What to do about global warming?

I am still gratified by the response to my post from last week, “Who doubts global warming?” It now has 94 comments among 14 threads. The disagreements range from civil and rational to less than civil and not-so-rational.

One of my struggles in that comments section was separating the reality of global warming from the politics of global warming. Because left-wing partisans have embraced global warming as a cause, the right-wing partisans will have nothing to do with it. When I confront these latter partisans with the science, they often target Al Gore. If he’s a hypocrite, well, then, it must follow that NASA, NOAA, AMS, NAS, AGU, ACS, and APS have no credibility either.

This is an obviously tragic sentiment. But a serious question underlies it. And among my friends, it’s often the first question they ask once I explain the gravity of the disaster we face. I’ve been asked it so many times that I’m finally writing this post.

What can we do about global warming?

Do we have to give up our cars and air conditioning? Are we supposed to turn our economy upside down with new regulations? Are we supposed to give up on capitalism altogether? Should we board spaceships and move to the moon?

A rational response to climate change will have two main parts: adaptation and mitigation.

Adaptation means getting ready for the impacts that are already coming. Heat imbalance absorbed in the deep ocean and greenhouse gases that persist in the atmosphere both mean that more global warming is already in the pipeline. We must prepare our infrastructure for the impacts, which will surely include more heat stress, more drought, more wildfires, more floods, more epidemics, sea level rise, species loss, ocean acidification, and numerous local impacts.

Mitigation means burning less fossil fuel. The less we burn, the less the planet will warm over the next century and beyond. The challenge is that our civilization runs on fossil fuels, so how to cut them will be a difficult debate. But it is overwhelmingly clear that the long-term costs of sticking with business as usual will be magnitudes higher than the short-term costs of reducing our consumption.

We would do well to turn to the experts. Mitigation and adaptation are discussed in detail in America’s Climate Choices, a 2011 report by the National Academy of Sciences. (Sorry that this post is America-centric, which feels especially funny to me now as a new Israeli. But America has the world’s biggest economy and must lead the international community in a global strategy.) A report with even more detail, administered by the United States Global Change Research Program and called the Third National Climate Assessment, will be released in 2014, and the draft is now available for public review.

We face a great challenge in global warming. It demands investments and sacrifices now to avoid abstract consequences later. Those consequences will be severe, and our confidence that they are coming is high. The longer we continue to delay, the more suffering we lock into our future.

Is there anything you can do as an individual?

You can calculate your personal carbon footprint. You can run climate models on your computer via ClimatePrediction.net. You can get involved in nonprofits that raise awareness. If you are American, you can write to your representative, your senator, and your president.

And if anyone wants to build a spaceship and take me to the moon, that would be awesome.

History looks to us. Let’s get it done.

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