In the same way that paleoclimate records show evidence of abrupt climate changes, we think it’s increasingly possible that policy responses to climate change will themselves be abrupt. After years of policy inaction, a public climate backlash is already smoldering. When it blows, it could force radical policy in a short timeframe. It’s the same kind of cultural tipping point, often triggered by dramatic events, that has led to revolutions or wars in the past.
When the psychology of in-your-face warming gets combined with a shocking climate event—something like Hurricane Katrina on steroids—you end up with a witches brew that can result in what political scientist Aristide Zolberg has referred to as “moments of madness”—unique historical moments when society challenges conventional wisdom and new norms are forcibly—oftentimes disruptively—created.
There are many historical precedents: the economic and political chaos in Weimar Germany that ultimately led to the rise of Hitler, the violence of the French Revolution, the sudden, peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire.
Stock market panics are another example: a rapid change in mindset that illustrates the dangerous unpredictability of human systems. On climate, such a response could mean sudden and painfully costly dislocations in the energy markets—and therefore the global economy—that wind up becoming the “worst case” scenario that few people had considered possible.
Ironically, a “no action” approach today actually makes a climate panic much more likely over time. What we’re describing would be popularly driven, not fueled by governments or policy wonks. It would be the direct result of free will, democracy, autonomy and the information superhighway. All these forces would accelerate, not mitigate, the greatest “Aha!” moment in the history of the human species. Imagine the sub-prime mortgage bubble pop multiplied a hundred fold.
The keyword here is certainty.
Fossil fuels are uncertain. They come from countries with unstable governments and we're increasingly launching very expensive wars to protect our supplies. Their extraction causes environmental damage -- not only disrupting our climate, but also threatening our precious water supplies. Their use inflicts immense health care costs upon society, contributing to our skyrocketing health insurance costs. They are 20th century industries on the decline, and their promise as an economic and job-creating engine is fading fast.
Clean energy and energy efficiency are much more certain. We can produce the technologies and services right here in the U.S. -- via the sun of the southwest, the winds of the great plains, and the millions of acres of currently wasted space that are currently occupied by empty rooftops -- places just screaming for energy infrastructure. They are 21st century industries on the rise, with their economic promise and job creation potential on the increase. They will save us oodles of money on our energy bills, reduce pollution, improve our national security, improve the public health, and are the keys to stabilizing the increasingly unstable global climate.
That said, to capitalize on this certainty, and avoid a climate panic, we need to get the right policies in place, pronto. There is absolutely no good reason for us to have to wait for a climate panic before we take the lead in the next great economic engine.