Introduction to Climate Change
Introduction and Overview
Now that we have learned about present climate change and mechanisms of the climate system, what we like to know is how the climate will change in the future and how this will affect living conditions where we have our homes (or our fields). We also want to know whether anything can or should be done about it, and if so, how we are going to go about doing it. Let's take these questions one at a time:
The main obstacle toward the task of doing anything regarding climate change is that the risks of doing nothing (that is, continuing on the present path), the benefits of doing something (that is, reducing carbon emissions), and the costs of the action (more expensive energy), are poorly defined and are by no means balanced in the same fashion between the various participants of the global community. The next most important obstacle is explosive population growth combined with the desire for a better standard of living. Yet another roadblock is that fact that the science of climate change still gives rather fuzzy answers to important questions, thus lending support to an approach of maximum convenience that insists we need to know more before we should act.
- How will climate change in the future? To answer this we need (a) experience about how climate changes in response to outside forces, and (b) computer programs which simulate the climate system, so we can run experiments by changing the forces to see what happens to the artificial system.
- How will the overall change affect the conditions where I live? This question is much more difficult to answer than the first. Again, there are two approaches. One is to chart past changes and see how the region of interest responded to the general change. The other is to make more complicated computer models, so that they can give more detailed information on regional change
- Can anything be done about the climate change that is proceeding? Well, inasmuch as the change is produced by human impact, reducing our impact presumably would reduce the rate of change. Also, we might think of ways to mitigate the impact by inventing ways to help neutralize it. However, it is highly unlikely we can reverse the change. The carbon cycle runs slowly, so it will take some hundreds to thousand of years to get it back into its original state. Also, attempts at mitigation might bring their own unforeseen problems.
- Assuming steps can be taken to minimize the impact of climate change, should we do anything about it? It depends on how we judge, as a global community, the risks of doing nothing versus continuing on the present path of carbon fuel burning, and how we judge the economic costs compared to the risks.
- If something needs to be done, how is the world going to agree to do it? First, of course, we would have to all agree that there is a problem and that the risks are unacceptable. Then we would have to agree on the costs associated with remedial action (such as cutting down on carbon emissions). Then we would have to agree on who is to bear what portions of those costs of action.