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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Preparing for a Changing Climate

Air Date: Week of

Slowing and stopping global emissions of carbon dioxide are vital for mitigating climate change. But scientists say even if we stopped all emissions now, some climate disruption is already guaranteed. Host Steve Curwood talks with Harvard University's John Holdren about adapting to a warming planet.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

The latest round of climate change talks just ended in New Delhi, India. Negotiators at the UN gathering were meeting to move countries towards ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and implement its emissions reductions. The aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to five percent below their 1990 levels over the next decade.

Even if that goal is met, scientists say there will still be significant warming of the planet. John Holdren directs the program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He says along with climate changes, the world is likely to see related political disruptions, starting in the developing world.

HOLDREN: In many respects, for example, the developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change than the industrialized nations; they have less capital and infrastructure with which to adapt to climatic change. They’re more directly coupled in their economies to biological resources, to farms, and forestry and fisheries, which would be directly impacted. And so you’re going to have a phenomenon that partly aggravates the existing disparities between north and south. That’s going to generate further political tensions. You’re going to generate flows of environmental refugees. There are going to be disputes about blame and responsibility as these problems get bigger. And so, I think you have to expect that if we stay on this "business as usual" trajectory, it will be a world increasingly troubled.

CURWOOD: Let’s say that the world gets together and puts the brake on carbon dioxide just as fast as it can. There are going to be changes though. How can we best prepare for the changes of the doubled greenhouse gas world?

HOLDREN: People are going to need to back away from the coastline, in some cases, because rising sea level and the probability of increasing intensity and frequency of severe storms is going to be a big problem for coastal property. Farmers are going to have to prepare to make, what in many cases are, expensive adjustments, which means, among other things, that the price of food is going to go up. We’re going to have to make adjustments to preserve the livability of many of our cities in the summer. We’re going to end up spending more money to air condition even more of the indoor environment so that people continue to work and function. We’re going to need to invest more in air pollution control, because the air pollution situation in our cities is going to be aggravated, in most cases, by increasing temperature.

There are lots and lots of adjustments that we’re going to have to make. My view is without minimizing the importance of those adjustments and preparing to make them, we should also be trying to minimize the magnitude of the adjustments we have to make, by minimizing the amount of climate disruption in the first place, which means reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases.

CURWOOD: How well-prepared do you think the world is to deal with climate disruption?

HOLDREN: I don’t believe that the world is nearly as well prepared as it needs to be. In the first place, I think people around the world are under something of an illusion about the capacities of modern technology to protect us from environmental fluctuations. We tend to believe that we are protected from disease by modern sanitary engineering and by modern medicine. We tend to believe that the distribution of water is controlled by dams and ditches rather than by the patterns of precipitation.

And in every one of the examples I’ve just given, it is an exaggerated impression of how much of the environment we’ve engineered versus the extent to which we’re still dependent on natural processes. We are going to find as climate changes that we are more dependent, still, on environmental conditions and processes than we thought and that the costs of replacing environmental goods and services with engineered substitutes are going to be higher than we thought.

CURWOOD: What’s your prescription for the climate change problem?

HOLDREN: Well, I think we absolutely have to get off the "business as usual" trajectory. And the way to get off the "business as usual" trajectory has two parts. One is to create incentives for people and firms to choose the low carbon and no carbon alternatives that are already available, and at the same time, to use our tremendous capacities in technological innovation to improve those options. We need to put in place the incentives to use the best alternatives that we already have, and to invest in improving the alternatives, and those incentives are not nearly strong enough today.

We need, in my view, either emissions caps on carbon implemented through tradable permits, which worked very well for reducing sulfur emissions in the United States, or, alternatively, we need a carbon tax. We need to accept the principle that it is better to tax bads, things that we’re trying to reduce, and correspondingly, lower the taxes on good things, things we’d like to encourage, like income and capital investment. And in that way, changing the incentive system that’s out there, we would start to move the society off the "business as usual" trajectory, in the direction that would reduce the disruption of climate with which we’re going to have to deal.

CURWOOD: John Holdren directs Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government program on Science, Technology and Public Policy. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

HOLDREN: Thank you.



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