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Can Catastrophe Galvanize Action on Global Warming?

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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."


By anon
on May 2nd, 2011

Not to take away from President Obama today, but most of these people you interviewed are correct, nothing will happen until an actual leader steps up.

Congress is designed for inaction, and led by the biggest wallets in the room.

That said, it sure doesn’t help when we have Hansen saying the issue has to be forced, ThinkProgress cheering on the tornadic devastation of Alabama, and so many warmist scientists spitting on Feynman’s grave.

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By Tom Fuller (San Francisco)
on May 2nd, 2011

If consumers begin to indicate preferences by choosing green alternatives in products and services, it will indicate the existence of a market. Regardless of what some consensus members say about personal consumption being irrelevant, showing that the wallets are open to green purchases will be the quickest way to stimulate innovation.

This means that LED lighting, hybrid cars, adequate insulation, solar power panels and/or solar thermal systems, etc., etc., are important. They will not solve global warming. But they will show that a market exists for commercial solutions and by extension, that a political base of doers rather than talkers is there on the ground.

As usual, my disagreement with Michael Tobis is complete…

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By intrepid_wanders
on May 2nd, 2011

Maybe changing tack from gloom and doom and taking on a realistic direction in energy policy and taking responsibility for actions?  As long as the “champaign greens” and green-peace are involved, there will never be a solution.  Compromise is always a solution that both sides don’t like, but can accept.  Cheap abundant energy is the only way to go, but there can only be slight restraints.  Even as weak and pointless Cap’n Trade was in the US, it still was misguided that it was only going to affect “big business”.

Everyone has heard the story of the boy that cried wolf.  Their has never been clear evident of a short-medium term predictions anything out of the norm of comparable records.

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By Alexander Harvey
on May 2nd, 2011

I think there are events that can change the public mood towards the future. I expect that we have already seen some but it takes a while before they play out. They are not climate related but I am not sure that matters. All that is really needed is for things to go wrong in ways that impact our lives and lead us to question whether hoping for the best is enough.

I think that the public pain over the financial crisis is yet to develop. It will bite hard and deeply into those that are retired and all those about to retire forming a large group that wished they had been more cautious and concerned, also many others still relatively young will find that the prospects for a happy old age are largely a thing of the past. This will bring anger, discontent and a feeling of betreyal.

I think that the Japanese Tsunami disaster has further major impacts down the line. A nation that felt it was so well prepared to withstand nature’s shocks will not now rest as lightly.

The political and financial effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will prove more chastening as time goes on.

There is turmoil in Northern Africa and the Near East, some joy admist real fears. Candles raised in hope easliy gutter.

Now that Osama bin Laden is no more, people will have space to be more reflective on how such small and insignificant things from far away in time and space can grow until they have global impacts. How current events have deep roots and canker not nipped in the bud festers.

None of these are climate issues so why should they be relevant? Because they change the mood.

Out the depression and the war that followed grew a political belief in creating a better world for those that survived and those unborn. A popular will that did not confine itself to direct causes, with reform of the financial systems and providing systems to inhibit global conflict, but to greater domestic and international justice, universal education, political franchise, the eradication of slums, healthcare, adequate pension provision, etc.

If one pins some hope on catasprophe, it is in plentiful supply and it need not be related to climate to pull focus on climate issues. It has just got to cause hurt, anguish, dismay, and finally anger and unity.

Oil disasters, mining disasters, industrial explosions, toxic polution, pestilence, disease, famine, war, none are strangers. All are reminders that being long on rhetoric does not fix bad husbandry.

Catastrophe, any catastrophe can allow us pause to see the bigger picture and to change the way we view ourselves. Bad times build strong ties.

Or was that then and not now. In my darker moments I fear that we have lost our capacity for compassion, compunction, compulsion. That we have become smaller, lesser, meaner. That we have recreated ourselves in the image of the rational consummer. That we look to narrow models of what it is to be human and what constitutes fulfilment.

I see one of the biggest hurdles to doing anything about the climate is that of rationality. A strange kind of rationality built on very narrow models of what we are and how we function. It is bad enough that others model us as narrow and greedy, the tragedy is that we have adopted that view and learned the argot and talk about ourselves as if we be simplified rational agents.

In the climate debate we resort to rationality as the last refuge of the frightened simplified human. Almost everyone seems to do it. If only we thought hard enough, argued persuasively enough, chose the best framing, constructed the best messaging, and utilisized the best media, we would succeed. Alternatively that the science is unproven, the evidence is uncertain, the world is a non-linear chaotic black swan reserve of unfathomable complexity, the cost benefit analysis favours inaction, it is all too late, and nothing you could ever say would alter anything.

Frighten people sufficiently and the tendency to rationalise can distort the very fabric of reality. Anger people sufficiently and the tendency to revolutionise can actually change it.

I would not wish for catastrophe, I could not see it as a benefit, although some do. If it is worth doing something about the climate and we don’t, I guess we will have catastrophes enough.

I really doubt the wisdom of labouring any link from catastrophe to climate, the principles are widely appreciated and those that can will be pleased to make the connection for themselves. I also doubt the wisdom of frightening people as it tends to confuse.

The thing I miss is the passion, the outrage, the anger directed at those that hold power. Are there organising commitees with campaign memberships in 100,000+ range? Are there tens of thousands marching for days from coal plants to the seat of government?

Or has democracy been reduced to voting occasionally?

I feel that there has to be a little more to direct action than the syncronised flicking off of light switches.

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By BArry Woods
on May 3rd, 2011

I would like to see someone ‘try’ persuade China to give up coal anytime soon.

Until the commentators involve themselves in the practicalities of real world economics and engineering, etc, rather than wishfil thinking - ‘give up coal’!  With nothing pratically able to replace it, especially in the short to medium term, then they are just dreaming of utopian green goals with no thought of reality.

87% of electricity generation from fossil fuels in China (and growing) Section/2011-04-21/A/15/20.0.2574900523_epaper.html

Bjorn Lomborg:

“Consider the bigger picture: 87 percent of the energy produced in China comes from fossil fuels, the vast majority of it from coal, the International Energy Agency found in 2010.

“The explosive recent growth in Chinese solar and wind generation equates to going from zilch to a small fraction: Wind today generates just 0.05 percent of China’s energy, and solar is responsible for one-half of one-thousandth of 1 percent. “

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By Barry Woods
on May 3rd, 2011

George Monbiot has an interesting analysis that may be relevant:

“The problem we face is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much. As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal; as accessible coal declines, they’ll switch to ultra-deep reserves (using underground gasification to exploit them) and methane clathrates. The same probably applies to almost all minerals: we will find them, but exploiting them will mean trashing an ever greater proportion of the world’s surface.”

George ends with this:

“All of us in the environment movement, in other words ”“ whether we propose accommodation, radical downsizing or collapse ”“ are lost. None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. None of our chosen solutions break the atomising, planet-wrecking project. I hope that by laying out the problem I can encourage us to address it more logically, to abandon magical thinking and to recognise the contradictions we confront. But even that could be a tall order.”

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By Arthur G Foster
on May 3rd, 2011

It is after all, the alarmists who fervently believe in this climatological hell, not the populace.  Deep down, most rational people would expect climate change to be neutral: as likely to be beneficial as detrimental, and they sense that the alarmists exaggerate at best, prevaricate at worst.  It seems to be a sort of IQ test—the more worried we are, the less educated we ultimately must be.  Free thinkers are more prone to worry about a biblical hell than a climatological one.  Take your fairy tale elsewhere. —AGF

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By Dave (Burnaby. BC. V5Y4T6)
on May 3rd, 2011

And you wonder why nobody believe these global warmongers. Invent a problem = CO2 then scare the pants off the people 30 times a day for 30 years: presto the world is cooling, good job, well done doom and gloomers, you fixed it!

Now you can get a real job that helps mankind and the planet rather than a giant hoax that will hurt everybody rich or poor.

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By Jan Paul van Soest (Netherlands)
on May 4th, 2011

History, unfortunately, shows that usually only catastrophes trigger (collective) action, see e.g. Jared Diamond’s Collapse. But there is no need to just accept that as a fact: act.
My sense is that we need various actions:
1) preparing necessary effective actions that are currently politically infeasible, but may become feasible later, who knows
2) stimulating feasible steps although we now they are not sufficient,
3) prepare adaptation measures for the climatic changes that are inevitably underway
4) hope for some miracle.

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By Susan Anderson (Boston MA)
on May 4th, 2011

As so who has lowered the quality of the dialogue, several commenters above present biased views and fail to address the facts.

As a former friend of Richard Feynman, I see red when he is cited in support of fake skepticism.  I can assure you that he would make short work of this were he still alive.  I am also acquainted with a lot of top scientists, and not one of them has any doubt that climate change is here and our weather trends are now being significantly affected by the increase of energy and water vapor in the atmosphere today.  The facts were more or less established by the early 1980s, and what is being done now is mostly clarification and elucidation of the details.  The physics is quite clear.  There is a lot of sniping from the sidelines, inflating in our polarized news environment and by the practice of allowing 50% to the “other side” so the 97:3 proportion is misrepresented.

Our toxic political climate is also defunding observation, such as satellites and research.  What are they afraid of?  The truth?

I don’t know why one is not allowed to mention that climate - which is, per ClimateCentral’s own Heidi Cullen, weather over space and time - is changing visibly for fear of “opportunism”.  The big picture is pretty scary, but a bunch of naysayers jump in every time we have another (all too regular - Brisbane?  Pakistan?  Texas?  new dust bowl item today?) big problem that we cannot possibly definitely attribute it to climate change, but we can *definitely* say it is *not* climate change.  This idea that uncertainty provides certainty is just nonsense.

I found Dan Kahan’s comments about the economy and gun control sadly on topic.

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By Mark Heinicke (Ruckersville VA 22968)
on May 4th, 2011

Dan Kahan appears to be onto something when he says “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.”  Yes, I suppose… BUT, his obfuscatory language illustrates the communication problem in spades.  “Deliberative environment,” “toxic meanings”—say what?  This kind of jargon shows just how distant such experts are, not only from AGW detractors, but also from those of us non-experts who seek insights on how to arrest the fossil fuel juggernaut.  If you can’t get through to the people who agree with you, how can you hope to get through to those who don’t? 

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By Bart Verheggen (Holland)
on May 5th, 2011

A sense of urgency is one of several conditions that need to be met for political action to be taken, and it’s sorely lacking. Some sort of dramatic event could go a long way to increase people’s sense of urgency. (which, of course, does not mean that we should hope for catastrophe to occur!)

See for a more detailed argument:

And +1 Jan Paul van Soest

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By Toby Grotz (Prairie Village, KS 66208)
on May 6th, 2011

Until there are mass demonstrations on the scale of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, mass marches as there were during the days of the Civil Rights Movement, until the courts are filled with people who must be bound and gagged to be tried, there will be no end to business as usual. 

Until people in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s & 50’s get off their butts and take to the streets, it will be business as usual.

I see no indication of this happening until about the time we run out of oil and the Atlantic Hurricane Machine fires off a couple of Katrina’s a year, and the north winds bring fierce blizzards and tornadoes setting new records each year.

But I may be wrong.  See the excellent video at and the new movie I AM (the shift is about to hit the fan)

All the best,


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