• by Henry Jacoby
  • 10

In this photo, people in Moscow light candles to lift paper lanterns during the worldwide Earth Hour, a global campaign to highlight the threat of climate change, Saturday, March 31, 2012. Millions of people worldwide switched off lights and appliances for an hour in a gesture to highlight environmental concerns and to call for a binding pact to cut greenhouse gas emissions. (Sergey Ponomarev/AP)


Mitigating climate change doesn’t sound as monumental as ending, or reversing climate change. But with global phenomenon already “contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing the world more than $1.2 trillion… annually,” according to the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, MIT professor Henry “Jake” Jacoby explains why efforts to mitigate climate change may be crucial to determining the next generation’s quality of life.

Jacoby-Henry(Jake) edit

Henry (“Jake”) Jacoby is William F. Pounds professor emeritus in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and former co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Talking about mitigating climate change risk is a bit like the story of the man arrested for murder whose lawyer said to him, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is the blood found at the crime scene matches your DNA. The good news is your cholesterol level is down to 160.”

First, the bad news about climate change: The quantity of greenhouse gases humans have pumped into the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial age is already changing the earth’s climate and raising global temperatures. What’s not widely recognized is that simply stabilizing global greenhouse gas emissions at today’s levels will not stabilize their atmospheric concentrations and effects on climate. Much deeper cuts will be required. Moreover, even if we succeed in reducing future emissions drastically, our children and grandchildren will have to live with the consequences of global warming –not just higher temperatures, but more severe storms, sea level rise, fire, drought and other environmental changes.

With no additional mitigation policy, we estimate there’s about a 50/50 chance that global temperatures will rise by as much as 5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. There’s almost a one in four chance global temperatures will rise by 6 C or more.

Over the past two decades, diplomats have tried to negotiate a deal to limit atmospheric concentrations of “Kyoto gases” (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other industrial gases). Their ultimate goal: to curb global temperature increases to 2 C by the year 2100. However, after analyzing the data, the objective looks daunting.

Whatever we and the other nations do, climate change will adversely affect future generations. By steadily pressing ahead to create a non-carbon-based economy by whatever means available, we can limit the damage.

For example, one specific target is to limit atmospheric concentrations to about 450 parts per million (ppm). But given that the concentration of these gases has already risen from 275 ppm in the late 18th century to around 440 ppm today, and is climbing steadily, it’s doubtful we can achieve that goal.

But all is not lost. According to our calculations at MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, even if we limit atmospheric concentrations of the Kyoto gases to a more modest 650 ppm, the high-end risks of climate change — temperature increases of 5 to 7 C — disappear. In other words, our grandchildren would still have to live with the disruptive effects of climate change, but they wouldn’t have to face the most catastrophic scenarios.

That’s the good news about climate change: almost anything we do to limit greenhouse gas emissions has its biggest effect on the worst possible outcomes. That’s why it’s worth keeping up the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even though some targets will be hard to meet.

Here in the U.S., despite the national gridlock on climate change policy, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions have dropped in recent years — in part because of the recession but also due to a shift from coal to natural gas as a power source. The fact that President Obama talked about climate change in his inaugural address, plus the effect of recent storms and drought on public understanding of the risk, may help shift the debate toward a more aggressive policy response.

Right now, the U.S. has a cobbled together quilt of state, regional and national policies — automobile mileage standards, appliance efficiency ratings, renewable energy subsidies — that indirectly limit greenhouse gas emissions. From an economic perspective, the cheapest and best way to reduce emissions would be with a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system that places a price on carbon emissions. It’s a win/win/win solution. It would 1.) lower greenhouse gases emissions and oil imports, 2.) increase revenue which could be used to cut other taxes, and 3.) have a neutral-to-positive effect on economic growth. If a price penalty for emitting greenhouse gases is not politically feasible, then more expensive regulatory measures are going to be the way forward.

Whatever we and the other nations do, climate change will adversely affect future generations. By steadily pressing ahead to create a non-carbon-based economy by whatever means available, we can limit the damage.


Tags: Climate change, Environment, Law

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  • mememine

    Former Climate Change Believers are Better Planet Lovers

    As a planet lover and former climate change believer I must
    say I am happy to be relieved of the burden of condemning my own children to
    their CO2 deaths in a coming climate change crisis. Only a comet hit could be
    worse than a climate crisis and you can’t have a little catastrophic climate
    crisis outside of Harry Potter movies. I am satisfied the crisis is not a
    crisis and I am overjoyed that a climate crisis for our children was a tragic
    exaggeration and this 27 years of needless CO2 panic will shame us all for the
    history books. Pollution is real but death for all from unstoppable warming
    from human CO2 was exaggerated not by science but by politicos and news
    editors. Science never did say it would actually happen as every single IPCC
    warning of climate crisis over the last two decades is qualified with “maybe”
    and “could be” etc. The worst crisis imaginable needs certainty not “maybe”.
    Science agrees; “climate change is real and is happening and could cause a
    climate crisis including complete unstoppable warming of the entire planet
    Earth.” Yes “could” and not one single scientific paper says it will be imminent
    or impending or inevitable or certain or unavoidable or assured or guaranteed
    or even just “will happen” instead of their “might” and “could be”. “Help my
    house could be on fire maybe.” The ultimate crisis needs the ultimate proof and
    not “maybes”. Deny that and if threatening your own kids comes as easy as
    believing a headline, you are no planet lover.

    If this truly were real crisis wouldn’t the millions of good
    and honest people in the global scientific community be acting like they
    condemned their own kids as well to a CO2 He!! on earth? And again; save the
    little tiny catastrophic climate crisis for the Harry Potter movies.

    This planet lovers is happy not disappointed a crisis wasn’t
    real after all and get up to date please? Let’s be real progressives and move
    on as the rest of the world has:

    *Obama has not mentioned the crisis in the last two State of
    the Unions addresses.

    *In all of the debates Obama hadn’t planned to mention
    climate change once.

    *Occupywallstreet does not even mention CO2 in its list of

    demands because of the bank-funded carbon trading stock
    markets ruled by corporations and trustworthy politicians

    *Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change
    denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists
    warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

    We were all part of the “Reefer Madness” of climate blame;
    controlling the weather with human sacrifice of modern lifestyle and taxes. It
    was pure collective insanity and truly a full war crime for condemning billions
    of innocent children to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated climate

    We couldn’t continue to love a planet with fear forever.

    • PithHelmut

      I find it hard to believe you’re a planet lover. OWS does mention climate science – I have been to the meetings, have you? Perhaps you were waiting for the press to cover that? You’ll be waiting a long time if you’re also waiting for science to predict what is to happen with climate change. This has never happened before in the history of well as far back as we can tell. When did the poles melt in the period of about 100 years before? I suppose with the same logic, you will eat food or take medications that have not been discredited by the FDA.

      • Leslie Graham

        Mememine is a paid concern troll. He was never a ‘cliamte change believer’ (whatever that is).

        He spams under about five different names to any online publication or blog article that has ‘climate’ in the heading.

        For example this is one of his meme-of-the-week spams from earlier today – he has spammed this particular meme at least a hundred times despite being informed about the scientific method and the balance of probabilities over and over again.

        His real name is Paul Merifield and he is a fat white balding right-wing loser from Niagra Falls.

        He uses ‘Google alert’ type software to try to be the first poster.

        His posts are always irrelevant to the article and are usualy gish-gallops of the standard thousand-times-falsified denierblog memes.
        (hence ‘mememine’ I presume)

        Whenever possible I report him as spam but in this instance this post is just to let you know the type of …er…’person’ he is.

  • Mitch Labuda

    It’s going to take more, than more studies and papers. Climate change requires a change in thinking around the world, people and businesses need to change their thinking, but, many want more freedoms, more rights and less restrictions and fewer regulations.

    • PithHelmut

      We have all been brainwashed by the fossil fuel industry. We will actually be more free not less if we weren’t so reliant on dark energy. Count the hours that are drained from our lives by waiting in traffic, by getting illnesses from pollution, by having to live by the dictates of utility companies and gas prices. We are so inured to living like scavengers that this system seems as natural as gravity. But we have power all around us that can be utilized. The technology is there albeit needing development. Ask the fossil fuel companies, they have stolen it and buried it. But there are still many scientists that can work that out. They are being quashed now. In our brave new and wonderful world, everyone can say and do what they like. Energy will be produced from our own property and we will be able to sell the excess to the supermarket down the road for their refrigeration uses for example. Also owning our power extinguishes the grip of government over our lives because when we are in control of our energy, we are in control of ourselves.

  • PithHelmut

    There is a psychological twist in quoting the effects of climate change in 2050 or even 2025. We are an instant-gratification society and cannot see beyond the immediate. Quoting effects far into the future is all well and good however we also need to be reminded that in reaching these future dates, the climate will be changing in unknown ways. We often hear of freakish weather and that will only get worse. Let’s project a little…if freakish weather will accelerate what does that mean for humans going on a picnic or holding a sporting event or traveling overseas? We have to bring it down to our own daily lives for it to sink in. Then perhaps the public will have more realization of what their children will experience. Just in my lifetime alone, the Arctic will have melted away from having existed for 800,000 years. We changed the ozone layer and we can change our carbon emissions. Many are ready to do so but there is no coordination. Lowering our carbon footprint as individuals has no effect against others who blithely burn up as much as they want to or companies that pump them out like there is no tomorrow. Let’s inspire. Let’s talk about all the benefits of free or very cheap on-site energy, let’s talk about making money from each home being a power generator in itself and that sells to the commercial market (instead of the other way around). Let’s talk about knowing that our water quality will be ensured. We don’t need to get gas from fracking which threatens our most scarce and vital resource when power is everywhere (we have a huge ball of fire in our solar system, tidal energy, geothermal, and even more) All companies care about is industrialization. Power is more efficient if it is on-site. We have to make this be known to the public and that message will be better absorbed.

    • windy2

      “Just in my lifetime alone, the Arctic will have melted away from having existed for 800,000 years”

      I have problems with such conjecture. Unless you can prove that you have ESP and can predict the future this statement is meaningless. Should Arctic ice disappear, yea there is a good possibility, it would not be the first time in 800,000 years either. There are several paleoclimate papers indicating that summer ice extent in the Arctic reached zero or close to zero on numerous occasions in the Early Holocene. Here is a sample for you.

      There is also a new study on Greenland involving over 100 science experts on ice, using ice core data that indicates that Greenland temperatures averaged 14 degreesF warmer than today during the Eemian Period between 115,000 and 130,000 YBP and that ice remained much more stable than scientists thought. This is generating a lot of new questions about the accuracy of IPCC projections of ice melt and sea level rise.

      There is no doubt that CO2 emitted by man causes warming but the accuracy of the scientific risks and the time frame involved, still requires more work. Too many of the predictions from the 1990s are turning out to be inaccurate and we now see scientists discussing the likelihood that IPCC climate sensitivity was set too high.

      By all means promote the reduction of CO2 but also be open about the fact that 70%+ of current and future man made emissions are coming from underdeveloped and undeveloped countries which we have no control over. China and India have no plans to lower future CO2 and China alone is on a pathway to emit 20Gt of CO2 by 2020 while the USA is already on a pathway to reduce CO2 to 4.5Gt by 2020.

  • windy2

    “With no additional mitigation policy, we estimate there’s about a 50/50 chance that global temperatures will rise by as much as 5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. There’s almost a one in four chance global temperatures will rise by 6 C or more.”

    What is the source of this claim? Atmospheric sensitivity to CO2 has been a hot topic among the climate science community and several prominent scientists like Schlesinger and Annan are now critical of IPCC sensitivity values. Schlesinger in a recent interview stated that his new research points to a 1.9 degreesC increase in global warming for each doubling of CO2 + feedbacks. If correct, for there to be a 5 degreeC rise by the year 2100, CO2 levels would need to grow from todays 400 PPM to roughly 2600 PPM sometime prior to the year 2100. Based on the conversion that 1 GtCO2 emission = 0.127 PPM of CO2 rise in atmosphere, we would need to increase CO2 emissions by 20,472Gt over the next 83 years. Who believes that will happen?

  • Zardoz

    The Earth has been undergoing heating and cooling cycles for million of years, with polar icecaps coming and going during these periods. While there appears to be evidence that manmade greenhouse gases are contributing(arguably) to the current warming ‘cycle’, the connection between same and recent weather events has not and cannot be established by anyone in the scientific community. Throughout recorded history, extreme weather events are the norm and always will be. All this Doomsday prognostication is just rubbish, and I will gladly revisit this with anyone reading this in, say, 10 years, to see how the world is at that time. So drop this Chicken Little nonsense and focus on world peace for a change.

  • Mr. Big

    “From an economic perspective, the cheapest and best way to reduce emissions would be with a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system that places a price on carbon emissions.” — Sadly, this leaves readers with the impression that a new US policy would reduce worldwide emissions when the truth is that anything the entire developed world does will almost certainly be overwhelmed by the tide of emissions resulting from Asian countries emerging from poverty and urbanizing. Unlike clean water, air pollution, or acid rain, it is meaningless to reduce greenhouse gas emissions locally. At best national policies are symbolic or possibly catalytic, but not solutions themselves.