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Science and Policy Reports

Impacts and Costs of Climate Change for the United States

Three recent reports have examined the impacts of climate change in the United States, the economic costs of climate change, and the costs of delay. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment (May 2014), issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, The Cost of Delaying Action to Stem Climate Change (July 2014), a report prepared by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, and Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States (2014), a report sponsored by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Thomas Steyer, the retired founder of a hedge fund. Each of these reports examines impacts that are currently being experienced as a result of observed climate change, their costs, the costs of further delay in action to stem emissions of greenhouse gases, and the need for aggressive action now both to adapt to the changing climate and to mitigate future impacts.

Tipping Points

Tipping points, nonlinear impacts of climate change, e.g., methane explosions as permafrost melts in the Arctic, radical shifts in the flow of ocean currents, sea level rise, mass extinctions, etc., are the specific topics of two recent reports, Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises (2013), issued by the National Research Council, and Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems (2009), issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF) addresses research and educational needs.

The National Research Council report concludes that “tipping points” – thresholds beyond which major and rapid changes occur when crossed – that lead to abrupt changes in the climate system are inevitable and that abrupt changes in climate have occurred over Earth’s history in periods as short as a few decades and even a few years. The current rate of carbon emissions, the report concludes, is changing the climate system at an accelerating pace, making the chances of crossing tipping points more likely. The report concludes that the greatest immediate risks are abrupt changes in ecosystems, weather, and climate extremes, and groundwater supplies critical for agriculture and that changes will occur so rapidly that communities will not have time to adapt.

In its review of research and educational needs, the NSF report observes, “The need for equitable, ethical, and sustainable use of the Earth’s resources by a global population that nears the carrying capacity of the planet requires us not only to understand how human behaviors affect the environment but also how human behavior changes in response to changes in the environment …” Studying the dynamics of tipping points, the report concludes requires greater involvement of mathematics and computer science and investments in cyberinfrastructure to model complex systems at fine levels of detail with real-time access to advanced sensors and observing systems.

Energy Production: Impacts and Alternatives

Paul Faeth, a speaker at the 2012 SoCC Conference, is a principal author of two recent reports calling attention to the conflicts and synergies between water conservation and power generation. Drawing on conclusions from optimization models developed for case studies in Texas, China, India, and France, the authors conclude that cost-effective options exist to cut water use in electricity generation and also reduce emissions of conventional pollutants and carbon dioxide. The recommendations place emphasis upon deployment and development of renewable energy technologies that do not require cooling while avoiding construction of new freshwater-cooled power plants in water stressed regions. The policy report, Faeth, P. and Benjamin K. Sovacool, Capturing Synergies Between Water Conservation and Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the Power Sector (CNA Corporation July 2014) is here.  The supporting case studies are here.

A second recent report on energy technology, Pathways to Deep Decarbonization, interim 2014 report, with Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia’s Earth Institute as leader of a global network of experts, examines the challenges and feasibility of “deep decarbonization” as a means to mitigate and allay the worst impacts of carbon emissions for global warming. The aim of the report has been to show how individual countries can transition to a low-carbon economy and how the world can meet the agreed 2˚C limit on increase in global mean surface temperature by mid-century. The report concludes that global net emissions of greenhouse gases must approach zero by mid-century and that meeting this goal will require “a profound transformation of energy systems by mid-century through steep declines in carbon intensity in all sectors of the economy.” The report was delivered to the UN Secretary-General on July 8, 2014, in advance of the UN Climate Leaders’ Summit that he will convene in New York on September 23, 2014. An examination of existing infrastructure, costs and benefits, and financing requirements will be set out in a report to be produced in 2015.

The impacts of tax policy on greenhouse gas emissions are examined in another recent report of the National Research Council, Effects of U.S. Tax Policy on Greenhouse Gas Emissions (2013). The report looks at the impacts of existing provisions of the Internal Revenue Code, Oil and Gas Depletion Allowances, Home Energy-efficient Improvement Credits, Highway Motor Fuels Taxes, among others. The report which assessed differences in results from widely used models of tax impacts concludes, among other things, that changes in energy sector tax expenditures would have only modest impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The report furnishes a review of the literature on cap-and-trade and carbon pricing strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but does not consider how adoption of either scheme might foster innovation in the absence of other institutional supports for research and protection of intellectual property.

Climate Change and Political and Social Stress

Climate change as a source of political and social stress with implications for national security during the present decade is addressed in another comparatively recent report of the National Research Council, Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis (2012). The study concludes, among other things, that developing better understandings of the impacts of disruptive climate events and cascades of such events will require an integration of the knowledge developed by climate scientists with the social scientific understandings of natural disasters and disaster response. The report concludes that the two communities of experts will need to communicate, but do not necessarily do so currently.

IPCC Policy Recommendations

Each of the above reports examines in more detail and from more specific perspectives the general trends and impacts of climate change addressed in the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A summary of the IPCC recommendations for policy makers from its fifth assessment is here.