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Workshop 5

“Anthropogenic Climate Destabilization: A Worst-case Scenario”
Participant Statement

September 12–14, 2008 | Bellevue, Washington

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William H. Calvin

What are the three critical questions you would ask pertaining to “anthropogenic climate change: a worst-case scenario” – and why?

The worst-case climate crisis involving all life forms on Earth would be the locked-in situation of Venus or Mars – that of too much or too little greenhouse effect. The major ways of taking heat-trapping CO2 out of the air are photosynthesis and the slow weathering of rocks by acid rain. Should the Earth warm up past the boiling point of water, there would be no more rain – allowing a Venus-style runaway greenhouse warming that destroyed all life on Earth.

Short of that, a worst-case scenario might involve a mass extinction event. We are, however, already in the middle of a slow one and it hasn’t moved either politicians or the public to depart from business as usual. The long-predicted flooding of New Orleans finally happened three years ago and, while it filled television screens for a week, nothing has really changed. Disaster movies make lots of money at the box office but taxpayers baulk at spending similar sums for disaster preparation.

So what would be seen as a plausible worst-case scenario, sufficient to quickly establish the climate crisis on a war footing? It probably needs an emotional resonance that includes dread, not just empathy or a shared sense of responsibility. Threats to young children? The threat of invasion? Contamination? The prospect of being hopelessly trapped? And, for our purposes, it would need to be “actionable” rather than something that seemed hopeless, a challenge you meet rather than deny or hunker down before.

And, I would suspect, a worst-case scenario would need to involve something sudden rather than a spun-out scenario. The cause-and-effect relationships would need to be simple, not requiring a Ph.D. to comprehend the situation. People are not very good at focusing on multiple causation and, when confused, they often decide not to decide.

Those of us who already comprehend what’s happening to climate can identify a variety of cause-and-effect actors and even possible tipping points. We can point to the alarming 50-year trends in fires and floods. But which worst-case scenario can best serve to organize action because it is simple and sudden, has the necessary emotional resonance and dread, and points toward actions that would be effective at reversing the climate pathology?