The Climate Change Threat: How Does It Differ from Conventional Threats?

The Climate Change Threat: How Does It Differ from Conventional Threats?

First published Summer 2011, Crosslink® magazine.


It is not coming from a conventional (human) adversary. As a result, it cannot be deterred or fought by conventional means, such as building weapons, installing traditional early warning systems, or employing diplomacy. Rather, deterrence requires technological breakthroughs coupled with alteration of societal practices and individual human behaviors worldwide.

It is happening slowly, spanning many years or decades. The rate and duration of change are not precisely known, nor is it known whether a tipping point will be reached that causes abrupt change. The slow, unpredictable pace and multiplicity of probable causes prompt skeptical observers to conclude that the changes are not threatening or cannot be affected by the actions of humans.

Technological society has never experienced abrupt climate change, so the failure modes of societal coping mechanisms are not known. Even if climate change progresses gradually, the ultimate magnitude of the threat is unknown and response options are complicated by the fact that it is occurring all over the world at the same time. The exact locations and manifestations of climate effects can only be estimated based on imperfect models, so for much of the world the effects will be known for certain only after they occur.

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