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Can We Avoid the Perfect Storm?

June 26, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedIt is quite possible that by the year 2100 human life will have become extinct or will be confined to a few residential areas that have escaped the devastating effects of nuclear holocaust or global warming.
—Brian Barry1

Evolution equipped us to deal with threats from dependably loathsome enemies and fearsome creatures, but not with the opaque and cumulative long-term consequences of our own technological and demographic success. As cartoonist Walt Kelly once put it, “We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.”

Deforestation, agriculture, and the combustion of fossil fuels have committed the world to a substantial and possibly rapid warming that will last for hundreds or thousands of years. Rising temperatures, whether gradual or sudden, will progressively destabilize the global climate system, causing massive droughts, more frequent storms, rising sea level, loss of many species, and shifting ecologies, but in ways that are difficult to predict with precision in a nonlinear system. These changes will likely result in scarcities of food, energy, and resources, undermining political, social, and economic stability and amplifying the effects of terrorism and conflicts between and within nations, failed states, and regions.

Action to head off the worst of what could occur is difficult because of the complexity of nonlinear systems, with large delays between cause and effect, and because of the political and economic power of fossil fuel industries to prevent corrective action that would jeopardize their profitability. Political leadership has been absent in large part because no government is presently organized to deal with the permanent emergency of climate destabilization. The effects of procrastination will fall with increasing weight on coming generations, making our role as the primary cause of worsening climate destabilization the largest moral lapse in history.

Climate destabilization is not just an issue of technology and policy, but a symptom of deeper problems rooted in our paradigms, philosophies, and popular delusions. In particular, a great deal of the conventional economic wisdom—including “neoliberalism,” the “Washington consensus,” and the prevailing faith in infinite economic growth—has been proved wrong in many ways and tragically so for the poorest.

The “perfect storm” ahead, in short, is caused by the convergence of steadily worsening climate change; spreading ecological disorder (e.g., deforestation, soil loss, water shortages, species loss, ocean acidification); population growth; unfair distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of economic growth; national and ethnic tensions; and political incapacity.

Nonetheless, we might still head off the worst of a future that Cambridge University scientist Martin Rees2 describes as possibly “our final hour.” We have good reason to believe that this will be the closest of close calls, but we must hope that humankind will emerge someday from what biologist E. O. Wilson calls “the bottleneck” chastened but improved.

From the other side of that bottleneck, the components of a transition strategy, presently hotly disputed, will appear as merely obvious and necessary. The journey to a more resilient and durable future for humanity will require, first, a strategy to overcome the political gridlock that variously afflicts all developed countries and to build an informed, energetic constituency to launch the essential steps during the transition. Early warnings about climate change began in the 1960s, but neither the international community nor any developed country has yet adopted policies adequate to the situation. In the years of lassitude and drift, we exhausted whatever margin of safety we might otherwise have had. In the United States, in particular, the federal decision-making capacity on energy and climate policy is presently broken, impairing its capacity to lead on these issues.

As a result, in the United States and elsewhere, grassroots organizations are mobilizing communities around transition strategies that address energy, food, and economic issues without assistance from central governments. Similarly, mayors, cities, regional organizations, and states are engaging with the public, colleges and universities, corporations, and faith communities in a broad effort to lower carbon emissions and build economic and social resilience. The National Sustainable Communities Coalition,3 for example, proposes a strategy of “full-spectrum sustainability” that coordinates issues of food, energy, finance, education, economic development, building, and resource flows so that each part reinforces the others and hence the prosperity and resilience of the entire community. These efforts coincide with a growing recognition that security, in the full sense of the word, must be broadened to include access to food, clean water, energy, employment, health, shelter, safety, ecological health, and climate stability.

Image RemovedGrassroots organizing as well as urban and regional coalitions are necessary to mobilize the public and build the infrastructure for local resilience, but they will be insufficient without a larger strategy that eventually generates a constituency for policy changes and shared sacrifice at a scale appropriate to the global emergency. Efforts at local and regional levels must be linked with a larger strategic vision that harnesses the big economic drivers in the economy. Policy analyst Patrick Doherty4 proposes, for example, to join local action with the emerging demand for housing in smart-growth regions that have good transit and easy access to urban amenities. The combination of bottom-up organizing with a larger grand strategy suggests the possibility for new political coalitions that cross worn-out national, political, ethnic, and class divisions, and for new opportunities to create an engaged and ecologically competent citizenry networked across the planet.

To limit the possibility of runaway climate change we must also rethink energy strategies, beginning with lucid judgments about what’s necessary and what’s not. Necessary energy consumption must be made as efficient as technology and design permit, while waste and ephemeral energy use must be phased out. At the same time we must make a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Since Amory Lovins5 first made the case in Foreign Affairs in 1976, the evidence has become incontrovertible that radically improved efficiency is the fastest, cheapest, and smartest way to reduce carbon emissions, while improving the economy and virtually everything else. A recent report by Deutsche Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation,6 for example, showed that an investment of $269 billion in energy efficiency in U.S. building stock would save $1.1 trillion over ten years and create 3.3 million jobs. The findings are similar to those of dozens of reports over decades. Of all of the changes necessary to stabilize the climate and build resilient economies, energy efficiency is the least difficult because the technology is available now and is economically advantageous. Adoption, however, requires accurate information, clear price signals, and policies that make financing affordable and straightforward.

On the supply side, wind power, photovoltaics, and more exotic technologies are capturing the world market for energy services at double-digit rates. The transition reflects the unusual convergence of economically smart choices by energy users with moral considerations. But there is a great deal more that governments can do to incentivize both efficiency and deployment of renewable energy, including adoption of feed-in tariffs to encourage rapid diffusion of solar technology, development of simple financing mechanisms, establishment of uniform codes that make installations straightforward and predictable, guarantees for long-term tax credits, financing of research as well as start-up companies, and policy measures that level the playing field for energy, whether by placing a rising price on carbon or desubsidizing fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Since the failure to anticipate and respond to climate destabilization is the largest political failure in history, a further transition strategy must address the problems of governance and politics that led to the present predicament. Most governments rest on foundations dating from the early industrial age, in what was then perceived to be an “empty world.” The world is now “full” and the health of the biosphere everywhere is in decline. Governments have grown, not as a part of well-thought-out plans, but mostly in response to wars and economic crises. They are organized as silos, fiefdoms, and separate bureaucracies that often work at cross-purposes. The time horizon for most governments typically extends no further than the next election. But the challenges ahead are those of permanently managing complex, nonlinear changes in which cause and effect are separated in both space and time. All of these problems are compounded by (1) a vitriolic campaign virtually everywhere against the idea of governance, funded by those with a lot to gain from less of it; (2) the dominance of neoliberal ideas in the global economy that render the abstraction of the market sacrosanct; (3) the narrow bandwidth of the media; and (4) the corruption of government and politics by vast amounts of equally addictive oil and drug money.

The new and permanent challenge for governments everywhere will be to balance human demands for resources, energy, and waste cycling with the declining carrying capacity of ecosystems. The United States during the Nixon presidency made a start toward ecological governance with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970). NEPA called for a systems approach to environmental decisions, evaluation of alternatives to proposed actions, and consideration of the long term. In the intervening years the vital signs of the earth have deteriorated faster than anyone in 1970 expected. And the prospect of declining climate stability lends urgency to the challenge of rethinking how we conduct the public business at all levels.

In the broadest terms, the challenge for governments, on one hand, is to develop the capacity to foresee and forestall adverse changes by (1) developing the capacity for systems planning; (2) implementing full-cost accounting; and (3) extending time horizons for decisions from years to decades and centuries. On the other hand, governments must build capacity to govern smarter by promoting synergies between public and private sectors that catalyze virtuous cycles of change.

Image RemovedFurther, governments and our political discourse must transcend the old right-left dichotomy characteristic of industrial age politics. The challenge ahead will be to creatively join conservatism and liberalism in search of a livable future. Interestingly, the necessary changes would blend the thinking of Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, with that of Thomas Jefferson, associated with modern radicalism. In different ways, each argued for the protection of future generations from “intergenerational tyranny.” The prospect of political change, however, is complicated and difficult, and there is no assurance that governments that are effective in the face of rapid climate destabilization will also be democratic.7 It is easier and perhaps more plausible to imagine a future of hyper-efficient, solar-powered, sustainable, and authoritarian societies than reformed and effective democracies.

What we do know is that governments will be under increasing climate-change-driven stresses that will jeopardize food supplies, water, key infrastructure, and probably population shifts from vulnerable coastlines and desiccated and storm-devastated interiors. In such circumstances, public order will be difficult to maintain without the perception of shared sacrifice, common vision, and leadership.

Finally, we live amid the ruins of failed systems—communism, socialism, and capitalism—and urgently need a new vision of the human prospect and potentials grounded in science, philosophy, and inclusive spirituality, not wishful thinking, greed, fear, and illusion. This new vision must begin with the hard fact that climate destabilization and its collateral effects will cause great suffering and trauma and exact an increasing psychological toll on all of us.8 Old and familiar places and entire ecologies will be mutilated, some beyond recognition, undermining our sense of place and safety. Climate refugees (the United Nations estimates up to 250 million or more by 2050) will be the first to suffer the traumas of displacement and perhaps violence. But the fact is that we are all refugees from the only paradise humans have ever known—the 12,000-year interlude that geologists call the Holocene. We now live in a less benign and far less certain age called the Anthropocene. In this new age, the duress of scarcity, heat, and alternating dryness and deluge may bring out both the best and worst of human behavior. In either case, it will certainly dissolve the false optimism inherent in the “modern project.”

Such prospects make it all the more urgent to develop plausible alternative visions grounded in emerging realities, but with hope on a further horizon. The scientific evidence suggests that we are entering a “long emergency” for which there will be no quick fixes or painless solutions. Any worthy vision must hold out solid hope of the millennial kind. It must include rights for future generations.9 It must create a more inclusive framework for justice, fairness, decency, sustainability, and human rights (e.g., the Earth Charter).10 It must preserve a stock of irreplaceable knowledge11 while protecting and extending the hard-won gains of civilization, but over time spans and conditions that we can barely fathom.


  1. Barry, B. Why Social Justice Matters. (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2005).
  2. Rees, M. Our Final Hour. (Basic Books, New York, 2003).
  3. Becker, W, Doherty, P, Mykleby, M & Orr, DW. The National Sustainable Communities Coalition (in process).
  4. Doherty, P & Leinberger, C. The next real estate boom. Washington Monthly (November/December 2010).
  5. Lovins, A. Energy strategy: The road not taken? Foreign Affairs (October 1976).
  6. Rockefeller Foundation and Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors. United States Building Energy Efficiency Retrofits (New York, 2012).
  7. Burnell, P. Climate Change and Democratization (Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Berlin, 2009).
  8. Coyle, K & van Susteren, L. The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States (National Wildlife Federation, Washington, DC, 2012).
  9. Gardiner, SM. A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford University Press, New York, 2011).
  10. The Earth Charter Initiative [online]. www.Earthcharterinaction.org
  11. Lovelock, J. A book for all seasons. Science 280, 832-833 (May 8, 1998).

Image credits:
1. Rising temperatures and a changing global climate system will increasingly cause natural disasters like this massive 2008 drought in Balqis, Egypt, a vibrant farming region northeast of Cairo. – Nasser Nouri
2. The United Nations estimates that by mid-century there could be more than 250 million climate refugees forced to relocate because of rising seas, desertification, or other irreversible changes to their homelands. Here, a member of the Navy’s Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron rescues a New Orleans resident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005. – Kristopher Wilson
3. A crowded beach in Benidorm, Spain. Population growth and rapid development are two of many factors compounding the problem of climate change. – UN Photo/J Grinde

Originally published at Solutions Journal