At several points in the past, I have mentioned the possibility that the majority of people will not be willing to accept serious action on climate change until at least one big, unambiguously climate related disaster has taken place. The same point is made in Joseph Romm’s book but, whereas I have speculated that it could be vanishing icecaps or large-scale climate induced human migration in Asia, he seems to think that Atlantic hurricanes striking the United States may make the difference.
There is good reason to find this plausible. The strength and frequency of hurricanes both have a lot to do with sea surface temperature (SST). While it isn’t feasible to attribute the occurrence or harmfulness of a particular storm to climate change, it is relatively easy to show a correlation between rising global temperature, rising SST, and more severe hurricanes. Simulations conducted by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory led to them concluding that “the strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth’s climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” Within decades, rising SSTs could make the kind of extraordinary hurricane seasons that have proliferated since 2000 the low end of the new scale.
This matters partly because a hurricane-climate change connection would affect Americans directly and very visibly. Insurance prices would rise further, at the same time as more areas became uninsurable and serious questions arose about whether to rebuild at all in some places. The cost trade-offs between insurance, protective measures like higher levees, and storm risk would be thrown into sharp relief. The perceived damages associated with climate change would also shift from being associated with people outside of North America at some distant point in the future to being both physically and temporally immediate.
Obviously, it would be better if serious measures to combat climate change (eliminating non-CCS coal, pushing hard on energy efficiency, building dramatically more renewable capacity, etc) could come about simply as the result of a reasoned assessment of the IPCC’s scientific conclusions and projected associated costs. If, however, it is going to take disasters before people and politicians are ready to embrace real change, we should hope that they will come early, carry a relatively small cost in human lives, and not exacerbate the problem of climate change in and of themselves, as fires and ice loss do.