What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors?

[Note: Buried in this post is a request for your predictions or ideas.]

Andy Revkin saw my post on Hansen Sunday night and e-mailed me some questions and then turned my reply into a post at Dot Earth, “Joe Romm on Hansen’s Mistakes, Cap’s Limits.”

To Revkin’s question of what might drive action strong enough to avoid the worst, I cited my post on “The harsh lessons of the financial bailout” — in particular a key driver is “bad things must be happening to regular people right now.” 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 recent example: “my article criticizing the NYT on the bark beetle story”.

Building on what I wrote about Hansen:

We will need a WWII-style approach, but that can only happen after we get the global warming Pearl Harbor or, more likely, multiple Pearl Harbors.

Revkin then asked “What kind of wake-up call does Mr. Romm think is conceivable on a time scale relevant to near-term policy?”


My quick response is below — but I am certainly interested in your thoughts on what kind of climatic mini-catastrophes might move public and policymaker opinion over the next decade. Preferably these “mini-catastrophes” would not themselves be evidence that we had waited too long and passed the point of no return.

Here is my list — I await yours:

Mutliple Pearl Harbors over the next decade — half or more of these happening:

  1. Arctic goes ice free before 2020. It would be a big, visible global shock.
  2. Rapid warming over next decade, as recent Nature and Science article suggests is quite possible (posts here and here)
  3. Continued (unexpected) surge in methane
  4. A megadrought hitting the SW comparable to what has hit southern Australia.
  5. More superstorms, like Katrina
  6. A heatwave as bad as Europe’s 2003 one.
  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.

I say multiple events because we need a critical mass understanding the climate is changing catastrophically. Multiple events will be needed to make the case that this is global and climate-related, as opposed to local and weather-related.

For me and others, one Hurricane Katrina was enough to motivate more action, but the superstorm’s devastation could not and cannot be directly linked to climate change. It was clear evidence of what kind of catastrophes we will face in a world of superstorms and rising seas — and it is now painfully clear that future Katrinas will be worse (see “Nature: Hurricanes ARE getting fiercer — and it’s going to get much worse” and “Why future Katrinas and Gustavs will be MUCH worse, Part 2”).


And yes, for a large fraction of the population, no evidence will prove persuasive (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP”). We will have to save them in spite of their willful and self-destructive ignorance, assuming they don’t stop us.

“The science is beyond dispute… Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”