Just how close are we to energy and climate disaster?

By Lisa Margonelli

(Please ignore the giddy grin on my picture for this post...)

Over the last month or so I've been to several events that suggest that US scientists and government types are starting to seriously game out how disasters in energy security and climate change may unfold, interact, and multiply. At one event, people from various government departments, national labs,  and, um, information gathering agencies sat around tables and tried to play out how, say, black carbon causing ice melt in the Tibetan plateau would interact with the struggle for scarce oil resources, the spread of disease, and the potential for developing countries to leapfrog to new energy technologies.  What would be the first warnings of disaster? How could it be avoided or mitigated if it was too late?

A few of my totally unauthorized takeaways:
1. The political and scientific establishment is pretty comfortable responding to impending disaster with avoidance/mitigation while they're uncomfortable demanding the deep (and still unknown) changes that may be necessary to address all of the interlocking issues. On the surface, their confidence in successful response is reassuring; in the long run it is profoundly dismal because it means we will lurch from one crisis to the next, devoted to a lifestyle of constant emergency.
2. Smart people are already planning for all sorts of worst case scenarios, ranging from massive death (which some believe could take the pressure off the ecosystem) to making the best of species die off. (The weirdest notion: Since the oceans are likely to be filled with jellyfish, perhaps we should genetically modify the jellyfish to make a better food source. "Have a PB and Jellyfish," said the speaker, giggling appropriately.)
3. There is raging discussion about how to communicate the need for costly, possibly unpleasant action to the public. Among the scientific community this translates into trying to get together "blue ribbon panels" to communicate the need to address climate change and energy security and economic competitiveness issues together. (To which I say: blue ribbon panels are great, just be sure you've got a Pabst Blue Ribbon panel to communicate outside the policy community. More on that in a second.) But this sense of being unable to get across the danger we're in has even lead reasonable types to publicly make distressing suggestions, along the lines of "should we exaggerate danger to spur the public to action?" To me, that sentiment among reasonable people is a disaster in public trust, and cannot lead to any positive outcome.
4. If you're a total cynic invest in 3M immediately. Damn! These people love Post-Its. And if they're even half right about the future, they're going to need a lot of them.

On to my personal PBR panel moment. Last week I was at a seminar where 2000 logistics specialists for the National Guard were hobnobbing and thinking about their evolving role. (They were also shopping for Butyl Hoods "For Mass Casualty and Mass DeCon Events," insoles for their combat boots, Force Escalation Kits, and "Mobile Integrated Remains Collection Systems.") It quickly became clear that the National Guard is now on the front lines of cleaning up evolving climate disasters, ie freak storms; as well as being involved in the ongoing energy security issues in Iraq. I had a lot of interesting conversations over the two days I was there, but one of them showed me how different the Guard's experience is from that of the rest of us. I asked a captain about all of the talk of climate and energy disasters and he answered, flatly and without hesitation, that the average American does not take responsibility for our lifestyle's impact on ourselves or overseas, that we do not want to think about the risks we're taking, and that we don't prepare ourselves to protect our communities.

I found his answer more bleak and more motivating than all the theoretical talk of Black Carbon and PB and Jellyfish. I think the National Guard needs its own TV show.

But I also wonder if this planning for disaster is new? Does it mean anything? Or is it part of the avoidance process? Have we been here before, say during the Cold War or when smog was smothering us and Love Canal was leaking? What do you think?

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