The Big Thaw
Global warming is happening faster than predicted by scientists. Temperatures are rising, ice caps and glaciers are melting, and extreme weather is more frequent and intense than ever before in recent history. If these trends continue, the results will be monumental and far-reaching. But it could get even worse: If warming accelerates dramatically and if polar ice melts even faster -- particularly if the Greenland ice sheet or the West Antarctic ice sheet melts -- the results could be catastrophic.
Some scientists have suggested that the melting of polar ice has not previously proceeded in a smooth and linear process, but rather had "sensitive tipping points." Although unlikely, this raises the possibility of a black-swan nightmare in which rises in sea level coupled with extreme weather events threaten some of the world's major cities. It's not difficult to imagine another superstorm like Hurricane Sandy during Obama's second term, but perhaps we should be thinking -- and planning -- for a year in which we suffer through a dozen Sandys.
A significant rise in sea levels throughout the world would have a particularly devastating impact on concentrated populations living in low-lying coastal areas. The local economy, politics, and security in these regions would all be transformed, but perhaps the biggest impact would be climate-induced migration and displacement. The United States can help mitigate these risks by giving climate change a higher priority in international and domestic policymaking -- leading new multilateral initiatives and increasing mitigation and adaptation.
Obama needs to keep his word and move climate change higher on his political agenda. In 2009, he pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to a level 17 percent lower than that in 2005 -- but no legislation, executive order, regulation, or published plan currently exists to translate this promise into action.
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All these black swans may seem to be leading the world into an era of greater violence and instability. But as Obama enters his second term, this time of uncertainty and instability is actually a moment of opportunity for the president. The world currently faces a "plastic juncture" -- a moment when the United States has a chance to remold the international system into something better. Obama has a unique opportunity to strengthen and extend the liberal world order from which Americans and so many others around the world have benefited.
To create a more secure and prosperous world, Obama will need to place a series of "big bets" -- investing his power, time, and prestige in major efforts that can have a transformational impact on America and the world, as well as on his legacy. But he will always need his radar tuned to those untoward events that could disrupt his best-laid plans.
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