Adapting to Climate Change: What Can We Do Now?

Post by Charles E. Cooke
Deputy Director, Energy Institute
The University of Texas at Austin

Congress has reached what amounts to a stalemate in its consideration of climate change legislation, and it’s not clear how long this self-imposed hiatus will last. Proponents of a cap-and-trade approach to limiting CO2 have failed to make a compelling case for adoption of a trading mechanism that establishes a price on carbon. Likewise, opponents to cap-and-trade have created considerable doubt in the public’s mind about the cost of that approach, particularly what effect those costs might have on job creation and economic growth. Add in those who remain skeptical about whether climate change is even occurring, and – voila! – you have a recipe for paralysis. Just add the ongoing budget crisis and mix.

While this important public policy debate continues to simmer on a back burner, certain fundamental facts remain – namely that the average temperature of the Earth is steadily increasing, as it has been for 30 years or more. Many in the scientific community believe the rise in Earth’s temperatures will trigger dramatic changes worldwide, at varying rates – not just the relatively rapid changes that already have been observed, for example, in the melting of glaciers worldwide and the Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves. Reasonable people may disagree over what all this portends for future generations, but there is a growing consensus that significant changes are on the horizon.

So, given what we now know, what can or should be done about global warming before Congress gets around to dealing with the issue?

My view is the U.S. should adopt a ‘no regrets’ approach to global warming. By that I mean, stop the finger pointing, stop waiting around until conditions force our hand, and start taking action now. There are things we can and should start doing something right away to mitigate some of the harm that a majority of the scientific community believes will result from the rise in global temperatures.

The first step is for all levels of government to better understand the likely effects of increased warming within their local areas of jurisdiction. Yes, that will require making certain assumptions – but cities and counties and local water districts shouldn’t allow that to paralyze them, too.

Many coastal communities know they can expect increased sea levels. Now is the time for them to begin planning what that will mean for residential and commercial beachfront property owners, as well as public parks, roads and bridges, and other public infrastructure. Other areas of the country, already dealing with drought conditions, can expect to grapple with increased scarcity of water resources. Now is the time for local officials in these areas to begin assessing how water usage needs to be changed, particularly in agricultural areas.

Throughout much of the country, local governmental officials can begin the process of assessing the likely effect of global warming on future infrastructure – on our roads, bridges, rail lines, dams, reservoirs and the like. Research underway at colleges and universities throughout the country can play a significant role in this planning, and in preparing for changes that are all but certain to come.

None of these activities require federal legislation, and many can be carried out at low cost. Some of this work can be done with existing personnel and though existing programs. The point is to start now, and begin adapting to a warmer world, without waiting to see what Congress does about the problem.

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