Friday, December 7, 2012

the Pearl Harbor question.

Joe Romm has again asked what kind of "Pearl Harbor" event would prompt an end to procrastination about climate change.

He writes: "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:

  1. Arctic goes [virtually] ice free before 2020. It would be a big, visible global shock.
  2. Rapid warming over next decade, as Nature and Science articles suggest is quite possible (posts here and here)
  3. Continued (unexpected) surge in methane
  4. A [multi-year] megadrought hitting the SW [and Great Plains] comparable to what hit southern Australia.
  5. More superstorms, like Katrina.
  6. A heatwave as bad as Europe’s 2003 one [Russia's in 2010] but hitting the U.S. breadbasket.
  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."

Of them, 4,5, and 6 would be up close and personal to many Americans, but none of them has the moral indignity of an unprovoked attack.

Joe's revised list is more reminiscent of conditions before Pearl Harbor. In 1940 the fall of Paris shocked Americans, eroding support for isolationism. In 1940-41 American military build up preceded Pearl Harbor. Congress was ready to support FDR's declaration of war by the time of the attack.

In the last two years, combinations of flood, drought, and superstorms have knocked back water transport in the Mississippi and Great Lakes, ranching and farming on the Great Plains, and the security of Atlantic coastal cities. These events shocked Americans and eroded support for denialism.

The next phase could be worse. Continued drought and heat could kink rails, dry up rivers, and reduce both food crops and the ability to move the crops to market.  China could have a famine and call in its chips on US debt, in the form of food. Americans could have to ration food, temporarily, to pay off the debt.

Similarly, an earthquake, war and/or superstorms could disrupt oil import ports, leaving the US to fall back on its vaunted national supply. That could mean scarcity and a price jump.

Neither good. My epiphany a few weeks ago was that we were more likely to see something major in the next 6 to 48 months, than not.


  1. This was also published as a comment on Joe Romm's blog.

  2. Don't we import quite a bit of food? scary thoughts...

    1. Good point.
      I keep saying that if nothing else prompts a response, Congress will do something when there is no coffee in their lunchroom. A chocolate shortage would be just as unsettling for many others.

      Bananas? Winter strawberries from Mexico.
      What food do we import in large enough quantities to be impressive? Mexico, Peru and Canada are big sources, but also fruit from China. I guess that is part of the cheap apple juice that has been driving local apple growers down.

      Here's a link to a report.