One morning in the not too distant future, you might read shocking headlines in your local paper: Coal plants shut down forever… Airline travel down 50 percent… New federal carbon restrictions in place…
Suddenly, your neighbor no longer wants to talk about how the Yankees are doing. No, the only thing he wants to chat about is, of all things, climate change. Shaking your head, you think: What just happened?
With a non-binding agreement coming out of Copenhagen at the same time that atmospheric CO2 creeps above 390 parts per million, it's possible that a new feeling might take hold in the hearts of people who understand climate science. That feeling is pure, unadulterated panic.
Paleo-climate records show evidence of abrupt climate changes, and it's increasingly possible that policy responses to climate change will be equally abrupt. After years of inaction, a backlash is already smoldering. When it erupts, it could lead to a radical policy in a very short timeframe. It's the same kind of cultural tipping point, often triggered by events, that has sparked revolutions or wars in the past.
The backlash is brewing in the form of increasingly strident comments from respected and influential people. Economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has called government indolence on the issue "treason." Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has called it "a crime against nature." Environmental journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert has described "a technologically advanced society choosing to destroy itself," while James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri, perhaps the world's leading climate scientists, have said inaction during the next several years will doom the planet.
Meanwhile, that very planet is visibly changing: epic droughts, fires and dust storms in Australia, floods in Asia, alarmingly fast melting of land ice in Greenland and Antarctica, the prospect of an ice-free summer on the Arctic Sea, raging, unprecedented fires throughout the world, and mosquito-borne illnesses like Dengue spreading to regions previously untouched. Measurements show that the oceans are rising and becoming more acidic, while the Earth's average temperature was higher in the past decade than at any time in the past century.
At some point, even climate change becomes teenager-obvious: "Well, duh, Dad! Look around you!"
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. Such abrupt changes could wind up becoming the "worst case" scenario that few people had considered possible.
It is exactly these economic impacts that the Glen Becks and the Rush Limbaughs fear we'll impose on ourselves through restrictive government regulation of energy and carbon emissions. Ironically, a "no action" approach today makes a climate panic much more likely over time. What we're describing would be driven by the people, not fueled by governments or policy wonks. It would be the direct result of free will, democracy, autonomy and the information superhighway. Imagine the sub-prime mortgage bubble pop multiplied a hundredfold.
Yet business and government planners continue to anticipate a much less abrupt transition to a carbon-constrained future. Even the renewable energy policy and emissions-reduction scenarios that are currently dismissed as crazily aggressive are based on relatively incremental change.
That's a big problem. We believe that business leaders and politicians need to add a more radical scenario to their risk assessment. If we have a climate panic -- something that turns us from agents into victims –- it will usher in chaos. The only way to avoid such a catastrophic scenario is a kind of backfire panic of our own: radical, rapid, and aggressive implementation of climate policy in the United States, as a message to the world. In the end, as venture capitalist Eugene Kleiner has pointed out: "Sometimes panic is an appropriate response."
The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Auden Schendler is executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and the author of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution. Mark Trexler is director of climate strategies and markets for DNV Climate Change Advisory Services U.S. and a former member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.