In my previous summary on what we know about climate change, I wrote that there are three main responses: mitigation, adaptation and geoengineering. Of these, we hear the most about mitigation. Cap-and-trade policies, carbon-emission reduction treaties and development of alternative sources of energy are all efforts to mitigate how much carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere, the primary cause of global warming.
While mitigation is a worthwhile long-term goal, it cannot be our only pursuit. Even if we were to completely stop all carbon emissions tomorrow, the damage is already done. Greenhouse gases will take some time to clear out of the atmosphere, so global warming will still continue for some time. How feasible is halting all carbon emissions, anyway? We’d essentially have to ask countries like the United States to change their culture and infrastructure overnight, while making countries like India and China halt all development. That’s not at all realistic, or likely to happen.
It seems clear that some kind of climate change will occur — beyond the damage that has already been done — because total mitigation just isn’t possible. The questions are: How severe will it be, what will the specific effects be, and who will they most impact? That’s why we should devote an equal amount of our resources — or even more resources — to the other two approaches: adaptation and geoengineering.
There is a fourth response that some advocate, which is restoration of damaged areas. I’m not sure how that would work. How can we rebuild a glacier? We can reduce deforestation and plant new trees, however, and we should support all efforts to do so. But that cannot be our primary response.
Since we don’t know exactly what the effects of climate change will be in different areas of the world, it’s difficult to put adaptive solutions in place now. But we can certainly start preparing by researching likely outcomes and developing effective solutions. Research areas should include energy, obviously, but also agriculture/food production and water desalination, to name a couple of low-lying fruit. Private businesses could play a large part in this R&D effort, as long as they are incentivized to do so.
A number of geoengineering proposals, from the feasible to the outlandish, are already out there. These range from building huge artificial “trees” to act as carbon sinks to spraying sea water or even aerosols into the atmosphere to deflect energy into space. Again, more research is called for, as the risks and benefits of each proposal are still unclear, and other workable solutions may present themselves. Some would argue that the side effects of any geoengineering effort are unknown and potentially risky. True, but so are the side effects of doing nothing. If the situation grows desperate enough due to our inaction, then desperate solutions will be employed, by somebody.
In any event, it seems that the best use of our resources is on research and development in the areas of adaptation and geoengineering, as well as — or even surpassing — carbon-emission reduction. The governments and corporations that invest in these areas will be ahead of the curve when the full effects of climate change begin to manifest.
Ideas and facts for this article came from: