Summer 2010 Vol. 10 Number 2
An End to Business As Usual
on Climate Change
For decades, the National Research Council has examined the effects of global warming. In its most comprehensive study of climate change to date, the Research Council recently declared that a strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows climate change is occurring, and the nation needs to take action.
Part of a congressionally requested group of studies known as America's Climate Choices, four new reports underscore why the United States should act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, develop a national strategy to adapt to inevitable impacts of climate change, and coordinate reliable information systems to guide decision making.
One of the reports, Advancing the Science of Climate Change, says climate change is caused largely by human activities and poses significant risks for -- and in many cases is already affecting -- a broad range of human and natural systems. It calls for a new, interdisciplinary era of climate change science where an emphasis is placed on "fundamental, use-inspired" research that improves understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change and the actions that can be taken to respond to climate change. To coordinate such an effort, a single federal entity or program should be given the authority and resources; the existing U.S. Global Change Research Program could fulfill this role.
Another report, Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change, focuses on strategies to reduce concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It recommends that the United States establish a greenhouse gas emissions "budget" that sets a limit on total domestic emissions over a fixed period of time. A comprehensive carbon-pricing system with a collection of targeted complementary policies, such as regulations and incentives, is the most cost-effective way to reduce these emissions. The report warns, however, that the longer the nation waits to begin reducing emissions, the harder and more expensive it will likely be to reach any given emissions target.
Although the report does not recommend a specific domestic emissions budget, it examines an illustrative range of 170 billion to 200 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent for the period 2012 through 2050. Even at the higher end of this range, meeting the target will require a major departure from business as usual in how we produce and use energy.
While efforts can be taken to limit future impacts, some -- such as rising sea levels, disappearing sea ice, and increasingly extreme weather events -- are already being observed, and others in the future may be unavoidable, says a third report, Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change.
Adaptation to climate change calls for a new paradigm -- one that considers a range of possible future climate conditions and associated impacts, some outside the realm of past experience. Boosting U.S. adaptive capacity now can be viewed as "an insurance policy against an uncertain future," while inaction could increase the risks. Although much of the response to climate change will occur at local and regional levels, a national adaptation strategy is still needed to facilitate cooperation and collaboration across all lines of government and among the private sector and various organizations.
To help guide decision makers on how they should limit and adapt to climate change, the federal government needs to establish reliable and timely information and reporting systems, such as climate services and a greenhouse gas accounting system, says the report Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change. It also recommends mechanisms for improving communication and education about climate science and response options and calls for a systematic framework for making and evaluating decisions about how to effectively manage the risks posed by climate change.
An overarching report will be released later this year that will build upon all four reports and other materials. For more information, visit www.americasclimatechoices.org;. -- Jennifer Walsh & Molly Galvin