PART 3: What can be done about climate change?

If carbon dioxide and other gases released by human activities cause climate change, what can people do about it? Three basic strategies are available, abatement, adaptation, and geo-engineering.

Abatement: To abate means to slow or stop. Abatement strategies aim to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that can cause climate change. They include improving energy efficiency, so that we burn less fuel, and using sources of energy that emit no greenhouse gases, such as solar or nuclear power.

Adaptation: Under this strategy people find ways to live successfully with the changed climate. For example, land use may change. Aqueducts can be built to bring water into newly dry areas. Coastal populations can be protected from rising sea level by building dikes and sea walls, by relocating populations inland, and by protecting fresh-water supplies from salt-water intrusion.

Geo-Engineering: Geo means earth, so geo-engineering means to engineer the earth's atmosphere and oceans to reduce the amount of climate change. For example, the amount of sunlight that strikes the earth might be reduced by putting more small particles into the high atmosphere. The idea is to off-set the warming effect of more greenhouse gas by reflecting more sunlight back into space. Many people oppose geo-engineering because they think there might be unintended side effects. However, if rapid and severe climate change occurs, some are likely to press for geo-engineering because it may be relatively inexpensive.

Choosing the appropriate combination of strategies is difficult. Each will cost money, pose problems, and offer benefits. It is unlikely that any single strategy can do the job. Uncertainty is added because scientists do not yet know enough about the costs, risks, and benefits. It is important for researchers to study the options quickly and carefully so that people can make informed choices. You can learn more about what is already known by reading Details Booklet Part 3 in the back of this section.

Things that an individual can do to reduce the chance of climate change:

Most effective actions.
Since most of our energy comes from oil, coal and gas, actions that reduce energy use will reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide. For example:

  • When you buy a car, choose one that gets good mileage.
  • Insulate and weatherize your home or apartment.
  • Carpool or drive less.
  • Replace old, worn-out appliances (e.g., refrigerators, heat pumps) with the most efficient new models. If the average U.S. citizen undertakes all of these actions, they can reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by about 25%, which equals about 5 tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Less effective, but helpful, actions.
  • Turn off lights and appliances when not needed.
  • Plant trees.
  • Set the thermostat lower in winter and higher in summer.
  • Recycle.
If the average citizen undertakes all of these actions, they can reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by about 3%, which equals just over half a ton of carbon dioxide per year.

Ineffective actions.
Using aerosol spray cans does not cause climate change. In the U.S., they no longer contain CFCs.

Individual actions that influence others. Become informed and help your family and friends to learn about climate change. Actively support the government policies you decide are most appropriate.

What might nations do?

Improve energy efficiency: More efficient cars, appliances, and industrial systems use less energy, which means that less fuel is burned and less carbon dioxide is emitted. Substantial energy efficiency improvements can be obtained by replacing individual devices. In the longer run, even larger savings may be possible through structural changes, such as being able to work closer to home or redesigning the way houses and cities are built.

Develop and use energy sources that emit little or no carbon dioxide: Hydro power, solar power and windmills, as well as other "renewable energy" sources, emit no carbon dioxide. Neither does nuclear power. Burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal or oil. In the future, hydrogen, which emits no carbon dioxide when it is burned, may become a practical fuel. Ways of capturing and storing carbon dioxide might also be developed.

Improve forest and agricultural management practices: Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in wood. Methane produced by some agricultural activities, such as raising cattle and rice farming, can be reduced.

Reduce the impacts of climate change: New varieties of crops can be developed to grow in changed climates. Aqueducts can carry water to regions affected by drought. Coastal settlements and water supplies can be protected from rising sea level with dikes and sea walls. Coastal ecosystems, especially wetlands, are harder to protect.

How might government help do these things?

Government regulation: Government can require desired behaviors (e.g., force auto companies to build more efficient cars). An advantage of regulation is that it specifies the desired outcomes and can force action. However, regulation can be inflexible and discourage innovation.

Prices and markets: Higher prices for fossil fuels encourage people to save energy by promoting energy efficient devices and behavior (e.g., expensive gas prompts companies to make and people to buy more fuel efficient cars). Government subsidies and taxes can also influence behavior. An advantage of using prices is that they present a constant incentive to innovate. However, using prices can have undesirable side effects, such as imposing a relatively larger burden on the poor.

Information and education: People often do not know how to improve efficiency or reduce emissions. Government can provide them with the information they need to make better choices.

Research and development: Government and industry can support research to demonstrate and improve existing technology, and to develop new technologies that use less energy or emit no carbon dioxide (e.g., refrigerators that use less electricity, cheap practical solar water heaters, and inexpensive solar/hydrogen technology).

What about other countries?
The atmosphere covers the entire globe and climate affects everyone. If abatement strategies are to be effective they will require international cooperation. Until now, developed countries have been the major sources of emissions. In the future, large developing countries, such as China, will be an increasingly important source of emissions. These countries argue that if the world must reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the U.S., Europe, and Japan should reduce the most. For years, they argue, these developed countries have been the largest emitters and they have already enjoyed the associated benefits of economic development. While this is true, developing countries could also help by doing more to control population growth.