Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems. Each additional ton of greenhouse gases emitted commits us to further change and greater risks. In the judgment of the Committee on America’s Climate Choices, the environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks of climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare to adapt to its impacts.
This report, the final volume of the America’s Climate Choices (ACC) suite of activities, examines the nation’s options for responding to the risks posed by climate change. Although it is crucial to recognize that climate change is inherently an international concern that requires response efforts from all countries, this report focuses on the essential elements of an effective national response, which includes:
- Enacting policies and programs that reduce risk by limiting the causes of climate change and reducing vulnerability to its impacts;
- Investing in research and development efforts that increase knowledge and improve the number and effectiveness of response options available;
- Developing institutions and processes that ensure pertinent information is collected and that link scientific and technical analysis with public deliberation and decision making;
- Periodically evaluating how response efforts are progressing and updating response goals and strategies in light of new information and understanding.
Given the inherent complexities of the climate system, and the many social, economic, technological, and other factors that affect the climate system, we can expect always to be learning more and to be facing uncertainties regarding future risks. This is not, however, a reason for inaction. Rather, the challenge for society is to acknowledge these uncertainties and respond accordingly, just as is done in many areas of life. For example, people buy home insurance to protect against potential losses, and businesses plan contingently for a range of possible future economic conditions.
Just as in these other areas, a valuable framework for making decisions about America’s Climate Choices is iterative risk management. This refers to an ongoing process of identifying risks and response options, advancing a portfolio of actions that emphasize risk reduction and are robust across a range of possible futures, and revising
responses over time to take advantage of new knowledge. Iterative risk management strategies must be durable enough to promote sustained progress and long-term investments, yet sufficiently flexible to take advantage of improvements in knowledge, tools, and technologies over time.
In the context of an iterative risk management framework, and building on the analyses in the four ACC panel reports, the committee recommends the following priority actions for an effective and comprehensive national response to climate change:
Substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the committee’s judgment there are many reasons why it is imprudent to delay actions that at least begin the process of substantially reducing emissions. For instance:
- The faster emissions are reduced, the lower the risks posed by climate change. Delays in reducing emissions could commit the planet to a wide range of adverse impacts, especially if the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gases is on the higher end of the estimated range.
- Waiting for unacceptable impacts to occur before taking action is imprudent because the effects of greenhouse gas emissions do not fully manifest themselves for decades and, once manifested, many of these changes will persist for hundreds or even thousands of years.
- The sooner that serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions proceed, the less pressure there will be to make steeper (and thus likely more expensive) emission reductions later.
- The United States and the rest of the world are currently making major investments in new energy infrastructure that will largely determine the trajectory of emissions for decades to come. Getting the relevant incentives and policies in place as soon as possible will provide crucial guidance for these investment decisions.
- In the committee’s judgment, the risks associated with doing business as usual are a much greater concern than the risks associated with engaging in strong response efforts. This is because many aspects of an “overly ambitious” policy response could be reversed if needed, through subsequent policy change; whereas adverse changes in the climate system are much more difficult (indeed, on the timescale of our lifetimes, may be impossible) to “undo.”
RECOMMENDATION 1: In order to minimize the risks of climate change and its adverse impacts, the nation should reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially over the coming decades. The exact magnitude and speed of emissions reduction depends on societal judgments about how much risk is acceptable. However, given the inertia
of the energy system and long lifetime associated with most infrastructure for energy production and use, it is the committee’s judgment that the most effective strategy is to begin ramping down emissions as soon as possible.
Emission reductions can be achieved in part through expanding current local, state, and regional-level efforts, but analyses suggest that the best way to amplify and accelerate such efforts, and to minimize overall costs (for any given national emissions reduction target), is with a comprehensive, nationally uniform, increasing price on CO21 emissions, with a price trajectory sufficient to drive major investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies. In addition, strategically-targeted complementary policies are needed to ensure progress in key areas of opportunity where market failures and institutional barriers can limit the effectiveness of a carbon pricing system.
Begin mobilizing now for adaptation. Aggressive emissions reductions would reduce the need for adaptation, but not eliminate it. Climate change is already happening, and additional changes can be expected for all plausible scenarios of future greenhouse gas emissions. Prudent risk management demands advanced planning to deal with possible adverse outcomes—known and unknown—by increasing the nation’s resilience to both gradual changes and the possibility of abrupt disaster events. Effective adaptation will require the development of new tools and institutions to manage climate-related risks across a broad range of sectors and spatial scales. Adaptation decisions will be made and implemented by actors in state and local governments, the private sector, and society at large, but there is also a need for national-level efforts—for instance, to share information and technical resources for evaluating vulnerability and adaptation options, and to develop and implement adaptation plans within the federal agencies and their relevant programs.
RECOMMENDATION 2: Adaptation planning and implementation should be initiated at all levels of society. The federal government, in collaboration with other levels of government and with other stakeholders, should immediately undertake the development of a national adaptation strategy and build durable institutions to implement that strategy and improve it over time.
Invest in science, technology, and information systems. Scientific research and technology development can expand the range, and improve the effectiveness of, options to respond to climate change. Systems for collecting and sharing information, including formal and informal education systems, can help ensure that climate-related decisions are informed by the best available knowledge and analysis, and can help us
evaluate the effectiveness of actions taken. Many actors are involved in such efforts. For instance, technological innovation will depend in large part on private sector efforts, while information, education, and stakeholder engagement systems can be advanced by nongovernmental organizations and state and local governments. But the federal government has important roles to play in all of these efforts as well.
RECOMMENDATION 3: The federal government should maintain an integrated, coordinated, and expanded portfolio of research programs with the dual aims of increasing our understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change and enhancing our ability to limit climate change and to adapt to its impacts.
RECOMMENDATION 4: The federal government should lead in developing, supporting, and coordinating the information systems needed to inform and evaluate America’s climate choices, to ensure legitimacy and access to climate services, greenhouse gas accounting systems, and educational information.
RECOMMENDATION 5: The nation’s climate change response efforts should include broad-based deliberative processes for assuring public and private-sector engagement with scientific analyses, and with the development, implementation, and periodic review of public policies.
Actively engage in international climate change response efforts. America’s climate choices affect and are affected by the choices made throughout the world. U.S. emissions reductions alone will not be adequate to avert dangerous climate change risks, but strong U.S. emission reduction efforts will enhance our ability to influence other countries to do the same. Also, the United States can be greatly affected by impacts of climate change occurring elsewhere in the world, and it is in our interest to help enhance the adaptive capacity of other nations. Effectively addressing climate change requires both contributing to and learning from other countries’ efforts.
RECOMMENDATION 6: The United States should actively engage in international-level climate change response efforts: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through cooperative technology development and sharing of expertise, to enhance adaptive capabilities (particularly among developing nations that lack the needed resources), and to advance the research and observations necessary to better understand the causes and effects of climate change.
Coordinate national response efforts. Individuals, businesses, state and local governments, and other decision makers nationwide are already taking steps to respond to
climate change risks, and must continue to play essential roles in our nation’s future response strategies. Numerous federal government agencies and organizations must also be involved in informing and implementing America’s climate choices. Our nation needs a coherent strategy for assuring adequate coordination among this wide array of actors. This includes, for instance, carefully balancing rights and responsibilities among different levels of government (vertical coordination), assuring effective delineation of roles among different federal agencies (horizontal coordination), and promoting effective integration among the different components of a comprehensive climate change response strategy (e.g., all the various efforts discussed in each of the previous recommendations).
RECOMMENDATION 7: The federal government should facilitate coordination of the many interrelated components of America’s response to climate change with a process that identifies the most critical coordination issues and recommends concrete steps for how to address these issues.
Responding to the risks of climate change is one of the most important challenges facing the United States and the world today and for decades to come. America’s climate choices will involve political and value judgments by decision makers at all levels. These choices, however, must be informed by sound scientific analyses. This report recommends a diversified portfolio of actions, combined with a concerted effort to learn from experience as those actions proceed, to lay the foundation for sound decision making today and expand the set of options available to decision makers in the future.