Global warming is accelerating, and although engineering the climate strikes most people as a bad idea, it is time to take it seriously.
Thanks to global warming, the Arctic icecap is rapidly melting, opening up access to massive natural resources and creating shipping shortcuts that could save billions of dollars a year. But there are currently no clear rules governing this economically and strategically vital region. Unless Washington leads the way toward a multilateral diplomatic solution, the Arctic could descend into armed conflict.
The United States can curb its own emissions and encourage energy efficiency and the development of clean-energy technology worldwide by rethinking carbon regimes.
Despite mounting evidence of the seriousness of climate change, the problem remains a low policy priority for most countries. Yet action is urgently needed. Emissions-trading regimes, which do too little to cap pollution, must be revised. And any new strategies must be customized to the particular needs and means of those states, developed and developing alike, that will have to implement them.
Global warming is real and needs to be addressed now. Rather than bash or mourn the defunct Kyoto Protocol, we should start taking the small steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions today that can make a big difference down the road. The private sector already understands this, and its efforts will be crucial in improving fossil fuel efficiency and developing alternative sources of energy. To harness business potential, however, governments in the developed world must create incentives, improve scientific research, and forge international partnerships.
This week, David G. Victor is answering questions submitted by readers about climate change and the potential role of geoengineering in counteracting the effects of global warming.
For many climate-change experts, the Copenhagen summit was something of a failure. In order to make real progress on pressing climate issues, policymakers must give up on a binding deal and begin to look outside the UN process.
With the costs of oil and coal rising, the United States needs to wean itself off fossil fuels, a goal best accomplished by making buildings and vehicles more efficient and switching to renewable power. The task might seem quixotic, but it actually will not require miracles -- just the widespread application of existing technology.
Climate change is one of today's most important and far-reaching policy challenges, destined to affect the planet's future in various ways for generations to come. Although research continues on its extent, its causes, and the appropriate responses, more than enough is already known for interested citizens to familiarize themselves with the situation and the relevant policy debates.
Climate Change: Crisis Guide. By the Council on Foreign Relations. 2008.
This interactive crisis guide offers a useful summary of scientific research on the causes of global climate change and an analysis of the practical issues surrounding efforts to devise solutions. It reviews the main sources of emissions and the economic and political issues involved in cutting them (a response known as "mitigation") and also discusses the many ways societies must ready themselves for a changing climate (a response known as "adaptation"). The site includes narratives by experts on the main topics as well as detailed links to all the major treaties, data sources, and a host of useful reports, including the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Nicolas Stern's The Economics of Climate Change.
Fixing global warming will eventually require a global effort, since the main greenhouse gases are all global pollutants: they affect the world's climate regardless of where they're emitted. Moreover, because the pollutants are tied to energy -- the lifeblood of industrial economies -- countries are wary of enacting costly regulations unless their competitors make a comparable effort. This logic has led many to call for a global treaty, and the most visible diplomatic moves are pointed in that direction. The United Nations-sponsored Bali Road Map, crafted in 2007, lays out a framework for international negotiations that are slated to finish at a meeting in Copenhagen in late 2009. Since the road map itself can be hard to parse, the Pew Center's summary of it is extremely useful. Pay particular attention to the deal struck between industrialized countries (which have caused most global warming to date and have the greater financial and administrative capabilities to do something about it) and developing countries (which are responsible for about half of the world's emissions and will soon account for much more).
Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World. Edited by Joseph E. Aldy and Robert N. Stavins. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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The Bali Road Map exists because the time has come to plan a replacement for the Kyoto treaty on global warming, which will expire in 2012. Not everyone, however, thinks that a binding global treaty is the best strategy. This collection explores a wide range of possible architectures for an effective climate-change agreement. Some of the authors defend a policy anchored, like Kyoto, in strict targets and timetables for regulating emissions because such an agreement would allow for a global system of emissions-credits trading. Others want to focus not on the quantity of emissions each country generates, but rather on how hard each country tries to control them -- measured, say, by the level of carbon taxes and other policies. Still others argue that global efforts are the wrong way to tackle the issue because they require too many countries with widely disparate interests to reach an agreement, and that better strategies could start with clubs of key members, such as the United States, China, India, and the European Union. A successor volume with the same editors, timed for the Copenhagen conference, will appear in 2009.
Achieving deep cuts in emissions will require planning and building a new kind of world energy system. New technologies are needed so that fossil fuels can be burned for energy while yielding much lower emissions, and alternative systems may eventually be deployed that do not rely on fossil fuels at all. The energy system, overall, must also become a lot more efficient. With automobiles, for example -- from the oil wellhead to the eventual movement of wheels on the road -- perhaps 90 percent of the useful energy in a barrel of oil is wasted. These two studies outline the scale of the challenge and soberly assess the rate at which the system can change. The World Energy Outlook is published every year by the International Energy Agency; the 2008 edition deals with the oil markets and climate change, whereas the 2007 edition focuses on China and India, and the 2009 edition will center on the Copenhagen meeting. The National Petroleum Council report is the most recent independent and comprehensive look at the world's energy system, and it places special emphasis on the implications for U.S. policy. Among its conclusions is the need to integrate energy policy into trade, economic, environmental, security, and foreign policies.
"Geoengineering the Climate: History and Prospect." By David Keith. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 25 (2000): pp. 245-84.
"Geoengineering Earth's Climate." By Ken Caldeira. Google Tech Talk, January 7, 2008.
What should happen if politicians fail to address the rise in emissions and the climate turns out to be very sensitive to the buildup of greenhouse gases? One answer is that societies must adapt, and under any scenario, quite a lot of adaptation will be needed. It might also be wise to develop an emergency option that could blunt some of climate change's catastrophic effects should they appear -- an option known as geoengineering, which could entail spritzing the stratosphere with reflective particles to cool the planet or other kinds of technological intervention. Although now a bit out of date, David Keith's 2000 essay remains the single best summary of the geoengineering idea. Keith outlines the major scientific concepts involved and offers a useful taxonomy for the many different types of geoengineering that have been proposed. He shows that the United States and the Soviet Union both had programs for weather modification during the Cold War that became starting points for thinking about engineering the climate, sparking discussions that did not lead to a sustained research effort but were part of a broader effort to master nature. Geoengineering is not a new idea, in other words, but an old one that is back in vogue today because some see it as a last-ditch way to address a climatic crisis. It raises tricky problems for diplomacy because no norms exist to govern its use and because, as with emissions, unilateral actions by individual nations could have global consequences. For a discussion of some of the research on geoengineering that has been done since Keith's article was published, watch Ken Caldeira's Google Tech Talk lecture.