Albedo: Refers to the ratio of light from the sun that is reflected by the Earth’s surface to the light received by it. Unreflected light is converted to infrared radiation (i.e., heat), which causes atmospheric warming (see “radiative forcing”). Thus, surfaces with a high albedo (e.g., snow and ice) generally contribute to cooling, whereas surfaces with a low albedo (e.g., forests) generally contribute to warming. Changes in land use that significantly alter the characteristics of land surfaces can therefore influence the climate through changes in albedo.
Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS): A coalition of some 43 low-lying and small island countries, most of which are members of the G77, that are particularly vulnerable to the potential adverse consequences of climate change such as sea-level rise, coral bleaching, and increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms.
Allocation: Under an emissions trading scheme, permits to emit can initially either be given away for free, usually under a ‘grandfathering’ approach based on past emissions in a base year or an ‘updating’ approach based on the more recent emissions. The alternative is to auction permits in an initial market offering.
Annex B: A list in the Kyoto Protocol of 38 countries plus the European Community that agreed to QELRCs (emission targets), along with the QELRCs they accepted. The list is nearly identical to the Annex I Parties listed in the Convention except that it does not include Belarus or Turkey.
Annex I Parties: The 40 countries plus the European Economic Community listed in Annex I of the UNFCCC that agreed to try to limit their GHG emissions: Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, European Economic Community, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United States.
Assigned Amount: In the Kyoto Protocol, the permitted emissions, in CO2 equivalents, during a commitment period. It is calculated using the Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Commitment (QELRC), together with rules specifying how and what emissions are to be counted.
Base Year: Targets for reducing GHG emissions are often defined in relation to a base year. In the Kyoto Protocol, 1990 is the base year for most countries for the major GHGs; 1995 can be used as the base year for some of the minor GHGs.
Baselines: The baseline estimates of population, GDP, energy use and hence resultant greenhouse gas emissions without climate policies, determine how big a reduction is required, and also what the impacts of climate change without policy will be.
Basket of Gases: This refers to the group six of greenhouse gases regulated under the Kyoto Protocol. They are listed in Annex A of the Kyoto Protocol and include: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).
Berlin Mandate: Decision of the Parties reached at the first session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP-1) in 1995 in Berlin that the commitments made by Annex I countries were inadequate and thus needed to be strengthened.
Black Carbon Aerosols: Particles of carbon in the atmosphere produced by inefficient combustion of fossil fuels or biomass. Black carbon aerosols absorb light from the sun, shading and cooling the Earth’s surface, but contribute to significant warming of the atmosphere (see “radiative forcing“).
Bryd-Hagel Resolution: In June 1997, anticipating the December 1997 meeting in Kyoto, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) introduced, with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and 44 other cosponsors, a resolution stating that the impending Kyoto Protocol (or any subsequent international climate change agreement) should not - "(A) mandate new commitments to limit or reduce GHG emissions for the Annex I Parties [i.e. industrialized countries], unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce GHG emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period, or (B) would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States..."
Bubble: An option in the Kyoto Protocol that allows a group of countries to meet their targets jointly by aggregating their total emissions. The member states of the European Union are utilizing this option.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2): CO2 is a colorless, odorless, non-poisonous gas that is a normal part of the ambient air. Of the six greenhouse gases normally targeted, CO2 contributes the most to human-induced global warming. Human activities such as fossil fuel combustion and deforestation have increased atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by approximately 30 percent since the industrial revolution. CO2 is the standard used to determine the "global warming potentials" (GWPs) of other gases. CO2 has been assigned a 100-year GWP of 1 (i.e., the warming effects over a 100-year time frame relative to other gases).
Certified Emissions Reduction (CER): Reductions of greenhouse gases achieved by a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project. A CER can be sold or counted toward Annex I countries’ emissions commitments. Reductions must be additional to any that would otherwise occur.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): CFCs are synthetic industrial gases composed of chlorine, fluorine, and carbon. They have been used as refrigerants, aerosol propellants, cleaning solvents and in the manufacture of plastic foam. There are no natural sources of CFCs. CFCs have an atmospheric lifetime of decades to centuries, and they have 100-year "global warming potentials" thousands of times that of CO2, depending on the gas. In addition to being greenhouse gases, CFCs also contribute to ozone depletion in the stratosphere and are controlled under the Montreal Protocol.
Clean Development Mechanism (CDM): One of the three market mechanisms established by the Kyoto Protocol. The CDM is designed to promote sustainable development in developing countries and assist Annex I Parties in meeting their greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments. It enables industrialized countries to invest in emission reduction projects in developing countries and to receive credits for reductions achieved.
Climate Change: Refers to changes in long-term trends in the average climate, such as changes in average temperatures. In IPCC usage, climate change refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity. In UNFCC usage, climate change refers to a change in climate that is attributable directly or indirectly to human activity that alters atmospheric composition.
Climate Sensitivity: The average global air surface temperature change resulting from a doubling of pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The IPCC estimates climate sensitivity at 1.5-4.5oC (2.7-8.1oF).
Commitment Period: The period under the Kyoto Protocol during which Annex I Parties' GHG emissions, averaged over the period, must be within their emission targets. The first commitment period runs from January 1, 2008 to December 31, 2012.
Conference of the Parties (COP): The supreme decision-making body comprised of the parties that have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It meets on an annual basis. As of February 2003, it is comprised of 188 countries.
Early Crediting: A provision that allows crediting of emission reductions achieved prior to the start of a legally imposed emission control period. These credits can then be used to assist in achieving compliance once a legally imposed system begins.
Emissions Cap: A mandated restraint in a scheduled timeframe that puts a “ceiling” on the total amount of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that can be released into the atmosphere. This can be measured as gross emissions or as net emissions (emissions minus gases that are sequestered).
Emissions Reduction Unit (ERU): Emissions reductions generated by projects in Annex B countries that can be used by another Annex B country to help meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Reductions must be additional to those that would otherwise occur.
Emissions Trading: A market mechanism that allows emitters (countries, companies or facilities) to buy emissions from or sell emissions to other emitters. Emissions trading is expected to bring down the costs of meeting emission targets by allowing those who can achieve reductions less expensively to sell excess reductions (e.g. reductions in excess of those required under some regulation) to those for whom achieving reductions is more costly.
Energy Resources: The available supply and price of fossil and alternative resources will play a huge role in estimating how much a greenhouse gas constraint will cost. In the U.S. context, natural gas supply (and thus price) is particularly important, as it is expected to be a transition fuel to a lower carbon economy.
Entry Into Force: The point at which international climate change agreements become binding. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has entered into force. In order for the Kyoto Protocol to do so as well, 55 Parties to the Convention must ratify (approve, accept, or accede to) the Protocol, including Annex I Parties accounting for 55 percent of that group's carbon dioxide emissions in 1990. As of June 2003, 110 countries had ratified the Protocol, representing 43.9 percent of Annex I emissions.
European Community: As a regional economic integration organization, the European Community can be and is a Party to the UNFCCC; however, it does not have a separate vote from its members (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom).
General Circulation Model (GCM): A computer model of the basic dynamics and physics of the components of the global climate system (including the atmosphere and oceans) and their interactions which can be used to simulate climate variability and change.
Global Warming Potential (GWP): A system of multipliers devised to enable warming effects of different gases to be compared. The cumulative warming effect, over a specified time period, of an emission of a mass unit of CO2 is assigned the value of 1. Effects of emissions of a mass unit of non-CO2 greenhouse gases are estimated as multiples. For example, over the next 100 years, a gram of methane (CH4) in the atmosphere is currently estimated as having 23 times the warming effect as a gram of carbon dioxide; methane's 100-year GWP is thus 23. Estimates of GWP vary depending on the time-scale considered (e.g., 20-, 50-, or 100-year GWP), because the effects of some GHGs are more persistent than others.
Greenhouse Effect: The insulating effect of atmospheric greenhouse gases (e.g., water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, etc.) that keeps the Earth's temperature about 60“F warmer than it would be otherwise.
Group of 77 and China, or G77/China: An international organization established in 1964 by 77 developing countries; membership has now increased to 133 countries. The group acts as a major negotiating bloc on some issues including climate change.
HGWP (High Global Warming Potential): Some industrially produced gases such as sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) have extremely high GWPs. Emissions of these gases have a much greater effect on global warming than an equal emission (by weight) of the naturally occurring gases. Most of these gases have GWPs of 1,300 - 23,900 times that of CO2. These GWPs can be compared to the GWPs of CO2, CH4, and N2O which are presently estimated to be 1, 23 and 296, respectively.
Hot Air: A situation in which emissions (of a country, sector, company or facility) are well below a target due to the target being above emissions that materialized under the normal course of events (i.e. without deliberate emission reduction efforts). Hot air can result from over-optimistic projections of growth. Emissions are often projected to grow roughly in proportion to GDP, and GDP is often projected to grow at historic rates. If a recession occurs and fuel use declines, emissions may be well below targets since targets are generally set in relation to emission projections. If emission trading is allowed, an emitter could sell the difference between actual emissions and emission targets. Such emissions are considered hot air because they do not represent reductions from what would have occurred in the normal course of events.
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs): HFCs are synthetic industrial gases, primarily used in refrigeration and semi-conductor manufacturing as commercial substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). There are no natural sources of HFCs. The atmospheric lifetime of HFCs is decades to centuries , and they have 100-year "global warming potentials" thousands of times that of CO2, depending on the gas. HFCs are among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto Protocol.
Incentive-based Regulation: A regulation that uses the economic behavior of firms and households to attain desired environmental goals. Incentive-based programs involve taxes on emissions or tradable emission permits. The primary strength of incentive-based regulation is the flexibility it provides the polluter to find the least costly way to reduce emissions.
Intergenerational Equity: The fairness of the distribution of the costs and benefits of a policy when costs and benefits are borne by different generations. In the case of a climate change policy the impacts of inaction in the present will be felt in future generations.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Programme. The IPCC is responsible for providing the scientific and technical foundation for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), primarily through the publication of periodic assessment reports (see "Second Assessment Report" and "Third Assessment Report").
Joint Implementation (JI): One of the three market mechanisms established by the Kyoto Protocol. Joint Implementation occurs when an Annex B country invests in an emissions reduction or sink enhancement project in another Annex B country to earn emission reduction units (ERUs).
Kyoto Mechanisms: The Kyoto Protocol creates three market-based mechanisms that have the potential to help countries reduce the cost of meeting their emissions reduction targets. These mechanisms are Joint Implementation (Article 6), the Clean Development Mechanisms (Article 17).
Kyoto Protocol: An international agreement adopted in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. The Protocol sets binding emission targets for developed countries that would reduce their emissions on average 5.2 percent below 1990 levels.
Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF): Land uses and land-use changes can act either as sinks or as emission sources. It is estimated that approximately one-fifth of global emissions result from LULUCF activities. The Kyoto Protocol allows Parties to receive emissions credit for certain LULUCF activities that reduce net emissions.
Market Benefits: Benefits of a climate policy that can be measured in terms of avoided market impacts such as changes in resource productivity (e.g., lower agricultural yields, scarcer water resources) and damages to human-built environment (e.g., coastal flooding due to sea-level rise).
Mauna Loa Record: The record of measurement of atmospheric CO2 concentrations taken at Mauna Loa Observatory, Mauna Loa, Hawaii, since March 1958. This record shows the continuing increase in average annual atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
Methane (CH4): CH4 is among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto Protocol. Atmospheric CH4 is produced by natural processes, but there are also substantial emissions from human activities such as landfills, livestock and livestock wastes, natural gas and petroleum systems, coalmines, rice fields, and wastewater treatment. CH4 has a relatively short atmospheric lifetime of approximately 10 years, but its 100-year GWP is currently estimated to be approximately 23 times that of CO2.
Montreal Protocol: (on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer) An international agreement that entered into force in January 1989 to phase out the use of ozone-depleting compounds such as methyl chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, and CFCs. CFCs are potent greenhouse gases which are not regulated by the Kyoto Protocol since they are covered by the Montreal Protocol.
National Action Plans: Plans submitted to the Conference of the Parties (COP) by all Parties outlining the steps that they have adopted to limit their anthropogenic GHG emissions. Countries must submit these plans as a condition of participating in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and, subsequently, must communicate their progress to the COP regularly.
Negative Feedback: A process that results in a reduction in the response of a system to an external influence. For example, increased plant productivity in response to global warming would be a negative feedback on warming, because the additional growth would act as a sink CO2, reducing the atmospheric CO2 concentration.
Nitrous Oxide (N2O): N2O is among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto Protocol. N2O is produced by natural processes, but there are also substantial emissions from human activities such as agriculture and fossil fuel combustion. The atmospheric lifetime of N2O is approximately 100 years, and its 100-year GWP is currently estimated to be 296 times that of CO2.
Non-Market Benefits: Benefits of a climate policy that can be measured in terms of avoided non-market impacts such as human-health impacts (e.g., increased incidence of tropical diseases) and damages to ecosystems (e.g., loss of biodiversity).
Perfluorocarbons (PFCs): PFCs are among the six types of greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto Protocol. PFCs are synthetic industrial gases generated as a by-product of aluminum smelting and uranium enrichment. They also are used as substitutes for CFCs in the manufacture of semiconductors. There are no natural sources of PFCs. PFCs have atmospheric lifetimes of thousands to tens of thousands of years and 100-year GWPs thousands of times that of CO2, depending on the gas.
Positive Feedback: A process that results in an amplification of the response of a system to an external influence. For example, increased atmospheric water vapor in response to global warming would be a positive feedback on warming, because water vapor is a GHG.
ppm or ppb: Abbreviations for “parts per million” and “parts per billion,” respectively - the units in which concentrations of greenhouse gases are commonly presented. For example, since the pre-industrial era, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased from 270 ppm to 370 ppm.
Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction QELRC: Also known as QELRO (Quantified Emission Limitation and Reduction Objective): The quantified commitments for GHG emissions listed in Annex B of the Kyoto Protocol. QELRCs are specified in percentages relative to 1990 emissions.
Radiative Forcing: The term radiative forcing refers to changes in the energy balance of the earth-atmosphere system in response to a change in factors such as greenhouse gases, land-use change, or solar radiation. The climate system inherently attempts to balance incoming (e.g., light) and outgoing (e.g. heat) radiation. Positive radiative forcings increase the temperature of the lower atmosphere, which in turn increases temperatures at the Earth's surface. Negative radiative forcings cool the lower atmosphere. Radiative forcing is most commonly measured in units of watts per square meter (W/m2).
Ratification: After signing the UNFCCCCor the Kyoto Protocol, a country must ratify it, often with the approval of its parliament or other legislature. In the case of the Kyoto Protocol, a Party must deposit its instrument of ratification with the UN Secretary General in New York.
Regional Groups: The five regional groups meet privately to discuss issues and nominate bureau members and other officials. They are Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC), and the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG).
Revenue Recycling: If permits are auctioned, this gives considerable sums of money to be recycled back into the economy, either through a lump sum payment of offsetting other taxes. If the existing taxes that are correspondingly reduced were very inefficient, this allows this allows the possibility of both environmental and economic benefits from the trading system, commonly called the 'double dividend.'
Second Assessment Report (SAR): The Second Assessment Report, prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reviewed the existing scientific literature on climate change. Finalized in 1995, it is comprised of three volumes: Science; Impacts, Adaptations and Mitigation; and Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change.
Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention: The United Nations staff assigned the responsibility of conducting the affairs of the UNFCCC. In 1996 the Secretariat moved from Geneva, Switzerland, to Bonn, Germany.
SRES Scenarios: A suite of emissions scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES). These scenarios were developed to explore a range of potential future greenhouse gas emissions pathways over the 21st century and their subsequent implications for global climate change.
Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI): A permanent body established by the UNFCCC that makes recommendations to the COP on policy and implementation issues. It is open to participation by all Parties and is composed of government representatives.
Substitution: The economic process of trading off inputs and consumption due to changes in prices arising from a constraint on greenhouse gas emissions. How the extremely flexible U.S. economy adapts to available substitutes and/or finds new methods of production under a greenhouse gas constraint will be critical in minimizing overall costs of reducing emissions.
Sulfate Aerosols: Sulfur-based particles derived from emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) from the burning of fossil fuels (particularly coal). Sulfate aerosols reflect incoming light from the sun, shading and cooling the Earth’s surface (see “radiative forcing”) and thus offset some of the warming historically caused by greenhouse gases.
Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF6): SF6 is among the six types of greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto Protocol. SF6 is a synthetic industrial gas largely used in heavy industry to insulate high-voltage equipment and to assist in the manufacturing of cable-cooling systems. There are no natural sources of SF6. SF6 has an atmospheric lifetime of 3,200 years. Its 100-year GWP is currently estimated to be 22,200 times that of CO2.
Supplementarity: The Protocol does not allow Annex I parties to meet their emission targets entirely through use of emissions trading and the other Kyoto Mechanisms; use of the mechanisms must be supplemental to domestic actions to limit or reduce their emissions.
Targets and Timetables: Targets refer to the emission levels or emission rates set as goals for countries, sectors, companies, or facilities. When these goals are to be reached by specified years, the years at which goals are to be met are referred to as the timetables. In the Kyoto Protocol, a target is the percent reduction from the 1990 emissions baseline that the country has agreed to. On average, developed countries agreed to reduce emissions by 5.2% below 1990 emissions during the period 2008-2012, the first commitment period.
Technological Change: How much technological change will be additionally induced by climate policies is a crucial, but not well quantified, factor in assessing the costs of long-term mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.
Thermal expansion: Expansion of a substance as a result of the addition of heat. In the context of climate change, thermal expansion of the world's oceans in response to global warming is considered the predominant driver of current and future sea-level rise.
Thermohaline Circulation (THC): A three-dimensional pattern of ocean circulation driven by wind, heat and salinity that is an important component of the ocean-atmosphere climate system. In the Atlantic, winds transport warm tropical surface water northward where it cools, becomes more dense, and sinks into the deep ocean, at which point it reverses direction and migrates back to the tropics, where it eventually warms and returns to the surface. This cycle or "conveyor belt" is a major mechanism for the global transport of heat, and thushas an important influence on the climate. Global warming is projected to increase sea-surface temperatures, which may slow the THC by reducing the sinking of cold water in the North Atlantic. In addition, ocean salinity also influences water density, and thus decreases in sea-surface salinity from the melting of ice caps and glaciers may also slow the THC.
Third Assessment Report (TAR): The most recent Assessment Report prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reviewed the existing scientific literature on climate change, including new information acquired since the completion of the Second Assessment report (SAR). Finalized in 2001, it is comprised of three volumes: Science; Impacts and Adaptation; and Mitigation.
Trace Gas: A term used to refer to gases found in the Earth’s atmosphere other than nitrogen, oxygen, argon and water vapor. When this terminology is used, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are classified as trace gases. Although trace gases taken together make up less than one percent of the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are important in the climate system. Water vapor also plays an important role in the climate system; its concentrations in the lower atmosphere vary considerably from essentially zero in cold dry air masses to perhaps 4 percent by volume in humid tropical air masses.
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change: (UNFCCC) A treaty signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that calls for the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The treaty includes a non-binding call for developed countries to return their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The treaty took effect in March 1994 upon ratification by more than 50 countries. The United States was the first industrialized nation to ratify the Convention.
Uncertainty: Uncertainty is a prominent feature of the benefits and costs of climate change. Decision makers need to compare risk of premature or unnecessary actions with risk of failing to take actions that subsequently prove to be warranted. This is complicated by potential irreversibilities in climate impacts and long term investments.
Urban Heat Island (UHI): Refers to the tendency for urban areas to have warmer air temperatures than the surrounding rural landscape, due to the low albedo of streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and buildings. These surfaces absorb solar radiation during the day and release it at night, resulting in higher night temperatures.
Vector-borne disease: Disease that results from an infection transmitted to humans and other animals by blood-feeding anthropods, such as mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas. Examples of vector-borne diseases include Dengue fever, viral encephalitis, Lyme disease, and malaria.
Water Vapor (H2O): Water vapor is the primary gas responsible for the greenhouse effect. It is believed that increases in temperature caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases will increase the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, resulting in additional warming (see "positive feedback").
Climate change is happening and it is caused largely by human activity. Its impacts are beginning to be felt and will worsen in the decades ahead unless we take action. The solution to climate change will involve a broad array of technologies and policies—many tried and true, and many new and innovative.
This overview summarizes the eight-part series Climate Change 101: Understanding and Responding to Global Climate Change.
Science and Impacts discusses the scientific evidence for climate change and explains its causes and current and projected impacts.
Adaptation discusses these impacts in greater depth, explaining how planning can limit (though not eliminate) the damage caused by unavoidable climate change, as well as the long-term costs of responding to climate-related impacts.
As explored in greater depth in Technological Solutions, a number of technological options exist to avert dangerous climatic change by dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions both now and into the future.
Business Solutions, International Action, Federal Action, State Action, and Local Action describe how business and government leaders at all levels have recognized both the challenge and the vast opportunity dealing with climate change presents. These leaders are responding with a broad spectrum of innovative solutions. To address the enormous challenge of climate change successfully, new approaches are needed at the federal and international levels, and the United States must stay engaged in the global effort while adopting strong and effective national policies.
For more information, be sure to listen to our Climate Change 101 podcast series
The scientific evidence is unequivocal. Natural climate variability alone cannot explain this trend. Human activities, especially the burning of coal and oil, have warmed the earth by dramatically increasing the concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. The more of these gases humans put into the atmosphere, the more the earth will warm in the decades and centuries ahead. The impacts of warming can already be observed throughout the United States, from rising sea levels to melting snow and ice to more drought and extreme rainfall. Climate change is already affecting ecosystems, freshwater supplies, and human health around the world. Although some amount of climate change is now unavoidable, much worse impacts can be avoided by substantially reducing the amount of heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere.
For more information on the science and impacts of climate change, be sure to listen to our Climate Change 101 podcast series
The Earth’s climate is rapidly changing. In the United States and other nations, people are seeing how the impacts of rising global temperatures, shifting patterns of precipitation, rising sea levels, and other changes are affecting their communities, their livelihoods, and the natural environment. Substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But mitigation alone is not enough. Even with emission reductions, some changes in climate are unavoidable. Adaptation planning at the local, state, and national levels can limit the damage caused by climate change, as well as reduce the long-term costs of responding to the climate-related impacts that are expected to grow in number and intensity in the decades to come.
For more information on adaptation, be sure to listen to our Climate Change 101 podcast series
By Eileen Claussen
December 20, 2010
2010 was a year of highs and lows.
On the high side were global temperatures; 2010 will mark the hottest year in recorded history. At the start of the year, there was also the short-lived high of thinking we might be on the precipice of meaningful action in the U.S. Congress to protect the climate. Finally, at year’s end the climate talks in Cancún delivered (surprise!) tangible results in the form of agreement on key elements of a global climate framework.
But alas, the lows won out for most of 2010 as a trumped-up email controversy, continuing economic unease, and growing anti-government sentiment in the United States undermined the effort to forge lasting climate solutions at all levels.
Congress. Until quite recently, the Pew Center and many others were actively supporting cap and trade as the number-one climate policy solution. After the House passed a fairly comprehensive energy and climate bill in June 2009 that had a cap-and-trade system at its core, we actually thought that it might become the law of the land.
Before long, however, it became eminently clear that the Senate would not be able to pass a similar bill. The 2010 U.S. elections, which brought more doubters of climate change into the halls of Congress, only made it clearer that comprehensive climate action is off the table for now.
EPA. With Congress unable to pass comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, attention turned to what EPA might be able to do under existing authorities. And it turns out that EPA can do quite a lot by taking reasonable steps that have garnered critical support from the business and environmental communities. In late October, for example, the agency announced a sensible proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel efficiency for medium and heavy-duty vehicles. This was followed by a November announcement that will go a long way to making sure that new industrial facilities use state-of-the-art technologies to boost efficiency and reduce emissions.
Of course, opponents of these and other EPA regulations will surely raise a ruckus, and there will be loud cries in Congress to delay the regulations and even cut funding for the EPA. But the possibility remains that the agency could conceivably begin to chip away at U.S. emissions in the months and years ahead.
State Actions. Looking beyond Washington, state capitals were the focus of creative thinking and leadership on the issue of clean energy in 2010. Massachusetts, for example, set a statewide energy efficiency standard in 2010 supported by $1.6 billion in incentives. Meanwhile, California voters upheld the state’s greenhouse gas reduction law by defeating Proposition 23. This marked the first direct vote on addressing climate change in the United States, and it won in an overwhelming fashion.
But the overall story regarding climate action in the states was more mixed. While several regional climate initiatives continued to push forward, the November elections brought to the nation’s statehouses a group of new leaders who adopted strong stands against climate action in their campaigns. We will stay tuned to see how their campaign rhetoric translates into governing.
International. The agreement reached by international negotiators in Cancún in December closed out 2010 on a positive note. The Cancún Agreements import the essential elements of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord into the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, including a stronger system of support for developing countries and a stronger transparency regime to better assess whether countries are keeping their promises. The Cancún Agreements also mark the first time that all of the world’s major economies have made explicit mitigation pledges under the Convention.
Of course, the ultimate goal of the continuing international talks should be a legally-binding climate treaty, but in Cancún we saw countries agreeing on incremental steps that will deliver stronger action in the near term and lay the foundation for binding commitments down the road.
Looking Ahead. Looking ahead, I believe 2011 holds promise only if those of us who support climate action can learn from what happened in 2010. In recent years, domestic and international efforts largely centered on a “big bang” theory of trying to achieve everything at once. Instead, it’s instructive now to take a cue from Cancún and accept that a step-by-step approach to building support for climate solutions offers our best shot at progress.
Calling on the new Congress to pass cap and trade or similarly comprehensive solutions will be a nonstarter, for example. But there may be an opportunity on Capitol Hill for less sweeping steps to reduce U.S. emissions.
Supporters would do well to spend the next several months laying the groundwork for incremental solutions by strengthening communications with the public. We need to do a better job of helping people understand both the risks and the opportunities presented by climate change. In the same way we buy fire insurance to protect against an event that has a statistically small chance of happening but would result in severe damage, acting now to cut emissions reduces our vulnerability to severe events that are likely to become more common in a warming world. And the success of the “No on Prop 23” campaign in California suggests that there remains a healthy appetite among the general public and in the business community (which provided substantial support for the effort) to back well-framed climate solutions.
After a year of highs and lows, we still must aim high in our efforts to address one of the greatest challenges of our time. But we should also heed the lessons of the past year and work for more modest victories now that can keep us on the path to longer-term solutions.
Front-Line City in Virginia Tackles Rise in Sea -- The New York Times, Nov. 25
Last house on sinking Chesapeake Bay island collapses -- The Washington Post, Oct. 26
Flood Plan proposed to protect Washington Mall -- The Washington Post, Nov. 15
Maybe climate change has fallen off the radar screen at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but these recent headlines from The Washington Post and The New York Times suggest that the issue hasn’t gone away. No, these stories aren’t straight out of some scary futuristic sci-fi movie (anybody remember the truly dreadful 1995 movie Waterworld starring Kevin Costner?). Nor are they based on some forecast for a distant future year spit out by a supercomputer. They simply report on real events, happening today, right here in our region. They provide a clear and present warning of the economic costs and human suffering that will increasingly be in the news if we fall to address climate change.
December 3, 2010
Contact: Tom Steinfeldt, 703-516-4146
Cancun Conferees See Poor Public Understanding as Key Obstacle to Strong Action on Climate Change
CANCUN, MEXICO– Nearly all those gathered for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun believe that real international action on climate change will not happen without strong public support, yet most also believe that the general public doesn’t understand the meaning of “climate change,” according to a survey this week by the Government of Mexico and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
More than 500 accredited COP16/CMP6 attendees from around the world – including government delegates, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, experts, journalists and business leaders – participated in an iPad survey of attitudes on climate change.
The results were presented at the Climate Change Communication Forum co-sponsored by the Mexican government and the Pew Center, which took place at the Hotel Grand Velas of the Rivera Maya, on Friday, 3 December, 2010.
“Quite clearly, effective communication is one of the keys to mobilizing a strong global climate effort,” said Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources.
“We need to better understand how the public views the issue, and how best to communicate both the urgency and the practicality of strong action. We believe this new survey and today’s forum will contribute to a clearer understanding of the communication challenges we face.”
Survey participants included roughly equal numbers from developed and developing countries. Nearly all (94%) agreed that “without strong public support, real action on climate change will never be made at the international governmental level.” When asked what constituencies need to be more involved, respondents ranked the general public number one, ahead of heads of state, business, NGOs and UN organizations.
Yet 58% said that the general public does not understand the meaning of “climate change” well or at all. Only 5% said the public understands it “very well.”
“These findings underscore the tremendous gap between the critical need for action and the public’s limited understanding of the issues at hand,” said Pew Center President Eileen Claussen.
“All of us – governments, experts, advocates and business leaders – need to do a much better job of explaining to the public both the stakes and the opportunities presented by
climate change,” stated Ms. Claussen.
The survey also revealed mixed views on the role of the mainstream media. Respondents ranked mainstream media like television, newspapers and magazines as the most effective means of communicating to the general public the need for global action. Yet when asked to identify “the most trusted voices on the scale and impact of climate change globally,” only 24% named the media. A strong majority (87%) blamed unskillful media and opinion leaders for a lack of public understanding of climate change science.
Despite recent controversies over climate science, most respondents (66%) identified scientists as among the most trusted voices, well ahead of global organizations like the UN (42%), NGOs (41%), governments (24%) and business leaders (13%).
Additional key findings from the survey:
Running out of time
When it comes to the human impact on climate change, COP16 attendees say that we are already suffering some irreversible impacts.
- The majority (56%) believe that irreversible harm has already been done to the planet.
- Over half (54%) say that we are currently at a standstill in our efforts to limit human influences on climate change.
- Eight in ten conference participants (83%) believe that countries will only undertake ambitious efforts to address climate change once they are actually suffering from the real consequences.
- Nearly nine in ten (88%) agree that if we do not address climate change now, it will eventually become a trigger for global conflict and possibly war.
Perceived economic impact viewed as top barrier to increased engagement
- Nine in ten conference participants (90%) agree that the global recession has made nations less willing to invest in addressing climate change, with over half (54%) saying that they strongly agree.
- COP16 attendees report that the biggest barriers to governments taking effective joint action on climate change are the unwillingness to jeopardize industrial growth (64%) and take political risks at home (63%).
- This sentiment is more prominent in developed countries than in developing countries.
More action needed from all stakeholders
- The overwhelming majority of conference participants (94%) agree that climate change initiatives can only be effective with broad support from governments, business, NGOs, scientists and the public, with a full seven in ten (70%) strongly agreeing with this statement.
- Conference participants report that there needs to be considerably more involvement by all parties, particularly the general public (84%), local community leaders (83%), and country leaders (83%).
- Participants from developing countries are significantly more likely than those from developed countries to believe environmental NGOs and global organizations (UN, World Bank, WHO) should be more involved in climate change initiatives.
Key to effective change
- The majority of conference participants believe that the most compelling cases for the need to address climate change are stories of human suffering due to extreme weather such as drought or floods (65%) and evidence that climate change will negatively affect the economy (54%).
About the Survey
The government of Mexico and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change commissioned a survey that gathered insights from COP16 attendees from around the world on their attitudes toward climate change. The study of 503 COP16 participants who completed the survey was conducted via iPad and paper surveys between November 27 -30, 2010. Survey respondents included NGO representatives, government delegates, business leaders, bloggers, climate change experts, and think tank representatives who attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico. Only credentialed COP16 participants were included in the survey.
About Pew Center on Global Climate Change
The US-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change brings together business leaders, policy makers, scientists, and other experts to bring a new approach to a complex and often controversial issue. Our approach is based on sound science, straight talk, and a belief that we can work together to protect the climate while sustaining economic growth. Over the past ten years, the Pew Center has issued more than 100 reports from toptier researchers on key climate topics such as economic and environmental impacts and practical domestic and international policy solutions. The Pew Center plays an active role in bringing people together to discuss policy frameworks and workable solutions to climate change.
Throughout this year I have posted a number of blogs on the record-breaking extreme weather events of recent years, particularly 2010. Events ranged from unprecedented blizzards on the U.S. East Coast to the cataclysmic Russian heat wave and flooding in Pakistan. The key message I’ve tried to communicate is that, rather than debating whether these particular events are being caused by climate change – an interesting academic question that is unanswerable on a practical level – we should learn from these events about our individual and societal vulnerabilities and the real costs of climate change.
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, offers an excellent example of the type of practical learning I’m talking about:
“The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.”
Mr. Hedin’s family has farmed the soils of southern Minnesota since the late 19th century. Today he runs a small farm in Rushville, where an onslaught of extreme weather events over several years forced him to retreat to higher ground. This is an example of forced adaptation where abandonment was the best choice. But even in the new location, his farm lost $100,000 worth of crops to excessive soil moisture this summer.
Notice that Hedin doesn’t waste time worrying about whether particular weather events were caused by human-induced climate change:
“The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.”
Climate scientists know the climate is changing, that many mid-latitude locations are becoming wetter as a result (see figure below), and that we can expect that trend to continue. What does it matter whether a particular storm on a particular day in a particular year was caused by human intervention with the climate system? After all, it isn’t one particular event that has Mr. Hedin worried about the future of farming in America’s grain belt; it’s the preponderance of evidence that the climate is already shifting and the common sense realization that farming is getting harder because of that shift.
Please read Jack Hedin’s op-ed in The New York Times. He has the right idea about learning from extreme weather events.
Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program
We’ve been talking and hearing a lot about the notion of “mainstreaming” consideration of climate change into decision-making processes and figuring out ways to adapt to an already changing climate. A lot has been happening on the adaptation front at the Federal level – and we’ve been trying to keep you posted on all of the new initiatives. It was getting a bit challenging to keep up with everything and so over the last couple of months we’ve been compiling a lot of what we know into one place. The resulting report—Climate Change Adaptation: What Federal Agencies are Doing—is now available on our website.
As the report illustrates, Federal agency activities are numerous and diverse. Some agencies, such as the Department of Defense, are mainstreaming climate change adaptation by updating existing strategies or policies to include climate change impacts and adaptation options. Other agencies are more focused on enabling other entities—state and local governments, businesses, and communities—in furthering their adaptation planning and projects, as NOAA is doing with Climate Services. Figure 1 below includes some additional examples from the report. Of course, not all federal projects addressing climate change impacts or adaptations are included in this report. We’ve tried to at least include instances where a Federal department or agency has implemented specific institutional mechanisms, developed an agency-wide adaptation plan or set of policies, or is providing adaptation resources or tools.
Happy reading – and if you are familiar with any Federal programs or initiatives that should be included in the report, please send them my way. We plan to expand on the information included in this new report with the hope that it will serve as a resource for collaboration and information sharing amongthe growing adaptation community.
Heather Holsinger is a Senior Policy Fellow and Program Manager for Adaptation
A new report, Post-Partisan Power, puts forth several interesting ideas for how the United States can accelerate technological progress to advance U.S. energy security and global climate protection. The authors are Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution, and Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. The report has created a buzz, in part because of the “man bites dog” nature of the story – Brookings and AEI agree on something! And they are saying “post-partisan” out loud in these hyper-partisan times.
The authors recommend a number of initiatives that ought to be no-brainers – invest more in energy science and education, overhaul the energy innovation system by increasing funding for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and developing regional energy innovation centers, reform energy subsidies, use military procurement and competitive deployment to drive innovation and price declines, and pay for all this through a very small carbon tax or electricity fee. The major critique of the report, best articulated by Harvard economist Rob Stavins, is that these recommended steps are necessary but not sufficient – i.e., it is all very well for the government to invest in these technologies, but we also need to create a market for them through a strong carbon price or serious greenhouse gas reduction requirements.
The authors have responded that they didn’t mean to imply that their recommendations include all we need to solve our energy and climate problems. However, their subtitle, “How a limited and direct approach to energy innovation can deliver clean, cheap energy, economic productivity and national prosperity,” makes it sound an awful lot like they did. And their opening critique of “both sides of the debate” on climate and energy is dismissive of pricing in general and cap and trade in particular – noting, for example, cap and trade’s defeat in the Senate but not its victory in the House, and saying pricing has not succeeded in reducing emissions in Europe, when in fact it has. But let’s set that aside for the moment.
The more intriguing question this report raises for me is why the energy and climate debate is so stuck and why even the modest proposals described in “Post-Partisan Power” face an uphill battle.
The report’s authors lament our irrational energy subsidies and dysfunctional federal support system for energy innovation, and I agree substantively with their critique and their proposed fixes. But this irrationality and dysfunctionality have persisted for a long time. Each energy source has a powerful constituency for federal subsidies and tax breaks. And for each DOE lab in the current national network that does most of our federal energy research, powerful regional interests protect the status quo.
Similarly, policy analysts have made an airtight case for decades that pricing policies are both effective and cost-effective at reducing emissions, but for the most part politicians and the public have resisted such policies. We seem to prefer our regulatory costs to be high and hidden rather than low and transparent.
What is going on? I’m not sure, but I can think of at least two partial answers. The first is our political system’s focus on the size of government rather than its efficacy. The “great debate” in this election is whether the government should be bigger or smaller, not whether government is effectively doing whatever tasks it is assigned. The key critique of cap and trade was that it was a tax and that it looked like too much government, when the debate should have been about its efficacy in reducing emissions and minimizing costs. We measure success or failure of federal action with respect to a particular energy source by the size of the budget or tax breaks devoted to it, not whether such action is effectively driving innovation or bringing down technology costs. Hayward et al. suggest we fix this through better program design, but that will not be easy. It requires a transformation of our nation’s political thinking at a very deep level.
The second answer is specific to the energy system. It is an inconvenient truth that fossil fuels have some really attractive characteristics as energy sources. They are abundant, seemingly cheap (if one doesn’t take into account their environmental or energy security impacts, and of course the market price does not do so), and “energy-dense” (meaning they can produce a lot of energy per unit of volume and mass). They have also been used for a long time, and their use has co-evolved with extensive fuel distribution infrastructure and fuel-using equipment. Thus, shifting away from these fuels requires displacing a suite of interdependent incumbent technologies.
This problem is really different, in kind and in scale, from any the U.S. government or the U.S. economy has wrestled with before. It is not like computer innovation, where a new set of technologies created new markets for new services; or airplanes, in which military procurement dominated an emerging market. To move away from the energy system we have, which meets our private needs very nicely, to one that may have lower social costs but higher private ones (at least for some transitional period), is going to be very difficult. Hayward et al. hope that we can eat our cake and have it, too, by finding new technologies that have both lower social costs and lower private costs. But substantially increasing government investment won’t guarantee this outcome – certainly not by itself. Rather the United States must make climate protection and national security a priority, and develop and implement a conscious, ambitious, and comprehensive national strategy with full public support. This is a daunting challenge.
Judi Greenwald is Vice President for Innovative Solutions