'Devastating Climate Shock' Needed to Spur Climate Change Policy

On his trans-Arctic journey aboard an icebreaker ship, global systems professor Thomas Homer-Dixon notes the increasing patchwork of open water and small ice chunks where formerly there had been one continuous expanse of 8 foot thick sea ice. His observations highlight scientists’ claims of accelerating climate change that is hitting the Arctic twice as fast as anywhere else.

Writing in an op-ed in today’s New York Times (‘Disaster at the Top of the World’), professor Homer-Dixon suggests that a reluctance to implement effective climate change policies–particularly in the U.S.–is the result of a perceived challenge or threat to our identity.  Referencing Yale University professor Dan Kahan’s theory of “protective cognition”, and noting the exploitation of identity threats by powerful coal and oil interests, Homer-Dixon asserts “we’ll almost certainly need some kind of devastating climate shock to get effective climate policy.”

In his alarm-ringing NYTimes op-ed on Climate Change, professor Homer-Dixon* draws a comparison with the 2008 financial “meltdown” which finally led to new financial regulations, even though warnings of a housing bubble (and an emerging recession) were being made prior to the crisis.  He advocates societies designing a contingency plan (‘Plan Z’ ) to deal with the immediate after-effects of one or more climate change disasters.

Though noting the Kennedy School of Government’s recent study (‘Responding to Threat of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes’), the author cites a general lack of adequate and realistic plans in place to deal with an acute climate crisis and calls for “aggressive preparation”

Homer-Dixon goes on to ask the difficult questions that will inevitably arise, such as: where will the money come from to rapidly over-haul the world’s energy systems? Homer-Dixon acknowledges that there will be different climate impacts in different parts of the world and questions whether poorer nations will be able to adapt quickly enough to forestall wide-spread devastation and/or a consequent armed conflict (such as from a major crop failure or drought).

He also brings up the controversial issue of geo-engineering and who will undertake these operations (such as injecting sulfates into the upper atmosphere to cool the planet).

To read the complete op-ed, click here.

This is the second, rather alarmist (perhaps necessarily so), climate-related op-ed to appear in the NY Times in two weeks. The first, ‘The Sun Also Surprises’ penned by Lawrence E. Joseph, focused on the likely, negative impacts to agriculture, infrastructure and communications during a future phase of high solar activity (sunspots, flares, etc.).  That op-ed may be found here

Author’s note:

As I conclude this post, I will note that the floods in Pakistan, and more recent ones in Northeast China, continue.

* Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, Canada

photo: Sunny Skies over the Arctic in Late June 2010 – by MODIS / NASA

2 thoughts on “'Devastating Climate Shock' Needed to Spur Climate Change Policy”

  1. You want a climate shock? How about hitting them where it really hurts: their stomachs:

    “Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them.” –Dr James Lovelock’s lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. ’07

    P.S. “The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state.” –Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

    1. Thanks for your comment. It seems that when any dire, planet-wide crisis scenario comes up, so too does Lovelock’s name. Lovelock is one of those environmentalists that have a seemingly “callous” view towards humanity (and who justify it by what we–in the Developed World– do to the Earth).

      But, I do not want to quibble with his theoretical notions; as far as his “alternative” (“culling of humanity”) goes…this may be the ultimate alternative (but think now, who will most likely be “culled”–the world’s affluent, or the world’s poor?), but, I believe, he is wrong, or perhaps, simply limited in his thinking.

      Alternatives are mostly limited by our ability to envision them, and secondly, by environmental/physical constraints (but even these can be over-come to a degree). But my point is that there are several, if not many, alternatives to geoengineering (and I would never rule out geoengineering all together). Perhaps all it will take is one more record temperature-setting summer to kick-start a global climate change policy targeting CO2 reductions (below 350 ppm). Or, perhaps a combination of this and a critical mass of renewable energy tech applications (world wide)…plus modest geoengineering techniques (such as the use of space mirrors)…then, there’s always the long-term assist from the initiation of a new Milankovitch cycle that favors cooling over warming…

      A multi-pronged approach may go far to mitigate extreme climate change scenarios….and, the fact is, we don’t really know what the result of short-term climate change will be….and then there’s the long-term impacts. All of these assume that there’s nothing that can be done. But it’s becoming clear that we are not doing enough.

      So, I do, ultimately sympathize with the view of Homer-Dixon.

      In Carl Sagan’s novel ‘Contact’, humanity unites (gradually) after receipt of the Message….here and now, we are receiving a “message” (many messages in fact) that our planet’s climate (as we know it) is in jeopardy….will these reach that critical mass to achieve an intellectual “tipping point”?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top