Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Socolow discusses 7 (now 9) wedges to stabilize gases that warm the climate

I've been frantically working on a paper for which I am suffering some significant writers block.

So today I defer to an interesting blog post by Rob Socolow (Princeton University) on Climatecentral.org where he talks about a paper that he published with Steve Pacala in 2004 about how to stabilize carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

In 2004, Socolow and Pacala argued that the challenge of stabilizing carbon emissions should be broken down into "wedges" or pieces of emission reduction achieved by a variety of different strategies such as efficiency gains, wind power, avoided deforestation, etc. They argued that a diverse portfolio of wedges--7 wedges to be precise--could level our emissions so that we could avoid catastrophic climate change and cap carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere at twice the level it was before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Since 2004, we would now need 9 wedges, instead of 7, because our emissions have grown rapidly. But the point remains the same--breaking down the problem into more manageable pieces can make a large goal achievable. Socolow and Pacala's argument (today, as well as 7 years ago) also avoids the tendency among policy makers and the public to want to find one or a few best alternatives that by themselves substitute for our use of fossil fuels. That single best alternative is probably not going to happen, at least not anytime soon.

Socolow's post also discusses how he and colleagues could have done a better job in 2004 talking about climate change and the risks and rewards of tackling the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Then and now, he suggests more frankness about how scientists themselves are worried about climate change and aren't happy that global warming is happening. He also thinks that proponents of particular strategies for reducing emissions should admit to the risks and downsides of their approach.

My take away from Socolow's essay is that scientists should keep doing the good work that they are doing, even though it's often difficult to explain uncertainty and there is a temptation is to emphasize the potential for bad outcomes because they don't seem to be getting their due in the public sphere. Transparency is key, as is a bit of encouragement by helping policy makers break down the problem and see where opportunities and "win-win" solutions lie. Climate change is a HUGE problem, but that doesn't imply that it is entirely unsurmountable.

And I would add--same goes for adaptation to climate change.

Read Socolow's essay here:


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