Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Coping with Climate Change in the Next Half-Century

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Coping with Climate Change in the Next Half-Century

Article excerpt

GREENHOUSE GAS (GHG) concentrations are trending far * off the path needed to avoid dangerous interference in the cli- mate system, and nations are making little progress in the di- plomacy to cut their emissions. Reducing carbon dioxide (C02) emis- sions from fossil fuels is the only course of action that stabilizes the climate beyond the year 2100; a recent analysis of California's energy systems illustrates how difficult it will be over the next few decades to put the planet on the path to stabilization. While there is cause for opti- mism that C02 emission controls could have effect after 2050, in the interim the world must prepare for at least twice as much human- caused warming in 2050 as we have seen thus far.

There is a way to moderate the impacts of climate change between now and later in the century when C02 mitigation could become effec- tive. Action on short-lived climate warming pollutants such as methane and black carbon can have a fast climate response and reduce the near- term costs of adaptation. The technologies and regional regulatory fo- rums are in place, and the co-benefits are huge; controls on short-lived pollutants, such as soot, can save millions of lives through reductions in local pollution, while also lessening the loss of crops. Focusing on pollutants with large co-benefits could make countries more likely to want to act. Working on issues where short-term success is possible could also make international climate change diplomacy more credible, which would greatly aid in completing the more difficult task of reduc- ing C02 emissions.

Nonetheless, significant climate warming now appears unavoid- able, so it is also urgent to prepare to adapt. We propose that reduction in short-lived climate pollutants go hand-in-hand with local and re- gional adaptation efforts. Unlike much of climate change science, which looks globally, adaptation is an intrinsically local affair. Successful ad- aptation will require new institutions, including climate change assess- ment networks that directly support local mitigation and adaptation efforts worldwide, and a knowledge-dense cyber-infrastructure that supports them.

Part 1. Why It Will Be Hard to Avoid "Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference in the Climate System"

Here we review for a general educated audience1 some of the reasons why the present approach to mitigating climate change moves too slowly to prevent significant warming in the next half-century. Experts may prefer to skip directly to the suggestions about what we can do in subsequent sections.

In 1992, in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 154 nations crafted a binding pledge to cut emis- sions in a way that would "achieve [. . .] the stabilization of green- house gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would pre- vent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." As often happens with diplomacy, the UNFCCC created a new term of art, "dangerous anthropogenic interference," but studiously did not de- fine it. Much more recently, starting in 2007, governments adopted a series of agreements that established 2 degrees Celsius2 as a widely ac- cepted goal for avoiding danger. Because C02 from burning fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change, that goal implies the need for ma- jor cuts in global C02 emissions. The International Energy Agency has estimated that it will require an investment of $45 trillion dollars dur- ing the next few decades to cut C02 emission by 50%.3 Even after a 50% reduction by 2050, the C02 levels in the atmosphere will continue to increase beyond 2100, because of the long lifetime of the C02 mole- cule. To prevent further increase in C02 concentrations beyond 2100 we have to eliminate nearly all C02 emissions by about 2050.

To understand the magnitude of the challenge, it is interesting to look at California-perhaps the U.S. state with the greatest political commitment and technical ability to address the challenges. …

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