One morning in the not too distant future, you might wake up and walk to your mailbox. The newspaper is in there and it’s covered with shocking headlines: Coal Plants Shut Down! Airline Travel Down 50 Percent! New Federal Carbon Restrictions in Place! Governor Kicked Out of Office for Climate Indolence!

climate panicSometimes change is abrupt and unsettling. History shows that societies in crisis too often leap from calm reaction to outright panic.The only thing your bath-robed, flip-flopped, weed-eating neighbor wants to talk about over the fence isn’t the Yankees, but, of all things … climate change.

Shaking your head, you think: What just happened?

With a non-binding agreement coming out of Copenhagen at the same time that atmospheric CO2 creeps above 390 parts per million, it’s possible that a new feeling might soon gain prevalence in the hearts of people who understand climate science. That feeling is panic. Specifically, climate panic.

In the same way that paleoclimate records show evidence of abrupt climate changes, we think it’s increasingly possible that policy responses to climate change will themselves be abrupt. After years of policy inaction, a public climate backlash is already smoldering. When it blows, it could force radical policy in a short timeframe. It’s the same kind of cultural tipping point, often triggered by dramatic events, that has led to revolutions or wars in the past.

The backlash is brewing in the form of increasingly strident comments from respected and influential people. Economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has called government indolence on the issue “treason.” NRDC attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has called it “a crime against nature.” Environmental journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert has described “a technologically advanced society choosing to destroy itself,” while James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri, perhaps the world’s leading climate scientists, have said inaction in the next several years will doom the planet.

Meanwhile, that very planet is visibly changing — epic droughts, fires and dust storms in Australia; floods in Asia, alarmingly fast melting of land ice in Greenland and Antarctica; the prospect of an ice-free summer on the Arctic Sea; raging, unprecedented fires throughout the world; and mosquito-borne illnesses like Dengue spreading to regions previously untouched. Measurements show that the oceans are rising and becoming more acidic, while the Earth’s average temperature was higher in the past decade than at any time in the past century.

At some point, even climate change becomes teenager obvious: “Well, Duh, Dad! Look around you!”

When the psychology of in-your-face warming gets combined with a shocking climate event — something like Hurricane Katrina on steroids — you end up with a witches brew that can result in what political scientist Aristide Zolberg has referred to as “moments of madness” — unique historical moments when society challenges conventional wisdom and new norms are forcibly — oftentimes disruptively — created.

There are many historical precedents: the economic and political chaos in Weimar Germany that ultimately led to the rise of Hitler, the violence of the French Revolution, the sudden, peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire.

Stock market panics are another example: a rapid change in mindset that illustrates the dangerous unpredictability of human systems. On climate, such a response could mean sudden and painfully costly dislocations in the energy markets — and therefore the global economy — that wind up becoming the “worst case” scenario that few people had considered possible.

It is exactly these economic impacts that the Glenn Becks and the Rush Limbaughs fear we’ll impose on ourselves through restrictive government regulation of energy and carbon emissions. Ironically, a “no action” approach today actually makes a climate panic much more likely over time. What we’re describing would be popularly driven, not fueled by governments or policy wonks. It would be the direct result of free will, democracy, autonomy and the information superhighway. All these forces would accelerate, not mitigate, the greatest “Aha!” moment in the history of the human species. Imagine the sub-prime mortgage bubble pop multiplied a hundred fold.

Yet business and government planners continue to anticipate much less abrupt transitions to a carbon-constrained future. Even renewable energy policy and emissions reduction scenarios dismissed as crazily aggressive are based on relatively incremental change.

That’s a big problem. We believe that business leaders and politicians need to add a more radical scenario to their risk assessment: a climate panic that turns us from agents into victims, ushering in chaos. The only way to avoid this catastrophic scenario is a kind of backfire panic of our own: radical, rapid, and aggressive implementation of climate policy in the United States as a message to the world. In the end, as venture capitalist Eugene Kleiner has pointed out, “sometimes panic is an appropriate response.”