The Greater Danger: Precipice or Slippery Slope?

03/09/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

2015-03-08-1425822352-320536-Crabtree_Falls.jpgLower Crabtree Falls, Virginia, National Forest Service image

I'm a boomer, so I missed the greatest existential crisis of the 20th Century: The Second World War. My Dad, however, was in the thick of it, helping mop up after the Battle of the Bulge.

In my lifetime, though, the human family has stared down the barrel of two additional crises of existential proportions: the Cuban Missile Crisis and climate destabilization, the latter of which is ongoing. Which crisis has posed the greater threat?

A sheer precipice or a slippery slope? Which is a greater danger?

I was 14 -- a junior-high ninth-grader -- when the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. Although that was more than 50 years ago, I remember the episode -- which played out over thirteen nightmarish days -- as if it happened yesterday.

In October 1962, a U-2 spy plane revealed construction sites in Cuba, ballistic missile launch pads in progress just 90 miles from US shores. Fidel Castro, on the heels of a US attempt to ouster him in 1961 -- the failed Bay of Pigs invasion -- had requested the missiles to deter further US harassment. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was all too happy to comply, given that the US had ballistic missiles in both Turkey and Italy, too close to Soviet borders for their comfort. The Cuban missiles posed an extreme existential threat to the US because their short range would allow no time for response to a Cuban first strike.

The incident came to a head when the young and untested President John F. Kennedy released the classified photos for the world to see and ordered a military "quarantine" of all Soviet ships approaching Cuba. For several days during which the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife, the US and the USSR played chicken, with the world poised on the precipice of thermonuclear war. The US ratcheted its defense status to DEFCON 2, placing the Strategic Air Command on a hair trigger.

Through frantic backchannel communications, some involving the first brother, Robert F. Kennedy, the US and USSR slowly began to inch away from the precipice. The situation was resolved when the USSR publicly removed its ballistic missiles and bombers from Cuba, and the US secretly removed its missiles from Turkey and Italy. To lessen the chances of future such incidents, the White House and the Kremlin each installed an iconic red phone, establishing the Washington-Moscow hotline.

Standing at the brink of the precipice, neither party harbored the slightest doubt as to what would happen if either made a wrong move. The world would erupt in nuclear Armageddon. The clarity afforded by the precipice launched instead a process of gradual disarmament that continues to this day. For the first time in its history, the Doomsday clock ran backwards.


Not too far from where I live is a popular series of cascades that collectively drop 1200 feet: Crabtree Falls. This beautiful spot in the Blue Ridge, unfortunately, has claimed many lives. The reason is that the upper falls cascade over a rock dome rather than over a sharp edge. Thrill-seekers, some inebriated, tempt fate by testing how far out on the dome they can go. As the slope increase gradually, there is no definitive point of no return. One's fate can hinge on things as seemingly inconsequential as what shoes one is wearing or how much grit is on the surface.

Climate destabilization, like Crabtree Falls, is a slippery slope rather than an abrupt precipice.

Despite the best science, climate modeling is based on statistical predictions. We don't know therefore exactly where the tipping points are. At what point might the "albedo effect" trigger runaway polar melting. At what point will permafrost become permamelt, releasing its long-sequestered carbon? At what point will warming seas yield up their vast stores of methane hydrates, dumping massive quantities of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? At what point will it be too late to transition in earnest from fossil fuels to renewable energy?

When dealing with slippery-slope phenomena, the only sane course is extreme caution. If you don't know where the point of no return is located, don't even tread in the vicinity.

Had we exercised reasonable caution and heeded the early warnings of climate scientists in1981, we'd have begun "the great transition" from fossil to renewable energy two full decades ago. But just when the American public had finally awakened to climate peril, the fossil-fuel industry hired its Merchants of Doubt to taunt is, egging us ever closer to that unmarked point of no return.

Nevertheless, The Great Transition is now underway, the subject of my next post. We must hope it is neither too late nor too slow.