Is the world poised to make the transition from shock to trance on climate policy — using the terminology that President-elect Barack Obama chose to describe America’s cyclical interest in moving beyond fossil fuels?
Today’s sobering story on how economic turmoil could blunt climate-friendly energy plans, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, implies that a new kind of climate and energy trance may indeed be nigh — not one created just by dropping prices for coal and oil but also by the urgency of a global economic retreat. Below I seek your thoughts on what could avoid a return to trance mode.
There’ve been two periods that could be construed as climate shocks along the 100-year trajectory of science pointing to human-caused heating of the Earth. The first came in the summer of 1988. Blazing heat and drought in the North, the combustion of Yellowstone and the Amazon, and warnings from scientists led by James E. Hansen led to a burst of headlines and scientific conferences, the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the negotiating path toward agreement on the first climate treaty in 1992.
Then came the trance, acknowledged by former President Bill Clinton in a video interview. Low energy prices, the distraction of the first Persian Gulf war, and a temporary cool spell following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines all helped tamp down global warming as an issue through much of the 1990’s, outside the brief burst of triumphant proclamations with the 1997 negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, a stricter addendum to the faltering 1992 climate pact.
The second shock built slower and has lasted longer. It started with the European heat wave of 2003 and intensified from 2005 to 2007 as Hurricane Katrina and “An Inconvenient Truth” put climate in the headlines, the science pointing to a human hand on the planet’s thermostat coalesced with the fourth I.P.C.C. report, and the Arctic Ocean sea ice peeled back in a way never observed before.
Many climate scientists have insisted that this is not a shock, but the opening salvo from nature in a new age of climatic destabilization: Global warming, they say, is no longer a “somewhere, someday” issue but here and now. Other serious researchers in the field, while convinced of the building long-term danger, warn that nature will almost surely jostle chaotically through cool and warm spells along the way to what Dr. Hansen calls “a different planet.” They warn not to read too much into current events (particularly hurricanes) unless you’re ready to explain the quiet seasons and cold snaps along with the tempests and heat waves.
The question is, can societies commit to a sustained effort to move beyond fossil fuels (and to curtail the destruction of tropical forests) even as nature runs hot and cold — and especially as the economy does the same?
In today’s story, European environmental officials echo what President-elect Barack Obama has said, insisting that the burst of government spending aimed at restoring economic vigor can be directed toward building the foundations of an environmentally sound energy supply. But the story includes ample hints that such a focus may be tough to sustain given how costly the non-polluting energy technologies remain compared to fossil options, at least if energy costs are measured using conventional economic yardsticks that don’t include long-term costs.
What can avert the return to trance mode? The other day, the energy specialist and climate campaigner Joe Romm told me that a necessary element for getting America mobilized to lead the world to a new non-polluting energy future was a big wakeup call from nature. “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,” he wrote. (He blogged on the question on 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.