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Stopping Climate Change Becoming "Less Likely," says AAAS Chief International Officer
Even with an immediate, dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, stopping climate change is becoming "less and less likely," AAAS Chief International Officer Vaughan Turekian warned at a Nixon Center panel discussion.
The volume of climate change-inducing emissions already released into the atmosphere is already so high that Turekian is doubtful that greenhouse gas concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide will remain below 550 parts per million— a threshold identified by a 2007 International Panel on Climate Change as dangerous.
That level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, Turekian explained on 30 April at the policy institute's headquarters in Washington, D.C., could lead to a two-degree centigrade increase in global mean temperature, causing coastal flooding, agricultural damage, strained energy supplies and a global decrease in biodiversity.
Facing such grim prospects, he said, people and their governments must begin working not only to reduce emissions, but to deal with a level of climate-related damage that is at this point almost inevitable.
"Climate change is an inherently global issue in its causes, effects, and its eventual solutions," said Turekian, who holds a Ph.D. in atmospheric geology and has previously served as a special assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. "It's clearly going to be up to nations to work together to find a mitigation solution."
Although any emissions reduction could not, most likely, prevent the 2-degree rise in global temperature, Turekian emphasized that international and domestic programs capping greenhouse gas emissions are critical to prevent additional damage.
Turekian also urged policy makers and scientists to look into adaptation strategies such as moving development away from coastal regions or redesigning agriculture supply chains that can redistribute food to areas affected by drought or famine.
"You don't hear a lot about adaptation strategies because some consider them defeatist," said Turekian. "But the advantage of adaptation plans is, unlike emissions reductions, they can have a real effect without waiting for other nations to act."
Moderated by PFC Energy President and CEO Lew Watts who holds a Ph.D. in geology, the Nixon Center panel featured a diverse group of climate change experts including Turekian, who previously served as study director on climate change for the National Academy of Sciences; Raymond J. Kopp, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future; and Juliet Eilperin, a reporter at the Washington Post.
Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, said that while climate change issues have been incorporated into legislative agendas and political campaigns, its consequences have not been fully appreciated.
"Climate change has been moving steadily upward on Americans' public policy agenda and all three presidential candidates favor major changes in U.S. policy," said Saunders, who also serves as an associate publisher for the foreign policy journal The National Interest, published by the Nixon Center. "Yet key aspects of combating climate change, including the costs of various approaches, their impact, and the link between American policy and steps by other major emitters, have not been discussed either as widely or as deeply as they must be for our political system to take effective action."
Kopp, who holds a Ph.D. in economics, outlined a series of proposals developed by U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) that would reduce United States greenhouse gasses through emissions caps.
While the sponsors indicate that the measure would lead to a 1% cut in gross domestic product—a relatively small amount of money—Kopp said that the cut would disproportionately affect key sectors including the aluminum, steel, and chemical industries.
While he said that the Lieberman and Warner proposals could put the United States on the right track for addressing climate change, Kopp says the "non-trivial cost" of the measures "could prevent moderate politicians from signing onto the plan."
Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter who has written extensively on environmental issues and recently has been covering the presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), said that crafting a climate change policy is one of the most difficult issues for officials running for office.
Because many climate change programs could result in higher prices for citizens at the fuel pump, Eilperin said that the three major presidential candidates have had to carefully balance environmental programs with their economic consequences.
"The devil is in the details," Eilperin said, adding that some emissions reduction plans could raise gas prices by as much as 18 cents per gallon.
While she was unsure which party would occupy the White House next year, Eilperin said that that climate change will be one of the key issues for their term in office.
"People are desperate to find solutions that will save us," Eilperin said, "and the next president will have to deal with it."
Later in the event, Watts highlighted the need for increased funding for research and development to design climate change mitigation technologies. For example, Watts said that some companies have begun developing carbon capture and storage programs, but that there are major cost and technological barriers to be overcome.
While some programs show promise, Watts cautioned against relying on technology to solve the climate change problem.
"If we think technology will come to our rescue, we are taking a huge risk," Watts said, adding that it usually takes around 30 years for a breakthrough technology to be used throughout the energy industry. "Rather than technology-to-the-rescue, we should be urgently thinking of rescuing technology."
While the panelists cautioned against looking solely to researchers for a climate change panacea, Turekian praised scientists for communicating the science behind climate change to the public.
"Scientists have played a vital role in showing that humans have been affecting climate change," Turekian said. "While they may not be able to get us out of it, they will continue to play an important role."
19 May 2008