him what they should do, he doesn’t recommend a survivalist approach, either.
I would add that I think it will be obvious to the vast majority of Americans, the media, and policymakers in the 2020s that multiple catastrophic impacts are coming and we will begin a crash effort to reduce emissions then — but this post is focused on what folks should be doing in the next few years to plan for what’s to come. Obviously, if we don’t start very aggressive national and global mitigation this decade (or WWII-scale mitigation in the 2020s), then we will almost certainly be subjecting countless generations to ever-worsening misery post-2040.
What do you think?