Climate Change Series: Conclusion
by Douglas Foy and Matthias Ruth
As we bring our series Climate Change. Challenges. Solutions. to a close, moderators Douglas Foy and Matthias Ruth offer their reflections on the mounting challenges presented by climate change, and the depth and breadth of the solutions that will be required in the coming years.
Douglas Foy is president of Serrafix Corp. and former president of the Conservation Law Foundation. As a super-secretary in Governor Mitt Romney’s cabinet, Doug oversaw transportation, housing, environment, and energy agencies, with combined annual capital budgets of $5 billion.
Twenty years ago, when I started raising the alarm about the dangers of climate change, I thought of it primarily as a legacy issue. Climate change would affect our children and grandchildren. It wasn’t fair that they would have to suffer the consequences of our greed, profligacy and shortsightedness.
Today, it’s increasingly clear that I was wrong. Yes, climate change is a legacy issue that will affect generations to come, but it is also an issue that directly threatens generationstoday. We’re already experiencing the first wave of its impacts and we can expect increasingly severe effects in the near — not distant — future.
Just in the last year, the U.S. has faced severe drought in the Midwest, brutal heat waves in the Southwest, and the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast. Though coverage was trumped by the Boston Marathon bombings two weeks ago, central Indiana was inundated by up to 5 inches of rain in 24 hours, causing widespread flooding throughout the region.
Going forward, the presumption should be that any extreme weather event is caused or exacerbated by climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions. The burden of proof — not mere assertion, but proof based on hard, scientific evidence — should now be on those who would deny the reality and impacts of climate change.
We need to redouble our efforts at mitigation, at rapidly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and replacing them as quickly as possible, while building a zero-emissions global economy. But even if we could magically eliminate all new greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, we still face centuries of warming temperatures, extreme weather and rising sea levels.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there’s a lot of thinking and talking about adaptation.
For example, how will coastal cities deal with future super-storms and flooding? Will Boston have to build a barrier across the Harbor Islands to protect the city and surrounding coastal and riverfront communities? If fortification is not possible, will we need to retreat to higher ground, abandoning huge tracts of low-lying land like East Boston and the Back Bay to the sea? And, what about cities that don’t have higher ground to retreat to like Miami?
That the questions are being asked is a good sign, but so far there has been little action. Coastal communities will be hammered by the effects of climate change within the next decade. The time to begin adapting is now.
Matthias Ruth is a professor at Northeastern University with appointments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is a founder of Ecological Economics and a founding co-editor-in-chief of the journal Urban Climate.
For too long, too much of the climate change debate has focused on silver bullet solutions when what we need are multiple solutions.
Because climate change is a global problem, there is a strong sentiment that it must be solved through a global accord (a silver bullet solution). However, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen 50 percent since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which recently expired. Monitoring and enforcement of any global accord is difficult — even more so as countries embrace trade globalization, which has its own perverse incentives that increase greenhouse gas emissions.
We’ve had endless discussions about using nuclear power to replace fossil fuels as our dominant energy source. But 60 years after the first experiments, nuclear fission faces ongoing cost and safety challenges. Current estimates suggest that the alterative, nuclear fusion, will not be commercially viable until mid-century at the earliest.
The building of dikes and other hard structures to protect against sea-level rise generates another pair of issues: Physical flood control may undermine emergency preparedness and ultimately leave populations more vulnerable when the barriers fail.
Technological leapfrogging, which would have entire continents transition to using cellphones, is another oft-cited potential solution from the telecommunications sector. But more often than not, new technology results in greater consumption, which in turn increases greenhouse gas emissions.
The fundamental reality is that many solutions are required for a problem that has many sources.
Local and regional action in support of a transition to a carbon-free society is in the best interest of the local environment, local businesses and local communities. It is perfectly consistent with the goal of stabilizing global climate. Significant local and regional actions can be taken even when global agreement is not possible.
Replacing fossil fuels requires an “all of the above” approach that makes greater use of renewable energy sources and makes efficiency a priority.
Adaptation to protect cities is more than building bigger and stronger dikes. It includes more robust emergency preparedness systems, as well as hundreds of minor infrastructure adaptations like sensor-operated lighting, pre-programmed thermostats for reduced night-time energy consumption, siding and roofing materials that serve as solar collectors, and better insulation of buildings.
In contrast to technological leapfrogging, behavioral leapfrogging is little-studied and thus, hard to accomplish. The list of potential changes in default settings and signals for behavioral change is long: Designing buildings with attractive staircases and with elevators out of immediate sight to get people walking up a few flights. Placing energy consumption monitors where, in real time, consumption, emissions and costs are displayed to building users. Certifying the energy performance of buildings much like we do for cars via MPG ratings.
We have barely begun to explore — let alone implement — the many ways that small changes in behavior can result in big changes in energy use.
Instead of waiting for the experts and the powerful to agree, we all can do something about climate change. The sooner we get started — acting where we can with the power we have — the better.