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Do We Need A Disaster?

If you've been following the WorldChanging discussion taking place in the Inkwell conference on the Well, you'll have picked up on a troublingly recurring point: many good people have come to the conclusion that only a climate disaster will get us (meaning primarily, but not exclusively, Americans) to change our ways and to really address global warming.

The logic is simple, sad and compelling. We seem to find it difficult to change behaviors with apparent short-term benefits and dangerous-but-uncertain long-term consequences; only massive, traumatic events seem to make us re-evaluate our positions and shake us out of our complacency.

This argument of transformative disasters persuades in part because it is well-grounded in history. 9/11 obviously changed the way people think and act (though whether Americans learned the "correct" lesson from 9/11 is a point of debate), but a less controversial example may be the aggressive shift in American public education towards science and technology after the Soviet Union successful 1957 launch of Sputnik. Or the changes in oil tanker regulations after the Exxon Valdez spill. Or the successful Montreal Protocol to ban chlorofluorocarbons after an ozone hole opened above the Antarctic. In each of these examples, well-informed groups warned about the dangers of the status quo, and were roundly ignored until it was too late.

Global warming seems particularly to suggest the need for transformative diasters, perhaps because of the very complexity of the arguments surrounding it: Cause-and-effect are only connected through long feedback loops. Mechanisms underlying the problem don't translate well into sound bytes. Carbon-lobby hacks sow doubt about the science of climate change. Reputable climate scientists resolutely refuse to draw straight-forward if-then connections between global warming and weird weather. It's been hard to point to any specific event and say "There, that's climate change."

The one-two punch of hurricanes Charley and Frances hitting Florida, with hurricane Ivan looking like it could also come ashore in the southern part of the state, has certainly raised suspicions that climate change was involved. But climate scientists instead talk about hurricane cycles, and dismiss any blunt cause-and-effect.

Finally, the conclusion that only a climate disaster could get us to change our ways is also partially rooted in the "worldending" phenomenon I talked about awhile back. It's simpler to tell stories of failure than to imagine difficult paths to success. Convincing people to give up climate-damaging behaviors before it's too late is a challenging task, and simply waiting, Day-After-Tomorrow-style, for Mother Earth to teach everyone a lesson is a lot easier, and gives the added pleasure of being able to say "I told you so."

So is catastrophe the only possible catalyst for change?

One possible way out of the disaster trap is to think about why massive traumatic events could shift perceptions. Generally speaking, disasters would force people to alter their relative cost-benefit values. The perceived benefits from the status quo would be re-measured against the better-understood costs.

But catastrophic loss is not the only way to shift perceived costs and benefits; another method is demonstration of superior benefits from the new (and preferred) behavior. That's the engine driving bright green environmentalism, and the recent surge of interest in green business models. As Business Week discussed a few weeks ago, a growing segment of the business world sees money to be made by shifting to climate-friendly industrial practices. It's also the logic underlying Viridianism and other green design efforts. A shift away from carbon-spewing vehicles and industries could come because we find the alternatives much more appealing.

Another possible pathway to change not based on disaster is similar to the previous model, only at a greater structural level: global politics. One strong driver of technological and economic developments is competition between nation-states. It's clear that the relentless global demand for oil is a trigger for international conflict (both military and otherwise), and that the combination of increased demand (as the Chinese and Indian economies continue to grow rapidly) and limited supplies will only make conflicts over petroleum resources more common. We may well see an aggressive move away from carbon-producing energy use for reasons completely unrelated to environmental effects as more nations want to be free from Middle Eastern oil and the unstable-at-best politics of the region.

Stirling Newberry, in a provocative essay at the political website The Blogging of the President, takes this to an even greater level of abstraction. The essay is entitled A Brief History of the Energy State, and sets up a model of political-historical development which looks at how countries get their power. Each step in the cycle is a combination of rising mechanisms and declining forces, and the states which tame the new tools first tend to have greater power in the ensuing restructured international system.

He asserts that we've moved from an era of Market-Nationalist states, through an era of Market-Energy states, and into the declining years of Energy-Market states (the shift in position in the title denotes the dominant and subordinate mechanisms). The next step in the cycle, Energy-Information, is already appearing -- with Information also representing the power of networked movements. These cycles seem to be getting faster, as well, spelling the end of the Energy state far sooner than one might otherwise expect. The decline of the Energy state is implicitly the decline of the oil regime.

Without excerpting massive chunks of his essay, it's difficult to do the argument justice. I don't buy all of it, but it makes an interesting structure for discussions of the future of global politics. It suggests that the appearance of economic and social drivers for change may be accelerated by deeper, systemic drivers.

One last caution about emphasizing the potential for disaster as a way of getting people to change: you might just be successful.

Imagine a scenario where the growing body of evidence of global warming coupled with a few more one-two-three hurricane punches and -- most of all -- dire threats of far worse results from climate change down the road trigger a rapid transformation of global energy and industrial economies. This would not be without cost, even if there are many benefits (and many more in the years to come), but all along, we're assured that it's worth it because of the global catastrophes that will await us if we fail. So what happens when, after making all of these expensive, dramatic changes, we don't see global climate effects significantly worse than we have now?

Do people say, "whew, we really dodged a bullet, good job, everyone!"? Or do they say, "hey, those global warming nuts were liars, nothing happened, they were just trying to scam us!"? If you're not sure, ask the Y2K remediation engineers -- and that only involved some software updates and hardware replacements, not the transformation of the global economy. Promising the end of the world is a dangerous tactic if you're actually trying to avoid it.

Waiting for disaster to strike in order to say "I told you so" is immoral. Trumpeting the potential for disaster in order to scare people into action will be readily dismissed by critics beforehand and is prone to derision after any actual success. But that doesn't mean we can't bring about change. We just don't need to see the costs of disaster, either manifest or imminent -- we need to see the demonstrable benefits of transformation. That should be our goal.

Comments (19)

Randolph Fritz:

It seems to me that we are already having a disaster in Florida. If this is becoming a pattern--and it might--the whole discussion is moot.

It's easy to think that the hurricanes hitting Florida are part of a larger climate change cycle, but the current argument by climate scientists is that this is by no means outside of the normal pattern for the last century. Even if Ivan hits next week -- which it might, if you looked at the NOAA map I linked to in the article -- three hurricanes in one season is unusual, but not unheard of. When we get four or five hurricanes hitting Florida in a season, then we can make a stronger argument.

Janne Sinkkonen:

The number of hurricanes in a season, given large-scale atmospheric conditions, is probably Poisson distributed, or even more dispersed. That is, you may have ten or one hurricanes per season without too much statistical meaning. For sure ten hurricanes in Florida would get considerable public attention, and many would suspect climate change even against the statistics.

Weather disasters are happening all the time, and as we know, their number has lately doubled every ten years. The problem from transitional-catastrophe point of view is that weather events are always local and usually not in big US cities. (Look at what has lately happened in Bangladesh, for example.)

A transitional catastrophe need to be global or at least continent-wide, clearly attributable to climate change.

But the first really global effects of climate change would probably be indirect, such as rise of food price on global markets due to production problems, or loss in GDP due to numerous relatively minute effects. Such global effects are not easily attributed to climate change, for causally more immediate political or other kind of reasons are always available. So unless something unexpected happens (a real possibility), no immediate global catastrophe is in sight.

That said, the current drought in mid-west has some long-term potential.

The late onset of clearly observable and correctly attributable global effects is problematic. As Rob Gelbspan says, when people go out and say "hey! it's climate change", it's way too late to do anything. Global warming is almost as designed to be a socially maximally difficult environmental problem. It is near-permanent but temporally distant and gradual, usually far away, difficult to understand (only two degrees?!), and would currently require major sacrifices in consumption and lifestyle that are just not going to happen.

But I'm not a pessimist. After a mass extinction, global biodiversity will reach its former levels in only 10-50 million years - geologically no time at all! Humans? Well, even in the worst case (run-away greenhouse excluded), it is almost impossible to kill every breeding pair. :) And if I were really pessimistic, I would not be writing this.

Stephen Balbach:

There's another possibility not mentioned in the essay. That global warming is real and happening, but there's nothing we can do about it. Natural cycles such as sun spots or orbit changes or combinations of factors like waves bouncing in a tub back and forth.

In which case the combined might of our civilization to move to non-carbon would be a waste of time and resources, that perhaps could have been better spent on preparing for the inevitable changes to come, or making what remains of our current lifestyle as comfortable as possible like a global Hospice.

Certainly natural flucuations have happened in the past, the little ice age that started in the 14th Century. The climatic changes that forced humans to migrate out of Africa.. then forced them to stop and move back.. then to move back out again into Europe and North America.. natural weather cycles are at the heart of most of humanities key points of change as we adapt to survive in new conditions.

In our current case, perhaps the problem is we are not recognizing we are powerless to do anything about it. Our hubris man-centered universal view wants to believe we are capable of doing somthing about it, that we control our destiny, that it must somehow be our fault and therefore we hold the answer. To think otherwise, that the change is happening and there's nothing we can do about it, is to face mortality.

In this way it should not be suprising that older people who are more accustomed to death and mortality and limits would be more ready to accept an explanation that is inevitable fate, while younger people may be unwilling to accept their own mortality and helplessness and therefore seek to find a solution by finding blame within, and thus, a solution from within.

Janne Sinkkonen:

Not human origin?

Now that warming seems indisputable, this argument has been gaining favor. It may gain more favor, even to the point of religion (compare to creationism). Just the comfort of a SUV leaves many with a bad conscience. For peace of mind, old as well as young need a higher justification for inaction.

Discussing all the evidence is not possible here. Let me just say this: Not many knowledgeable people without direct or indirect industry connections believe on non-human causes. Non-human causes have a minor influence, the few people promoting non-human causes have a major influence, evidence for CO2 is overwhelming.

Read good books, not co2science.org.

I disagree with your conclusion. Human beings are motivated by both the carrot (moving toward) and by the stick (moving away from). For many people away from motivation is a more powerful driving force. If most people were primarily motivated by the "demonstrable benefits of transformation" there would be a lot more entrepeneurs (of one kind or another) and a lot less employees.

Rather than a climate disaster, it may instead be a resource disaster (or threat of one) that drives change. The peak oil model (www.peakoil.net) predicts that within years demand for oil (and gas) will exceed supply having very serious consequences.

The chief cassandras who subscribes to the peak oil model are Jay Hanson & Tom Robertson of www.dieoff.org who neatly plot the massive rise in human population since we started using fossil fuels in a big way and predict a die-off of up to 90% of the current world population.

I find the peak oil model persuasive however it is hard to verify without direct access to the reserve data of oil producing countries.

Originally I planned a blog on peak oil, however I decided much more could be achieved by focusing on the solution (alternative energy)rather than the problem (declining reserves of finite fossil fuels).

as you say
"It's simpler to tell stories of failure than to
imagine difficult paths to success."

My win scenario of the world switching away from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy is a big challenge with no simple or easy solution which in my opinion makes it all the more worthwhile.

We need BOTH away from motivation (global warming, pollution, declining fossil fuels reserves, threat to food supplies, threat to global economy) and toward motivation (energy independence, clean energy, limitless energy).



The fact is yes the climate was supposed to change at ABOUT this time its a solar cycle thingy some people know about and were expecting.

The reason to be kicking the oil habbit is not to stop global warming its to ride it out better.

THe reason we need to look for better energy sources is not to prevent global warming it is to handle what global warming will demand of us.

From what little we know of how life and climate was before this last period of calm started I can say life after it ends will be... interesting.

Personaly my money is on advanced electric /hydrogen cars in the long run and advanced hybrid cars in the short run. Nuke power solar wind tidal and wave. Among lots and lots of other things.

Oh as for why im not sure on bio desel... my only fear there is after things change we might not have enough good farmland to grow the crops needed to make enough of it.

We will see. That in the end is the only given I think.

Wintermane, you're simply mistaken about the solar cycle being the driver of the observed global warming. I've provided multiple links over the past few months to climate science sites spelling that out. The solar cycle effect is tiny compared to the effect of rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

James, you're probably right that a combination of carrot and stick -- disaster and opportunity -- will be the drivers of behavioral shifts. I do think that, politically and memetically, arguing on the basis of benefits arising from the changes will have better long-term payoffs than arguing on the basis of the doom that awaits us if we don't change. The delayed-feedback, multiple-source complexity of weather means that it will be hard to identify any particular event as the result of global warming -- good scientists will be loathe to make such hard-to-support claims, and anti-science hacks will use that as evidence that there is no connection. As Janne suggests, if we wait until the preponderance of evidence builds up sufficiently to say "Yes! There! That disaster could only have been caused by climate disruption!" then it's too late for avoidance, and all we can do is hope to mitigate the worst of it.

Arguing for change on the basis of benefits -- whether economic, or political, or technological, or fashionable -- stands a much better chance of triggering behavior shifts early enough to make a real difference.

Janne Sinkkonen:

Jamais, I agree that arguing on benefits is better. I am just afraid that the immediate costs of the carbon-free or carbon-sequestering solutions are seen as too high. Abandoning or postponing a change would be irrational from the viewpoint of long-term benefits, but that would surely not be the first irrational global event. I hope that it will not be the last.

And I hope I'm wrong and you are right!

You're absolutely right that they're seen as too high -- but perception does not always match reality. In an increasing number of areas, the short-term returns on shifting to sustainable processes are significant. Certainly some measures have a great deal of up-front costs for long-term benefits, but the general assumption is that they all do. Changing that perception would be a good place to start.


A little info is a dangerous thing. Poeple assumed solar cycles werent too important until they found some of the bigger and longer cycles and noticed we were within an abberant one. A VERY abberant one.

The problem is all abberations end.


Thanks for the link to co2science.org. I found their articles to be fascinating, and a useful adjunct to your own website.

Human caused global warming catastrophe has become a religion to a lot of gullible people. But global warming is always happening over the last few billion years, unless global cooling was happening. In other words, overlapping natural climate cycles with periods from 11 years to as much as millions of years are a constant feature of Terra's climate. If today's climatologists were better acquainted with the natural cycles of climate change, they might not be so quick to jump on the human-caused bandwagon of the gullible.

Thanks for a great website.

You know, I thought you were serious until the last sentence of your main paragraph, chastising climatologists for not understanding how the climate works. A clever parody! Kudos!


The problem is they are getting tunnel vision and ONLY seeing one part.

Yes human source global warming will fubar us. But its far from the only source of global climate change that will fubar us.

We dont JUST need to deal with our own messy selves we need to prepare for the mess to come.

This means we need to get energy independance because shipping oil by tanker may become very dangerous indeed. We WILL need to improve our roads and homes to withstand weather we have never personaly ever seen before.

We will need to improve our food production systems to handle failure on scales we never had to deal with.

We will need to deal with entire regions going from dry and hot to cold and wet or cold and dry or whatever.

Did you know that before the white man came to what is now california it snowed at sea level every year all along the coast? This was because back then the jet stream was such that the cold air and rainfall that hits alaska was hitting SOUTHERN cal. There is a very good reason the native plants can handle hard freezing and that many NEED it.

It does us no good to dodge human source global warming only to walk right smack into the path of natural global climate change unthinking and unprepared. But right now I expect people will spend money and try and make the bad words go away and put thier blinders on and the valium up and just float into the mess we are facing.

But I guess thats the way it has to be we realy do need a disaster to happen and we will one way or the other ensure one comes.

jesse black fahnestock:

"You're absolutely right that [costs] are seen as too high -- but perception does not always match reality. In an increasing number of areas, the short-term returns on shifting to sustainable processes are significant."

This is also true in an increasing number of business cases. I see anecdotal evidence that some business communities, particularly in Northern/Western Europe, are starting to recognize that innovation in the direction of sustainability can open up new avenues to profit-making/cost-saving innovations. I think Natural Capitalism called this process 'tunneling through the cost barrier.' As business people are often more willing to take risks than governments, I wonder if the move towards sustainable practices might not be driven by the private sector in the end.

I think the challenge will be steering the private sector in the world's emerging economies in that direction, as they will set the limits to this shift. I often see posts on WorldChanging that suggests that is happening, too, which gives me hope.

Janne Sinkkonen:

Businesses react when they expect a profit, and they can expect a profit in renewables, energy saving, in internal CO2 trading etc. if they feel future CO2 emission quotas or restrictions are likely. Business actions has an effect on people's perceptions and politics, so there is a bit of positive feedback. But I have no idea how strong such a feedback is.

(Well, energy saving would in many cases be probable be profitable anyway, but surely the anticipation of forthcoming climate policy actions play a major role. This is also related to 'oil depletion' and other worries on fossil fuels. I'm not sure about the existence of a dramatic oil peak, but if you look at 6-eyar oil futures, they have been constantly rising and are now somewhere around USD35. Future prices are harder to ignore than the cassandras.)


Even if three killer hurricanes in a season is not out of the natural bounds, we can always claim that it is due to global warming. Who would know the difference? It's the underlying cause that is important, not the specific details of the argument.

One reason we're as good at dealing with hurricanes as we are now is a tornado in Massachusetts 50 years ago.


Will it take several island nations acting like Atlantis and Venice sinking into the waves for larger countries to take action on global warming? I don't know.

However, it does seem likely that when actions are taken, they are likely to be more rational actions if there are good plans prepared to choose from, and more people will be persuaded to implement them if the connections from actions to effects are as visible as they can be. These seem like things WorldChanging can help with.



Being a lifelong environmentalist and democratic party operative, I find it refreshing to see this type of website. Keep up the good work!

And don't be afraid of referring to other websites and publications for corroboration. I fear that one of your posters above has fooled herself into believing that claims on the internet cannot be fact checked. As someone involved in politics every day of my life, I assure you that nobody is above being fact checked these days. Nobody.


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