Summary and Final Tasks

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Summary

Unchecked, climate change is highly likely to bring widespread extinctions and ecosystem disruptions, which will make traditional human lifestyles difficult or impossible, with at least a slight danger of hugely damaging disasters. Ethical concern about such issues, and about the well-being of future generations, motivates more response now than the response that is already economically justified. Although responses can involve intrusive government actions, they do not need to, and a wise response may actually reduce government intrusions.

Video: America: The Operators Manual (4:35)

Click here for a video transcript of "America: The Operators Manual".

PRESENTER 1: Richard Alley agrees, science and sustainability both come together in an operator's manual for America.

RICHARD ALLEY: Like thousands of Portlanders, I commute by bike. Like many in Fort Worth, I've worked for an energy company. My university runs a herd of cows, so I connect with Kansans.

I've spent time in some pretty cold places, so I know some of the challenges Alaska faces. And I appreciate the importance of affordable energy to everyone, including the citizens of Baltimore.

So as we look around our planet with eyes informed by climate science and with an appreciation of the vast potential for clean, low-carbon sources of energy, I think we can be optimistic about our prospects while being realistic about how humans are affecting the planet.

Our world is complex, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. But earth science gives us an operator's manual to help us see where most of the pieces go. Some things we know with really high confidence.

Carbon dioxide levels are increasing in Earth's atmosphere and basic physics and objective research show that CO2 warms things up. Analyzing the chemistry of the CO2 shows that most of the carbon is coming from our use of fossil fuel.

Satellites looking down from space show that the atmosphere is warming down here but cooling up here, high in the stratosphere, showing that the warmth isn't from the sun. We've got lots more solid knowledge that just about every climate scientist agrees on.

Of course, there are some things we still don't know. We'd like to know more about clouds. On balance, do they work to make climate changes bigger or smaller? And we'd like to know how weather extremes will change and how fast.

Some things we simply can't know. When will the next big volcanic eruption spread cooling clouds of ash around the planet for a year or two? But even with these uncertainties, the big picture is pretty clear.

In a very real sense, the most important questions aren't about science and engineering but society and policies. What do we want to do? And on that, surprisingly, there's a growing consensus across political parties, businesses, and community groups who are listening to the science and looking to the future.

PRESENTER 2: Obviously, in some ways, there is a diversity of opinion about the degree to which man-made activities affect the climate. Now, I happen to be on the side of those who believe there is an affect.

But suppose one were not. Whether one's focus is on national security, a geopolitical effect, or the environment, in the end all of these things track in the same direction.

PRESENTER 3: Everyone's always talking about the exceptionalism of the United States in global leadership and the clear thought leadership culturally, socially, and I believe in all that.

But if you believe in all that, you then can't turn around and say, well, we're helpless and we're just a little bit of the problem and no matter what we do, China and India will go their own way.

There's just no evidence that that's the case. If the United States leads in this way, others will follow. I mean, that's what leadership's about.

PRESENTER 4: At the end of the day, the atmosphere doesn't care one whit what people think. The atmosphere cares what people do. We can reduce emissions in real time. Why people do it as long as they do it doesn't matter to us.

RICHARD ALLEY: For all we know about the climate, for all the promise of renewables, perhaps even more important is figuring out how to unleash people power to energize our nation.

PRESENTER 5: We got barbecue, we got drinks over here.

RICHARD ALLEY: That's what an operator's manual is all about. It tells us how something works and how to get the very best performance out of it. I also have faith in how America's democracy works.

We can make positive changes if we think clearly and move forward together. That's my hope, that's my faith. For Earth: The Operators' Manual, I'm Richard Alley.

PRESENTER 6: Energy Quest USA. Earth: The Operators' Manual is made possible by NSF, the National Science Foundation, where discoveries begin.

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