Climate Change

Solutions: Reduce Atmospheric CO2 Levels, Adapt to Climate Change Impacts

Related Problems: Money in Politics, Fake News & Disinformation

DRAFT IN PROGRESS, updated: Apr. 1, 2017

What’s the problem?

Human-generated missions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases (called greenhouse gases, or GHGs) have accelerated the natural process of global warming. As these gases are emitted through the burning of oil, natural gas, and coal, they become more concentrated in the atmosphere, causing the global average temperature to increase. The rise in temperature sets off a chain reaction of climate changes that put at risk the economic stability and security of communities throughout the US and around the world.

There is a secondary problem. Legitimate doubt about climate science has turned into political refusal to recognize the problem and the economic opportunities it presents [see detail]. Every day of delay in producing emissions reduction policies at national and international levels is another day lost in the effort to minimize the impacts of climate change and another day in which US companies, without the assistance they need from the government, lose opportunity to develop markets for emissions-reduction and climate adaptation technologies. While many Americans actually believe that climate change is real, its life-altering consequences have not, somehow, resonated at the local level sufficiently to make it a priority issue in the voting booth. It will be important going forward to clarify the local impacts of climate change – and the benefits of adapting to climate change – on jobs and family health.

What is being done now?

There are typically two options for responding to climate change: mitigation, which involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and adaptation, which could require a wide range of actions designed to adapt population centers from the pending changes. Reducing or eliminating emissions of greenhouse gases can minimize the impacts of climate change, but because concentrations of carbon dioxide will linger for centuries, many communities will still need to prepare adaptation plans for changes that are nevertheless likely to occur.

Multiple segments of American society are already engaged in responding to the threats posed by climate change. Several national organizations, including the military community and the insurance industry, have recognized that parts of the US and other regions of the planet are beginning to experience flooding, droughts, and other events consistent with those predicted by climate change models. In 2014, DoD released its 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, the latest in a decade of reports from the military community to define and prepare for specific threats posed by climate change. In this report, DoD stated that without mitigation and adaptive measures, it anticipates a greater need for humanitarian and military action around the world. DoD believes that population centers will experience a steady increase in competition for food, water, and other natural resources, which could also lead to greater human migration and more armed conflicts that may or may not involve US personnel and leadership.

In 2008, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), representing the industry that is responsible for damages created by coastal flooding and storms, published initial response to climate change, stating in its first sentence, “Global warming and the associated climate change represent a significant challenge for Americans.” NAIC has since followed up with several initiatives designed to help the industry and industry regulators adapt to climate change impacts on their business.

According to research from the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown University, 19 state governments had finalized adaptation plans or currently had other planning efforts underway in response to climate change threats. In 24 states, 59 city or county governments were also examining how they will respond to climate change impacts in their areas.

Numerous other businesses, not-for-profit organizations, and individuals are acting to implement a wide range of climate change solutions. Two such groups are the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a Vermont-based not-for-profit that assists local communities to build resilience to climate-related disruptions, and Solar City, the solar energy company that is part of Elon Musk’s vision for a sustainable future, are taking diverse but productive paths in response to climate changes. On a smaller scale, Danielle Vogel, owner of Glen’s Garden Markets in Washington, DC, is seeking to make change “one bite at a time” through her climate change-inspired grocery store. And Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project offers leadership training for individuals from across the country who are interested in coordinating activities and advocating for a response to climate change in their communities.

What still needs to be done?

The debate over climate change at the federal level needs to shift away from the politics of the oil and gas industry to a serious discussion of how best to balance emissions reductions and adaptation policies with less certain predictions regarding climate change impacts on society. The most effective response requires a substantial economic and cultural shift away from the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. If left solely to market forces, the market will shift too slowly and emissions will not be reduced quickly enough, resulting in more severe climate change impacts.

At the same time, politicians need to embrace a new energy economy in such a way that it gives full support to US alternative energy companies. Companies that generate electricity through solar, wind, and nuclear energy technologies should be best positioned to lead the way in innovation and in growing the global market. For this reason, new federal policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions and encourage the use of alternative sources of energy is needed to encourage a faster turn in the market.

On the global level, the US can still be a leader on this issue but its opportunity may be slipping away. The US should ratify the Paris Agreement that was hailed as a milestone when final language was adopted in December 2015. More than one year later, it has been signed by the US and 193 other nations, but the US is not obligated to abide by the Agreement until the Senate ratifies it. The Agreement achieved consensus on a global emissions reduction goal, and allows each nation to set its own emissions reduction targets. The negotiators anticipated that there would be several rounds of target-adjustments until the global emissions goal is reach. The active leadership of the United States is vital to sustain any chance that the global reduction goal will be achieved.

Progress Updates

Scientists Accurately Predict 2016 CO2 Levels

A team of scientists was able to predict with substantial accuracy the highest and lowest levels of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and when they would occur. Writing on the website CarbonBrief, ...
Read More

Washington Makes Climate Moves

The nation's capital is taking climate change seriously - in the mayor's office, if not on Capitol Hill. In a letter to her constituents today, Mayor Muriel Bowser reviewed the District's ...
Read More

What’s At Stake

Economic Stability

Virtually every local economy will be affected by climate change, and some may already be feeling its effects. The diverse impacts of climate change will affect jobs, the availability of foods we buy at the grocery store or put on the table by hunting and fishing, the cost of electricity, the availability and quality of the water we drink, and much more.

Public Health

Climate change is expected to have several adverse impacts on human health. While the following health issues will be felt more in poorer countries, we should expect to experience them here in the US, though to a lesser extent. Specifically, climate change is expected to result in

  • more heat-related deaths and illnesses, especially among vulnerable populations like the elderly and the very young.
  • increased deaths and injuries from more frequent wildfires.
  • more frequent asthma attacks in people who suffer from asthma, likely due to a longer growing season for ragweed and other pollens.
  • increased number of incidents of food-borne and water-borne diseases, and possibly vector-borne diseases like West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease.
National Security

In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report (QDR), the Department of Defense stated, “Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment. … climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.” The QDR points out that climate change-related impacts were already being observed around the world, and that intelligence analyses suggested that these changes could lead to further international destabilization. Citing climate change contributions to poverty, food and water shortages, the spread of disease, and increases in mass migration, the report warns that climate change may indirectly exacerbate instability and armed conflict in already-weakened nations and regions of the world.

The QDR also expresses concern over the impact of climate change on military facilities and capabilities, noting in particular that in 2008, the National Intelligence Council determined that more than 30 US military installations faced risks from sea level rise.

Economic and Technological Leadership

The potential impacts of climate change and the deep concerns of much of the world’s population have created an opportunity for the United States to seize the lead in creating new markets for new technologies and new industries. Innovation and market disruption have historically been two driving characteristics of the nation’s economic strength that have often been aided by federal policies.

The Problem

Since the 1980s, scientists have documented a series of accelerated changes to the earth’s climate that have been caused by human activities that produce emissions of large amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs), and in particular, carbon dioxide (CO2). These climate changes will impact communities across the United States and around the world. Different regions will experience – and in some cases, may already be experiencing – potentially destabilizing effects such as frequent and prolonged interruptions to commerce, food and water shortages, power outages, higher costs for electricity, and increased risks to human health.

Global Warming & CO2

Global warming is so central to the issue of climate change that the two terms are sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably. The accelerated warming of the earth that has so alarmed scientists is the most significant indicator of climate change because it is also the source of the many changes to the climate that follow. If great enough, an increase in the average global temperature can, for example, alter plant and animal life that require a specific temperature range to thrive, and it can modify water evaporation and melting cycles so that sea levels rise and extreme weather events become more prevalent.

CO2 Concentrations Spike, source: NASA
CO2 Concentrations Spike, source: NASA

Accelerated warming is linked to human-generated emissions of carbon dioxide, which is a primary greenhouse gas. The presence in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide help to trap sunlight and keep the earth warm. This is known as the greenhouse effect. For more than 400,000 years, according to the best available knowledge, carbon dioxide maintained a relatively stable concentration in the atmosphere. Concentrations of greenhouse gases, and in particular, carbon dioxide, however, have risen dramatically since the mid-1800s – right around the time when societies began to burn fossil fuels to power the engines of industrialization.

The sudden spike in carbon dioxide concentrations noted in the graph from NASA is well above the normal fluctuations of the last 420,000 years. The annual average concentration of CO2 in 2007 (“current level” in the graph) was 383 parts per million (ppm). In 2016, the annual average concentration exceeded 400 ppm for the first time.

Global Temperature and CO2 Concentration, source: NOAA
Global Temperature and CO2 Concentration, source: NOAA

As CO2 concentrations have risen, so too has the global annual average surface temperature. Since 1880, the global annual average temperature has increased by 0.85°C (1.53°F) with two-thirds of that increase occurring since 1975. The warmest 20 years on record have occurred since 1980. The global average temperature increased about 1.4° F since the early 20th century.

According to the 5th Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was published in 2014, there is now more evidence supporting the human role in global warming than in 2007 when the IPCC drafted the 4th Assessment. The IPCC states that it is “extremely likely” that human activity is the “dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”. The term “extremely likely” has a very specific meaning in this context. It means that the probability that this statement is correct is greater than 95%.

Looking to the future, the IPCC reports with high confidence that more human-generated CO2 will remain in the atmosphere, resulting in a greater increase in the annual global temperature. Four climate models estimate an increase for the years 2046 to 2065 of 0.4°C up to 2.6°C. For the period from 2081-2100, projections range from 0.3°C to 4.8°C. The term “high confidence” means that while the IPCC scientists believe the evidence supporting this conclusion is robust (the type, amount, quality, and consistency of the evidence is strong), enough uncertainties remain that there was only medium agreement with the conclusion.

Impacts of Global Warming

As the earth continues to warm, the higher temperatures will generate a chain reaction of other environmental changes that will contribute to changes in climate. The challenge for researchers to accurately predict these changes is substantial. With each new IPCC assessment report, however, scientists have improved the assumptions that drive their predictive models. Beginning with the 3rd Assessment published in 2000, scientists have used a sophisticated set of rules to characterize their conclusions and the uncertainties surrounding them in order to aid policymakers in their deliberations on how to respond. The table below, adapted from the IPCC’s Climate Change 2013 Summary for Policymakers, identifies the likelihood of further changes for a number of climate changes. The uncertainties reflected in the table indicate just how difficult it is to make effective policy to combat climate change.

ImpactEarly 21st CenturyLate 21st Century
Warmer and/or fewer cold days and nights over most land areas LikelyVirtually certain
Warm spells/heat waves. Frequency and/or duration increases over most land areas Not formally assessedVery likely
Heavy precipitation events.
Increase in the frequency, intensity, and/or amount of heavy precipitation
Likely over many land areas Very likely over most of the mid-latitude land masses and over wet tropical regions
Increases in intensity and/or duration of drought
Low confidenceLikely (medium confidence) on a regional to global scale
Increases in intense tropical cyclone activityLow confidenceMore likely than not in the Western North Pacific and North Atlantic
Increased incidence and/or magnitude of extreme high sea levelLikelyVery Likely
Effects on Human Society

Climate change has caused such heated debate over the last quarter century because the projected changes to earth’s climate will impact the way we live, but we can’t be 100% certain of how dramatic those impacts will be. It is safe to say, however, that few population centers will be unaffected by any of the changes that are anticipated.

The Causes

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

While global warming is part of the natural climate cycle, the accelerated warming we are seeing today is the result of human-generated emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. More than 25 years of scientific studies and ever-more advanced computer modeling of future climate scenarios have confirmed that as concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere, global temperatures will increase at an accelerated rate sufficient to bring about other changes to the climate this century.

The burning of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal is the chief source of carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary gas involved in accelerating the greenhouse effect that leads to global warming. Human produced methane emissions come primarily from livestock farming and leakage from natural gas systems.

Alternative Views

Climate Change Isn’t Real: No Action Necessary

Many people believe that government does not need to take action on climate change. This view originated in the premise that the science that “proved” climate change was happening – and the media that reported on it – were wrong. Decades ago, when climate change was first reported, these climate change doubters had a strong basis for their skepticism. In the mid-1970s, scientists originally concluded that the earth was cooling and we were heading into a new ice age. This “doomsday” story was splashed across the major news outlets of that time. When scientists reassessed the data and determined by the late 1980s that the world was warming instead, skeptics accused the scientists of being wrong again and the left-leaning media of being too gullible and eager to promote end-of-the-world scenarios.

In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its First Assessment, a report on climate change that concluded that human-generated emissions of greenhouse gases had accelerated the natural process of global warming and would result in dramatic changes in the 21st century. Skepticism persisted, but as scientists continued to gather new data and refine predictive models that have continued to support the conclusion that human activity has accelerated climate change, the debate became less about truth and science and more about political victory. Indeed, in an influential memo written for the GOP in 2002, political consultant Frank Luntz included the following statement as he urged Republicans to shift their language and how they framed their position on climate change and other issues. Text was bolded here for emphasis.

“It can be helpful to think of environmental (and other) issues in terms of ‘story.’ A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.”

While the evidence supporting climate change has grown, opposition claims have slowly shifted from denial of global warming to denial that human activity is a significant contributor to global warming and, for some, to baseless claims that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the media or even the Chinese government. For a period of time in 2014, many who previously and vehemently claimed the science was wrong deferred when asked their position on climate change by saying, “I am not a scientist.” In an interview (fast forward to the 20:00 mark in the interview) with the Cincinnati Enquirer, when pressed on the issue, Senator Mitch McConnell made this reply to a question about his belief in climate change: “I am not a scientist. I am interested in protecting Kentucky’s economy.”

Another prominent climate change skeptic, Senator James Inhofe, admitted during a 2012 television interview, that he once believed in climate change until he learned “how much it would cost” to minimize its impacts by eliminating the use of fossil fuels.

Much of the opposition to federal action on climate change comes from political conservatives who want a smaller federal government and from the fossil fuels industry that sees efforts to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases as a threat to their business. In a study published in Politics and Policy in 2015, author Sondre Båtstrand found that in a cross-national study of nine conservative political parties, only the US Republican Party denies that climate change is related to human activity. Båtstrand’s research found that the GOP has a three-fold reason for opposing climate change measures:

(1) a more pro-business orientation; (2) a greater opposition to the extension of governmental activities and regulations; and (3) a less innovative and more cautious posture concerning attempts to ameliorate societal problems. (Dunlap and Gale 1974, 675)

In a different study by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the website ThinkProgress.org notes that the study found 182 climate change deniers in the 114th Congress in 2016, and all were Republicans.

Climate Change May Be a Net Benefit

Coming soon

Solving the Problem

Given the scope of the problem, we do not expect to capture all of the efforts underway to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts, but we are pleased to share what we have learned so far. We place the solutions into two large categories – Mitigation, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and Adaptation, which, as you might expect, includes mechanisms for adapting to the many impacts of climate change. We invite you to review the details and rank the solutions as you prefer, or suggest another solution that we have not yet covered.

In progress – to be uploaded upon completion

RationalWiki, Global Warming page, http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Global_warming#Denial_tactics

Northwest Earth Institute, Change is Our Choice: Creating Climate Solutions. https://nwei.org/discussion-course-books/climate/

“These NASA innovations could cut carbon emissions and save airlines billions”, Chelsea Harvey, Washington Post, January 7, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/01/07/these-nasa-innovations-could-cut-carbon-emissions-and-save-airlines-billions

Båtstrand, S. (2015), More than Markets: A Comparative Study of Nine Conservative Parties on Climate Change. Politics and Policy, 43: 540–541. doi:10.1111/polp.12122. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/polp.12122/abstract

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, The Paris Agreement, http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php

2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, Department of Defense, http://www.acq.osd.mil/ie/download/CCARprint.pdf

P. Wayne, “How much will sea levels rise in the 21st Century?” – basic level, Skeptical Science, update July 2015, accessed January 13, 2017. https://www.skepticalscience.com/sea-level-rise-predictions.htm

Pidcock, Roz, “Analysis: What global emissions in 2016 mean for climate change goals”, Climate Brief, November 15, 2016. https://www.carbonbrief.org/what-global-co2-emissions-2016-mean-climate-change

Ellingboe, K. and Ryan Koronowski, “Most Americans disagree with their congressional representative on climate change”, ThinkProgress.org, March 8, 2016. https://thinkprogress.org/most-americans-disagree-with-their-congressional-representative-on-climate-change-95dc0eee7b8f#.1ddcc7ojp

Lunt, Frank, “The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America”, 2002, pg. 132, http://www.motherjones.com/files/LuntzResearch_environment.pdf. Accessed February 9, 2017.