"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.
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:
- Arctic goes [virtually] ice free before 2020. It would be a big, visible global shock.
- Rapid warming over next decade, as recent Nature and Science articles suggest is quite possible (posts here and here)
- Continued (unexpected) surge in methane
- A [multi-year] megadrought hitting the SW comparable to what hit southern Australia.
- More superstorms, like Katrina.
- A heatwave as bad as
Europe’s 2003 one[Russia's in 2010 hitting the U.S. breadbasket].
- Something unpredicted but clearly linked to climate, like the bark beetle devastation.
- 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.
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, to be clear, the drought in Texas, though extreme, would have to go on for many years to match what happened in Australia.
BUT 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).
A year 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 “Nature Publishes My 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 a ruined world — see “Don’t believe in global warming? That’s not very conservative.”
The Pearl Harbors are here. The Churchills and FDRs aren’t.