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Can Catastrophe Galvanize Action on Global Warming?

By Keith Kloor

In recent years, public apathy and a political impasse on global warming has led some to a grim resignation — society might not take serious action on climate change until catastrophic events force our hand. For example, in 2009, Canadian scholar Thomas Homer-Dixon said, "I am convinced that we won't really address the climate change problem until it produces some major shocks or instabilities that mobilize broad populations."

Last week, Robert Stavins, director of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program, expressed a similar view, at least as it relates to the United States. In an interview with Bloomberg news, Stavins remarked that, “It’s unlikely that the U.S. is going to take serious action on climate change until there are observable, dramatic events, almost catastrophic in nature, that drive public opinion and drive the political process in that direction."

Is he right? Over the weekend, I canvassed a diverse spectrum of climate voices for reaction. Jonathan Gilligan, a climate policy scholar at Vanderbilt University, cast doubt on whether catastrophes will succeed in moving policy makers and the public.

Stavins is an optimist. In the past several years the US has experienced a catastrophic economic collapse and many examples of catastrophic flooding, but no significant progress toward reforming financial regulations or land-use policies to address the causes. If catastrophes can't spur reform in these areas, why would they induce progress on climate policy?

Dan Kahan, an expert on risk perception who heads up Yale University's Cultural Cognition Project, is also skeptical of the notion that public attitudes on climate change can be swayed by catastrophic events. He too used the example of actions we've taken, or not taken in this case, following the 2008 financial crisis. "Consider how much consensus the 'shock' of the financial crisis has generated on whether we need more government regulation of important aspects of the economy — or less," says Kahan, The same lack of consensus follows each "shock" of shooting sprees in schools and universities, in terms of whether there should be more gun control or not, he adds.

Similarly, with weather-related disasters that may or may not have a climate change connection, Kahan points out that people still interpret these events through their own "cultural predispositions," a kind of political and ideological filter. He suggests that, "instead of trying to drown others in facts or hoping that a crisis will finally bring the other side to its senses, we should be working to rid the deliberative environment of the toxic meanings that are blocking citizens of diverse persuasions from converging on the best available scientific evidence."

For James Hansen, the top NASA climate scientist and the author of Storms of My Grandchildren, pressing ahead with a sense of urgency, regardless of the challenges, is the only option. "We are running out of time," he said. "We do not have time to wait for dramatic events. We must do a better job and force the issue."

It is worth pointing out that Stavins, the Harvard scholar, made his comment amidst last week's swirling debate over tornadoes and climate change. I asked Roger Pielke Jr., a climate policy expert at the University of Colorado, and the author of The Climate Fix,  if he thought that the disaster/climate connection would now be raised every time such catastrophic events occurred, as we've increasingly seen in recent years, from the Australian wildifires and Russian heatwaves  to the floods in Pakistan and tornadoes in the U.S. "Yes, I would expect so," said Pielke Jr. "But such arguments won't make low carbon energy spontaneously emerge, nor will they compel people to forgo economic growth."

It's also "not a strong selling point," he added, and it "just makes those advancing such arguments look opportunistic."

So if dramatic events won't galvanize political action, as some might hope, then what steps can be taken to keep the ball rolling on the climate policy and political front? Gilligan suggests that, "Instead of focusing on politically impossible best policies, we should be looking for politically feasible good-enough policies — ones that could pass quickly and which would produce some good, even if they're not enough to prevent catastrophe."

What about concerned citizens who are starting to despair about the lack of progress on climate action? Is there anything they can do individually to help move the ball? "The sad answer is very little," says Michael Tobis, a research scientist at the University of Texas who blogs frequently on climate science issues. "Becoming engaged with the science and the politics of global sustainability is the most important action in my opinion. The first serious substantive step is to abandon the use of coal, but hardly any individual purchases coal anymore. The playing field is political. Individual sacrifices are of relatively minor importance."