Society’s Options—The Broad Overview

March 16th, 2007 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

Society has four general options for addressing human caused changes in climate. We could take no upfront preventative action. I’ll call this the wait-and-see approach. We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation). We could improve our ability to cope with climate impacts (build our adaptive capacity). For example, building codes could require structures to withstand more severe storms, or we could restrict development in flood prone areas. Finally, we could deploy global changes that attempt to counteract the effects of our greenhouse gas emissions (geoengineer). One prominent geoengineering idea is to inject reflective particles into the atmosphere to decrease slightly the amount of the sun’s energy that reaches the earth’s surface.

Each of the four options has proponents and critics, advantages and disadvantages. A full treatment will take many posts, but for today I’ll set the stage with a broad overview.

If we wait-and-see, and the impacts of climate change end up being minor, no resources or effort would get wasted. But climate change impacts could be severe. If so, we’ll have done nothing to reduce the magnitude of the changes or to increase our ability to cope with them. As a result, wait-and-see leads to the maximum potential for suffering from climate impacts.

Mitigation will lead to lower greenhouse gas concentrations, which will produce more modest changes in climate. This means fewer and less severe impacts to society. Mitigation policies may provide additional benefits as well, such as less traditional air pollution or greater energy independence. The potential downside of mitigation arises because we cannot accurately quantify future climate damages. If we overestimate the potential damages when deciding how much to mitigate, then we could waste resources by unnecessarily reducing emissions. Mitigation also does little to help us cope with the changes in climate that our past emissions have already committed us to endure.

Building adaptive capacity can help us handle the unavoidable changes in climate. Another benefit is that better adaptive capacity can help reduce our vulnerability to existing weather related events. The downside with adaptation is that some impacts of climate change may remain too severe or too unpredictable to handle. A wide range of potential climate impacts also makes it difficult to know how to focus adaptation efforts on the most pressing needs. As a result, investments may be ineffective or even counterproductive for the actual impacts we face. If so, investment in avoiding climate damages altogether would be more effective.

Geoengineering may be the cheapest and fastest option, and particularly beneficial if catastrophic impacts appeared unexpectedly, or if mitigation and adaptation could not prevent them. The downside of geoengineering is the potential for serious unintended consequences. These may be difficult to recognize prior to deployment and irreversible afterwards. Geoengineering also cannot overcome all the consequences of our greenhouse gas emissions. Ocean acidification and the effects of CO2 on biological systems, for example, would not necessarily be dealt with by geoengineering.

So what’s the best option for a well-informed society? No single approach can deal with all the risks of climate change but each of the proactive solutions (mitigation, adaptation, and geoengineering) can help if used as part of a thoughtful combination. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll delve in to each of the approaches in more detail and explore how they might work together.

4 Responses to “Society’s Options—The Broad Overview”

  1. Gretel Gambarelli Says:

    The “portfolio diversification approach” is likely to be the best choice… a little bit of everything to reduce the overall risk. But we need to make sure that the best type of investment is done depending on the local circumstances, for example: “wait and see” where impacts are still highly uncertain and probably minor; mitigation where it’s more cost-efficient; adaptation where impacts are easier to identify, no-regret options are clear and the risk of being counterproductive is minimal; geoengineereing with caution, after a lot of laboratory tests…

    When you delve in to adaptation, I would like to see a good discussion on the possible approaches to assess “how much does it cost” (at the project, country and global levels) and who should pay for it. Many thanks!

  2. Matthew Stepp Says:

    I think what is interesting to note is the tepidness of the offered response to the issue of climate change. Global climate warming is the result of a fierce alteration in the composition of our atmosphere brought on by a very untepid human interaction. With this in mind it seems that the only way to counteract these effects with any level of influence would be to react with the same intensity that caused it.

    Understandably there are possible consequences, such as loss of life, further degrading effects to the Earth, and economic loss, yet the overall consequence of doing nothing would bring the extreme of all of those. So it seems that a portfolio diversification approach, if taken literally, may short change us in the sense that with a little done here and there the overall change would be minimal. A considerable and immediate approach in mitigation and adaptation would bring about the highest probable chance to bring about change. The high risk of further harm to the Earth of “Wait-and-See” and geoengineering seem to discount them as viable options as well. Therefore it seems that the real debate should center on where to take mitigation (long term) and adaption (short term).

  3. Gretel Gambarelli Says:

    I also agree that the real action needs to be on adaptation and mitigation, without “wait and see” and geoengineering approaches shifting the attention away from adaptation and mitigation.

    This being said, we have to deal with uncertainty: as far as I know models are still contradicting each others on climate forecasts and impacts in a few areas of the world… if this uncertainty shouldn’t stop mitigation efforts, some caution on the adaptation side is necessary in well defined areas (to avoid being counterproductive).

    On the geoengineering side, I also fear that there could be additional harm to the Earth system, but reserach should be strongly encouraged anyway and we should “wait and see”… maybe in 30 years from now we’ll be much more confident in some of these innovative solutions and ready to give them a try. The pressure on Earth is not going to decrease whatever our efforts on mitigation and adaptation are: population growth and economic development are underway and these are also good news, it means people are slowly moving out of poverty. But it also means that we’re very unlikely to react with the necessary intensity to the changing climate. In a few decades we might have no choice but relying on geoengineering, so we’d better prepare for that possible situation.

    Finally, whatever we decide to do (adaptation, research on geoengineering, etc.), it’s financing that is still very uncertain… as I work on adaptation projects in developing countries I see many project managers struggling with funding. Now that the political momentum is right, we should take advantage of it and ask for the necessary resources to implement adaptation initiatives, funding clean energy and geoengineering research, etc. Without money, no way to do much in this world…

  4. Don Healy Says:

    For the mitigation option, here are a few ideas I wrote down some time ago concerning the necessity to consider nuclear options:


    With the price of gasoline now topping $3.00 per gallon it is time for Congress, the President, and the American public to get serious about formulating an energy policy to guide this nation away from dependence on foreign oil and into a situation where this nation can control its economic and energy destiny. The finger pointing and posturing now going on serves no useful purpose, and distracts us from the job at hand; that of creating a unified, concise energy policy.

    One must first recognize that fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) represent the 900-pound gorilla in the current energy equation. While wind power, and solar offer some help, at best they can meet only 10 to 20% of our needs, and cannot serve as a backbone because of their interruptible nature. Ethanol and biodeisel hold significant promise for a meeting a portion of our energy needs, and should be used where economically viable, but have limitations that preclude them from becoming our mainstay energy source. Ethanol needs to be mixed with gasoline to provide reasonable performance. Should we attempt to convert enough agricultural land into corn, sugarcane, rapeseed or other crop production to create the raw material necessary to domestically produce enough ethanol and bio-diesel to replace imported oil, we would then have to begin importing food to replace the loss of crop production in the United States. Given a choice, it would probably serve us better to guarantee our food supply and import some oil than to rely on foreign markets for our food supply.

    Nuclear power is the only source of energy that can replace the 900-pound gorilla of fossil fuels, and serve as the foundation of our energy infrastructure. Additionally, nuclear technology is the only technology that can provide uninterruptible energy without emitting CO2 and harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. Can it be done? France currently derives about 78% of its electrical energy needs from nuclear power plants; Belgium generates about 50% of its electricity from nuclear; Japan derives 30% from nuclear sources with the percentage increasing, and in the U.S. the figure is closer to 20%. China on the other hand currently operates 9 reactors with 5 more under construction; six more are in the planning stages and 19 more are proposed for the near future. However, in the U.S. we have not constructed a nuclear power plant since the 1980’s due to political concerns based primarily on safety and nuclear waste issues. These concerns are most valid. However, much has been learned in the intervening years. New nuclear technologies have been developed and refined and it is these new technologies that hold the greatest promise for the future. In fact, it is the new nuclear technologies that hold solutions to the problems created by the first generation of nuclear power plants.

    An article in the December 2005, Scientific American, Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste, by William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford spells out the potential for the new and makes important comparisons between the new and currently used nuclear systems. While recommending the full article, a list of bullet points from the article follows:

    Current Reactors (the old nuclear technology):

    •Current nuclear plants are thermal reactors driven by neutrons of relatively low speed.
    •Only 5% of the potential energy of the fuel is utilized; 95% is not useable under this technology and results large amounts of nuclear waste.
    •The half-life of the resulting spent fuel is ten thousand years or more.
    •The cooling systems run at very high pressure, increasing potential for ruptures and rapid loss of coolant, with potential for meltdown.
    •Storage of the nuclear waste is a major problem both practically and politically.
    •Supply of uranium is limited, and could be exhausted in a few hundred years or less.

    Advanced Fast-Neutron Reactor Technology (the new nuclear technology):
    •Existing nuclear waste can be used as fuel.
    •Nuclear waste for this technology is slightly over 1% of original volume.
    •The half-life of spent fuel is reduced to 300 years.
    •Coolant operates at atmospheric pressure, which greatly reduces the potential for accidental release.
    •Virtually any nuclear fuel, from nuclear plant waste to weapons grade plutonium can be used in the process: A true “swords to plow shares” proposition.
    •Using existing nuclear waste stores as fuel as well as uranium ore, we have sufficient fuel to meet our energy needs indefinitely.

    To quote the authors’ comments in the last paragraph of the article, “For the foreseeable future, the hard truth is this: Only nuclear power can satisfy humanity’s long-term energy needs while preserving the environment.”

    Other benefits of harnessing the new nuclear technologies come to mind: Should we, over time, convert much of our electrical generation capacity from fossil fuels to nuclear, we could use the excess capacity from the nuclear power plants to produce hydrogen with which to power fuel cells. Additionally, over time, our nation’s railroads could also be converted from diesel to electric, and if we were to embark upon a program to build and enhance our rapid transit systems within and between urban centers, we could further decrease the CO2 and toxic emissions currently emanating from our nation’s fossil fuel power plants and transportation systems. In addition to the concerns about global warming, our coal fired power plants and internal combustion engines spew out millions of tons of pollutants that are harmful to humans and the environment alike. Because coal contains small amounts of natural uranium, the burning of coal results in radioactive emissions that result in a quantifiable human mortality rate. Recent studies have also indicated that some of the warming in the Arctic may be the result of sooty particulate matter and smog that travels from China, India and other parts of Asia on prevailing winds into the Arctic regions. China, India and other parts of Asia are experiencing rapid economic growth, and are using power production systems, mainly coal, that pollute far more than systems we use here at home. As they continue to expand their economies rapidly, the problem will intensify.

    I would strongly urge Congress to develop a concise, unified energy policy that includes new technology nuclear power production facilities as the foundation of the nation’s energy infrastructure. Additionally, wind, solar, ethanol and bio-diesel should be used as supplemental systems to the greatest extent economically feasible. To avoid some of the problems encountered during the development of the first generation of nuclear power plants, the federal government should create a committee of the best domestic and foreign nuclear scientists to develop the safest and most cost effective and efficient prototypes that could be used by all friendly nations.

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