National Academy of Sciences on Climate Risk Management

The USA's National Academy of Sciences National Research Council (NRC) was ordered by Congress several years ago to offer “action-oriented advice” on how the nation should be reacting to the potential consequences of climate change. America's Climate Choices, the final in a series of five reports, was recently published.  The committee that authored the report included not only renowned scientists and engineers but also economists, business leaders, an ex-governor, a former congressman, and other policy experts.  The press release summarizes the report's basic scientific conclusions:

"The new report reaffirms that the preponderance of scientific evidence points to human activities -- especially the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- as the most likely cause for most of the global warming that has occurred over the last several decades.  This trend cannot be explained by natural factors such as internal climate variability or changes in incoming energy from the sun."

Kind of a no-brainer there, as Skeptical Science readers know.  The real value of the report is in its recommendations to policymakers regarding how to adddress the risks posed by that global warming and associated climate change.  The NRC provides a Report in Brief which summarizes why immediate action would be wise:

• The sooner that serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions proceed, the lower the risks posed by climate change, and the less pressure there will be to make larger, more rapid, and potentially more expensive reductions later.

• Some climate change impacts, once manifested, will persist for hundreds or even thousands of years, and will be difficult or impossible to undo. In contrast, many actions taken to respond to climate change could be reversed or scaled back, if they some how prove to be more stringent than actually needed.

• Every day around the world, major investments are being made in equipment and infrastructure that can “lock in” commitments to more greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come. Getting the relevant incentives and policies in place now will provide crucial guidance for these investment decisions.

• Many of the actions that could be taken to reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts are common sense investments that will offer protection against natural climate variations and extreme events.

Although it doesn't propose any specific policies for achieving the necessary greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the report does highlight the key mechanism: a carbon pricing system.

"The most effective way to amplify and accelerate current state, local, and private sector efforts, and to minimize overall costs of meeting a national emissions reduction target, is with a comprehensive, nationally-uniform price on CO2 emissions, with a price trajectory sufficient to drive major investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies. In addition, strategically-targeted complementary policies are needed to ensure progress in key areas of opportunity where market failures and institutional barriers can limit the effectiveness of a carbon pricing system."

The Full Report, which is well worth reading, addresses the issue of uncertainty and how we should address it from a risk management standpoint:

"Given the inherent complexities of the climate system, and the many social, economic, technological, and other factors that affect the climate system, we can expect always to be learning more and to be facing uncertainties regarding future risks. This is not, however, a reason for inaction. Rather, the challenge for society is to acknowledge these uncertainties and respond accordingly, just as is done in many areas of life. For example, people buy home insurance to protect against potential losses, and businesses plan contingently for a range of possible future economic conditions."

Indeed, while "skeptics" often tout uncertainty as a reason to delay action, uncertainty is a double-edged sword; it is possible that future climate-related risks will be less serious than current projections indicate, but it is also possible they will be even more serious. Uncertainty is not our friend, or a reason for inaction.

Unfortunately, but predictably, U.S. politicians are behaving like, well, politicians.  Those who oppose carbon pricing for ideological or political reasons (primarily Republicans) immediately sought excuses to ignore the report's findings.  For example, Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX):

“I see nothing substantive in this report that adds to the knowledge base necessary to make an informed decision about what steps — if any — should be taken to address climate change”

Of course you don't, Mr. Barton.  And of course Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) followed suit:

"What is clear and irrefutable is that the [academy's] proposals to address climate change would impose massive costs without meaningful benefits."

This is a rather odd statement, considering that the NRC report did not propose any specific policies to address climate change.  It appears that Mr. Inhofe believes that any policy involving a carbon pricing mechanism would "impose massive costs without meaningful benefits."  But of course we know this is untrue.  The benefits of carbon pricing outweigh the costs, which are relatively small, several times over.  Indeed this myth is very popular amongst "skeptics", as we have had to debunk it when previously propagated by David Montgomery, John Christy, Richard Lindzen, Christopher Monckton, and many Congressional Republicans.  In fact there is a consensus amongst economists with climate expertise that the "skeptics" are wrong on this issue.

And so we see the usual pattern of scientific experts advising that urgent action is both necessary and beneficial, but a minority political party having enough power to obstruct any progress, placing their ideology above the welfare of the nation and planet.  Nevertheless, the NRC report contains a great deal of good information and is well worth reading for those of us who prefer a reality-based view of the world to an ignorant, ideological view.

Follow the links below for related titles from the America's Climate Change reports.

Watch the America's Climate Choices videos.

Posted by dana1981 on Tuesday, 17 May, 2011

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