Authors: Nick Mabey, Jay Gulledge, Bernard Finel and Katherine Silverthorne
Download this report (pdf)
There is a growing consensus in the security community that climate change presents significant risks to the delivery of national, regional and global security goals. Through sea level rise, shortages of food and water and severe weather events, climate change will have significant impacts on all countries, which in turn could affect their social stability and economic security. In the coming decades such impacts will increase the likelihood of conflict in fragile countries and regions. Peaceful management of even moderate climatic changes will require investment in increased resilience in national and international security and governance systems.
Security analysis has mainly examined the implications of climate change over the coming two decades. These are largely unavoidable under all plausible greenhouse gas emissions reduction scenarios, given the inertia in energy infrastructure and the global climate system. However, if immediate action is not taken to reduce the steady rise in global emissions, there will be a rapid increase in the risk of far more severe impacts, resulting in security challenges that are much more significant than current estimates indicate.
But climate change is not currently well-managed. Agreements at the most recent UN climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010 included a goal of limiting climate change to, at most, a 2°C average global temperature rise. However, the emissions reductions pledged by countries at the same conference would actually result in a 50 percent chance of global temperatures rising by 3-4°C. Fragile areas such as Southern Africa could experience 50 percent more warming than the global rate. If countries failed to deliver on their emissions pledges, or if we have underestimated climate sensitivity, increases of up to 7°C are also possible. But the risks are not symmetrical. There is a ‘long tail’ on the probability distribution which makes more severe outcomes much more likely than more benign ones. In addition, above 3°C of warming the probability of breaching thresholds for “tipping elements” in the climate system rises sharply. For example, events such as a major die-back of the Amazon rain forest or release of methane from the Arctic tundra would further increase global warming levels.
E3G is an independent not-for-profit organization that works to accelerate the global transition to sustainable development. Visit E3G's website at www.e3g.org
Co-authored by Nick Mabey and originally appeared in The Hill's Congress blog
Once a serious issue becomes politicized and turns into a virtual weapon in the culture wars, it can seem impossible to move beyond partisan bickering and identify a reasonable and responsible course of action. But as those whose job is protecting national security have shown us time and again, it is important to chart a path forward --despite political battles-- when a situation is dangerous and the future is in doubt.
Defending the nation routinely requires making weighty decisions despite uncertainty, incomplete information, and limited resources. To do its job in these difficult situations, the military routinely uses an approach known as risk management. Risk management provides a systematic way to consider threats and vulnerabilities, “knowns and unknowns”, and to take steps to minimize risk.
February 10, 2011
Contact: Tom Steinfeldt, 703-516-4146
Security Experts Advance New Frame for Climate-Energy Debate
Pew Center Scientist Co-Authors E3G Study on Risk Management Strategy for Climate Change
WASHINGTON, D.C.– An approach familiar to the national security community and the military could offer a common-sense approach to tackle climate and energy policy, according to a new report issued today.
Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security, produced by the non-profit organization E3G, is the result of a series of closed-door meetings with national and international security, intelligence, and defense officials. The report, co-authored by Jay Gulledge of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, recommends using a risk management approach to break logjams and tackle climate change.
“The scientific evidence that the climate is likely to change significantly in the next few decades is far more solid than the evidence that usually underpins security decisions in other areas, like nuclear proliferation or the actions of rogue states,” said Gulledge, who directs the Pew Center’s Science and Impacts Program and is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Scientific uncertainty is not a state of unknowing. It is quantitative information that should be used to make risk management decisions, and this is especially true for climate change.”
“The risk-management approach makes sense even if you have questions about the effects of climate change,” said E3G Chief Executive Nick Mabey. “It comes down to how much risk are we willing to take?”
Risk management is an approach that must be tailored by decision-makers, but as a starting point, Degrees of Risk proposes a three-tier approach to planning:
- Aim to stay below 2° C (3.6 °F) of warming,which is the target committed to by the world’s major economies
- Build and budget assuming 3-4° C (5.4-7.2° F) of warming,which is what current international agreements would allow
- Make contingency plans for 5-7° C (9-12.6° F) of warming, which remains a real possibility, in part because international agreements are not binding
Within that framework, Degrees of Risk recommends specific steps for launching a risk management strategy, ranging from independent national climate security risk assessments, to explicit and sufficient goal-setting by countries, to a transparent and resilient system for international cooperation on climate change.
The report’s authors are:
- E3G Chief Executive Nick Mabey, who as senior advisor in the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit led work on energy, climate change, and countries at risk of instability.
- Jay Gulledge, PhD, Director, Science and Impacts Program, Pew Center on Global Climate Change; and Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security
- Bernard I. Finel, Senior Fellow, American Security Project. He has taught national security strategy at the National War College and served as executive director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
- Katherine Silverthorne, program lead on U.S. Climate Change, heads the Climate Security Program at E3G.
E3G is an independent not-for-profit organization that works to accelerate the global transition to sustainable development.
The report can be accessed at http://www.c2es.org/publications/degrees-risk-defining-risk-management-framework-climate-security.
The Pew Center on Global Climate Change was established in May 1998 as a non-profit, non-partisan, and independent organization dedicated to providing credible information, straight answers, and innovative solutions in the effort to address global climate change. The Pew Center is led by Eileen Claussen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
Last week the British Government published a report on The Future of Food and Farming in which the role of a changing climate is appropriately highlighted as a major impediment to maintaining consistent and predictable food supplies for the world’s growing population. The timing of this report is excellent; food prices have been rising recently (see chart) and have caused significant hardship for some of the most globally vulnerable populations. These vulnerable populations live in some of the most politically unstable regions, and continued food inflation could exacerbate existing social and economic issues with potentially unpredictable consequences.
Unfortunately as the global climate changes and agricultural productivity shifts, these sort of price rises in basic foods are likely to become more commonplace for the economically sensitive populations in these politically unstable regions – like Southeast Asia, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. This is not to imply that recent increases in food prices were caused by climate change; it is not possible to attribute a single event such as this latest spike in food prices to the long-term trends we expect to experience from our changing climate. It is, however, instructive to identify that the sort of impacts that we expect from climate change can have serious social and political implications.
Recent work shows that several of the world's most important crops could be near climactic thresholds that will seriously impair agricultural yields.Several of these crops (like corn, rice, soybeans and wheat - the source of 75% of global calorie consumption) appear to be sensitive to increases in temperature variation, especially to the occurrence of a particularly hot day in the middle of the growing season. Increases in temperature variation and the prevalence of what are historically unusually hot days is exactly what our best models of the future climate predict. Even if global yields are able to remain fairly constant due to human adaptation to the shifting regions of agricultural productivity (e.g., northward from the U.S. Plains to Canada and Siberia), the temporary economic dislocation will certainly be difficult for today's farmers and for the people who are dependent on the food that they produce.
Other research suggests that increasing temperatures could cause major difficulties for farmers in Southeast Asia who produce a large fraction of global rice output, an important staple in the region. This research recognizes that the human body simply cannot perform the hard manual labor (like that needed to tend to rice paddies) at the temperatures climate models predict. By 2050, these temperatures are expected to be commonplace for the region – potentially resulting in a huge loss of agricultural output.
While agricultural contributions to overall GDP in the rich world may seem relatively minor, it is important to remember that GDP is only a measure of economic activity and not a measure of well-being. The well-being that food provides is not necessarily proportionate to its market price. A common example used to illustrate this point is a comparison of the price of diamonds to the price of water. Water is much less expensive but is an absolute necessity. Staple foods are similar. If the price of diamonds increases, people (in aggregate) can choose to purchase less. If the price of water or food increases however, there is little flexibility (elasticity, in economic terms) in terms of how much less people can choose to buy.
If food prices rise in the rich world, consumers will spend more of their income on food and forgo other consumption options. In developing nations this trade-off may not be possible – creating a situation where political unrest could become more likely. According to World Bank data, over 50% of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Obviously for these populations, even small increases in the prices of staples can cause real difficulties since a large fraction of their income is already spent on food. Some of the regions that have the highest concentrations of the global poor are also the regions that tend to be among the most politically volatile. Though it is unlikely that food prices would directly cause conflict or instability in these regions, it is more likely that the stress caused by higher (or more volatile) food prices will worsen existing socio-economic pressures.
The resulting consequences will be difficult to predict; and by their nature will create difficulties in creating an effective adaptive response. Though it will likely never be clear which future conflicts could have been avoided in the absence of climate change, we do know that proactive policy effort taken now can reduce the eventual impact of future food price pressures.
Russell Meyer is the Senior Fellow for Economics and Policy
Every January, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center provides an expert analysis of the previous year’s climate. This puts the extreme weather of 2010 into a broader context. The record warmth of the past year adds to the huge body of evidence that the earth continues to warm.
Here are some of NOAA’s key finding:
Global average temperature
- 2010 is tied with 2005 as the warmest year since 1880 when NOAA’s records begin. The temperature was 1.1°F above the 20th century average.
- The Northern Hemisphere was the warmest on record while the Southern Hemisphere was the 6th warmest since 1880.
- 9 out of the 10 warmest years on record are from 2001 and after.
- Every year since 2000 is one of the 15 warmest years.
- It is the 34th consecutive year that was warmer than the 20th century average.
- NOAA scientist David Easterling said that the top ranking of 2010 reinforces the conclusion that the climate is continuing to warm because of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
10 Warmest Years on Record
°F above 20th Century Average
- Global snow cover was the lowest on record
- Arctic sea ice reached its third-smallest summer minimum
- In the United States, both land surface temperature and amount of rainfall were in the top third since 1880.
- Although the eastern U.S. is having a cold winter, Canada and the Arctic are unusually warm, maintaining a globally warm condition.
Read more from NOAA:
Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program
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