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Setting Up the Discussion: What Can I Do? (1)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:38 AM GMT on March 25, 2013

Setting Up the Discussion: What Can I Do? (1)

This is the start of a series in response to the question, “What can I do about climate change?” This is a question that always comes from the audience when I am out giving talks. There are some canned answers. There are many websites that have lists. I will summarize this basic information, and I intend to synthesize this information and look beyond the canned answers.

In class, I always start this discussion with the most basic decision – whether or not to do anything. This is not meant to be flippant. There are those who for reasons of belief, priority, cost or uncertainty think that the right decision is to do nothing. Readers of my blog know that I think that the decision to do nothing is irresponsible because the do-nothing decision increases risk and places us at an economic and technological disadvantage.

Assuming, therefore, the decision is to do something, then how can that response be framed? Traditionally, the response has been broken into two parts. We can “mitigate” or we can “adapt” (2007 Rood Blog on Mitigation and Adaptation). Mitigation is the reduction or elimination of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to limit the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This response would limit the amount of warming. Adaptation is responding to the consequences of the warming planet, perhaps fixing the problems the best we can as they arise. The first item of the answer to what to do is that we, collectively, need to both mitigate and adapt. We will be forced to adapt and to control the extent and cost of adaptation we need to mitigate (What Can’t We Just Adapt?).

There is another response that needs to be mentioned early on in the conversation, “geoengineering.” Geoengineering is a deliberate intervention to control the energy flow in the Earth’s climate; for example, reflecting energy from the Sun back to space (Blog with Good Geoengineering Figure). Geoengineering is a big prickly subject, and for the time being I will consider it a form of mitigation or adaptation.

A couple of blogs earlier I wrote about barriers that we make with language. During much of the 1990s the conversation was driven by mitigation. We passed resolutions and treaties that said we would limit carbon dioxide emissions to avoid dangerous climate change. Discussion of adaptation was off limits, with the idea that if we allowed discussion of adaptation, then we would decide we could adapt and we would be less inclined to mitigate. The language became more convoluted even as the emissions of carbon dioxide increased. We could not address adaptation, because that would affirm that global warming was real, and that was politically taboo. The result of this word play is that we delay, increasing risk, losing opportunity. In 2007, I participated in an adaptation conference, which was considered edgy. I see no evidence that avoiding subjects improves our response to climate change; therefore, the second item is to overcome the political and emotional barriers associated with language.

Going back to the original question from the audience, what can I do about climate change, I think it safe to say that when most people ask this question they mean what can an individual do to mitigate climate change – to reduce emissions? The easy answer is to talk about individual behaviors and specifically doing things that make more efficient use of energy. Figure 1 is from McKinsey and Company, which has performed many cost-based analyses about the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Reduction of carbon dioxide in their analyses is called “abatement.”

Figure 1: In this figure the cost of reducing emission of carbon dioxide is on the vertical axis. The width of the bars are an indication of how much carbon dioxide reduction, called abatement in the figure, can be achieved by a particular action. The sum of all of the widths along the horizontal axis is a measure of the total that can be achieved. For the discussion in this blog, focusing on the left side of the figure, we can achieve about 20 % of the needed reduction by taking actions that save money. Individuals can start here to take action to mitigate climate change (Towards Climate Neutrality).

The vertical axis on the left is cost per ton of emitted carbon dioxide. Focusing on the left side of the figure, the green bars are all negative, and these are things that can be done to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that will reduce cost. This figure gives a foundation for talking about efficiency. Building insulation emerges as the place where there is both a large savings of money with a large impact on emission reductions. The different bars are commercial and residential buildings. Looking at the combination of cost and impact, fuel efficiency, lighting systems, air conditioning and water heating all save money with significant reduction of emissions (U.N. Foundation: Realizing Energy Efficiency).

At the top of the list for what to do, individuals have a lot of opportunity to make a difference with choices about efficient use of energy. Examining the options, there is also the opportunity for collective behavior to accelerate the impact of individuals. There is the potential of impact both at home and in decisions about commercial spaces and transportation. There is opportunity to organize neighborhoods, communities, and cities. Hence, following the decision for personal action, the next place a person can make a difference is in organizing collective behavior.


Links to the Series

Setting Up the Discussion Deciding to do something, definition of mitigation and adaptation, and a cost-benefit anchored framework for thinking about mitigation

Smoking, Marriage and Climate Behavioral changes and peer pressure

Organizing and Growing Individual Efforts A little detail on efficiency and thinking about how individuals can have more impact than just that of a single person

The Complete List Eight categories of things we can do to reduce greenhouse gases

We Are What We Eat Food and agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.