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Responding to climate change predictions: what if anything can be done about it

Short answer

We have seen that the world’s climate is changing, in part at least, because of the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide from fossil fuel. Humans have a choice that must be made soon; we will either mitigate the problems of climate change by a massive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or adapt by changing our life style. Mitigation is the stabilization of the climate by the removal of some or of all the fossil fuel derived atmospheric carbon dioxide from the energy equation. Adaptation is action taken to cope with increased rainfall, higher temperatures, scarce water, and more frequent storms. Adaptation may need to tackle present problems or to anticipate changes in the future, aiming to reduce risk and damage cost-effectively, and perhaps even exploiting potential benefits. Somewhere in the middle of these two alternatives we will find an optimal path. It will depend on many factors and different approaches. Success will require an increase in available technology as well as shifts in the culture of people.

Detailed answer

Some of the ways that we can reduce our emissions of fossil fuel carbon dioxide and mitigate climate change are presented below

Immediately implementable with several tangible benefits

  • Increase the efficiency of vehicles and reduce the use of these vehicles.
  • Build more energy efficient buildings and equip them with energy efficient appliances.

Available technologies with some added costs

  • Increase the efficiency of coal and gas power plants, for example, by combining the production and use of both heat and power.
  • Use governmental incentives to improve the efficiency of existing technologies and to develop new clean energy technologies.
  • Establish policies such as a carbon tax or carbon cap and trade legislation to reduce and eventually stop the emission of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Available technologies with some lead time required

  • Develop wind, photovoltaic and geothermal power as well as fuel from biomass and other newer technologies.

Potential technologies with decadal or multi-decadal time lines

  • Develop and construct new and safe nuclear power plants.
  • Continue to develop the technology to capture and sequester carbon in order to continue to use fossil fuel until the above-mentioned sources of renewable energy are developed.
  • Encourage the development of new and as yet un-thought of technologies to provide efficient and environmentally neutral energy sources.

The cost estimates of implementing mitigation measures or adapting to climate change vary a great deal. First, scientific knowledge about the physical and ecological damages due to climate change is a work in progress. Scientists have no accurate way to determine how rapidly future GHGs will accumulate in the atmosphere or how sensitive biological systems will be to increases in the concentration of those gases. We do not know at what GHG concentrations “tipping points” or catastrophic climate events may occur. It is difficult to estimate how willing or able people will be to adapt to new climate conditions. Finally it is virtually impossible to put a value on damage that will be incurred in the future.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Global climate change. OpenStax CNX. Sep 14, 2009 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10704/1.4
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