Penn StateNASA

Module 12: Adaptation and Mitigation

Now, at the end of this course, we will explore what can be done about climate change. We know that it is happening and that the impacts of climate change are serious, affecting a broad range of important features of our habitat and our economic system. We also know that even if we take immediate serious steps to reduce emissions, climate change will continue to occur because of lag times in the climate system. This means that adapting to this changing world is a necessity. Intelligent adaptation also means mitigation. Mitigation of climate change refers to anything that can minimize the amount of climate change or the damages from climate change. It makes sense to pursue both of these things at the same time as we plan for the future, and if we do these things intelligently, there is every reason to expect that we can continue to thrive — but there will be some big challenges. One of the biggest challenges has to do with the fact that the rich nations of the world are quite capable of managing these adaptations, but many of the less wealthy nations will face serious challenges; there will need to be some serious thinking and planning about international aid to make the global adaptations successful for all.

Humans have successfully dealt with dramatic climate change in the past, but it has been a long time since we've confronted this kind of change. Let us not forget that humans were around during the last deglaciation, when the temperature rose and sea levels rose more than 125 meters (gradually, though), and even through the Younger Dryas event of ~ 11 kyr ago when the North Atlantic region cooled by > 5°C in a decade or so and then warmed that much a few hundred years later. So, in thinking about how we can cope with climate change, it is not a matter of whether or not we will survive (there can be no serious question about that), but rather how successfully and smoothly we can adapt.

By this point in the course, you also have learned about the observations that tell us how the climate is changing and how those changes are affecting and will continue to affect many aspects of the Earth that are of great importance to humans. In this module, we take a look at the economic dimensions of climate change to better understand the costs and benefits of different approaches to dealing with climate change. We will also explore some possible consequences of different policy decisions to deal with carbon emissions.

In many respects, we are living in the age of climate change — we have just recently assembled the scientific understanding of how the climate is changing and how it is likely to change in the future, and the changes are occurring fast enough that we need to make some decisions rather quickly about what we will do. In many respects, this is the biggest and most important global problem we face at the present time, and in the coming decades;it is a problem that touches almost aspects of human activities and welfare.

One could say that there are two extreme responses we could take — do nothing, or do everything within our power to stop climate change immediately. Neither of these extremes makes sense from an economic standpoint. Ignoring problems that are obvious is not a smart move — by doing nothing now, we subject ourselves to huge damages in the future. But going overboard is not smart either — if we allocate all of our resources to counter climate change, we risk damage to the global economic system that we are all dependent upon. The trick then is figuring out what course of action makes the most sense — what course of action will lead to the greatest good for present and future generations. What can we do that will be effective in limiting the amount of climate change while keeping the global economy healthy?

This module will lay the groundwork for carrying out some experiments with a computer model that will allow us to see what the economic costs are of pursuing different policies regarding climate change.