Planning for climate catastrophe

Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of the Ingenuity Gap and other books on the social response to environmental change and now a professor of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University, argues in a recent New York Times op-ed Near the North Pole, Looking at a Disaster, that societies won’t make significant changes to address climate change until there is a crisis, but that people should prepare for such a moment for security reasons (an idea that fits well with the policy analysis related to the adaptive cycle).  He writes:

… Scientists aren’t sure what will happen when a significant portion of the Arctic Ocean changes from white, sunlight-reflecting ice to dark, sunlight-absorbing open water. But most aren’t sanguine.

These experts are especially concerned that new patterns of air movement in the Arctic could disrupt the Northern Hemisphere’s jet streams — which are apparently weakening and moving northward. This could alter storm tracks, rainfall patterns and food production far to the south.

The limited slack in the world’s food system, particularly its grain production, can amplify the effects of disruptions. Remember that two years ago, when higher oil prices encouraged farmers to shift enormous tracts of cropland from grain to biofuel production, grain prices quickly doubled or tripled. Violence erupted in dozens of countries. Should climate change cause crop failures in major food-producing regions of Europe, North America and East Asia, the consequences would likely be far more severe.

Policy makers need to accept that societies won’t make drastic changes to address climate change until such a crisis hits. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for them to do in the meantime. When a crisis does occur, the societies with response plans on the shelf will be far better off than those that are blindsided. The task for national and regional leaders, then, is to develop a set of contingency plans for possible climate shocks — what we might call, collectively, Plan Z.

Some work of this kind is under way at intelligence agencies and research institutions in the United States and Europe. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has produced one of the best studies, “Responding to Threat of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes.” But for the most part these initiatives are preliminary and uncoordinated.

We need a much more deliberate Plan Z, with detailed scenarios of plausible climate shocks; close analyses of options for emergency response by governments, corporations and nongovernmental groups; and clear specifics about what resources — financial, technological and organizational — we will need to cope with different types of crises.

In the most likely scenarios, climate change would cause some kind of regional or continental disruption, like a major crop failure; this disruption would cascade through the world’s tightly connected economic and political systems to produce a global effect. …

If so, a Plan Z for this particular scenario would help us make the most of the opportunity. It would provide guidelines for regional and local leaders on how to respond to the crisis. We would decide in advance where supplies of water would be found and who would get priority allocations; local law enforcement and emergency responders would already have worked out lines of authority with federal agencies and the military.

Then there are the broader steps to mitigate climate change in general. Here, Plan Z would address many critical questions: How fast could carbon emissions from automobiles and energy production be ramped down, and what would be the economic, political and social consequences of different rates of reduction? Where would we find the vast amounts of money needed to overhaul existing energy systems? How quickly could different economic sectors and social groups adapt to different kinds of climate impacts? And if geoengineering to alter earth’s climate — for example, injecting sulfates into the high atmosphere — is to be an option, who would make the decision and undertake the operation?

Looking over the endless, empty horizon of the Arctic, I find it hard to imagine this spot being of any importance to global affairs. But it is just one of many places now considered marginal that could be the starting point for a climate shock that plays a central role in the evolution of human civilization. We need to be ready.

See previous RS posts on Homer-Dixon’s work here.

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