Climate change issues | what matters most

Climate change issues are a new worry.

A decade ago we were more concerned with biodiversity loss or holes in the ozone layer and before that there were some pollution issues to fix.  

Concerns about the climate began in the 1970s when there was a run of unusually cold winters. Media reports suggested that we were heading for another ice age, but that didn’t last 

The long known concept of the greenhouse effect — the physics that causes  certain gases in the atmosphere to reflect long wave radiation back to the Earth’s surface — combined with new measurement on the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused a change of mind. Suddenly the prospect of global warming was a major environmental issue.

And is stuck. Today it is warming and its consequences that dominate climate change issues.

There is no doubt that the local consequences of climate warming should concern us. Warming will bring more frequent and severe...

  • droughts
  • floods
  • cyclones
  • sea level rise
  • a general increase in unpredictability of the weather
  • shift in the timing and duration of seasons 

All these phenomena have the potential to impact lives and lifestyles both directly and through the consequences for economies.

you can find out more about these climate change effects on our sister website that has pages on most climate change effects    

Climate change poses risks to our modern lifestyles because with world population growth and a steady increase in affluence our demands for resources will stretch the ability of the environment to maintain supply. Running production systems harder means there is less slack and greater risk when exposed to change. It also means that when change happens there will be costs of doing something about it to protect resource production.

This is the basic logic for the worry and it makes sense. The problem knowing where, when and how severe the problems will be. 

Climate change is diffuse and hard to pin down to a location or in time. There may be more hailstorms predicted as the climate warms, but should I invest in hail covers for my stone fruit crop or not? 

If a danger is coming but I'm not sure when, where or where from it is very hard to maintain vigilance. I can stay on alert for a while but if nothing happens I soon tire and go back to what I was doing. This is the core of any response to environmental issues — It needs to be in the here and now to make a response real.  

With climate change this 'uncertainty about the certainty' has made it hard to choose between the four main options for what to do about the issue:

  • do nothing
  • fix the problem by removing the causes  [mitigation]
  • adapt to changes and their effects  [adaptation]
  • combine mitigation and adaptation

Do nothing

Do nothing requires no effort or financial outlay. Taking this option implies that we don’t believe there will be any serious climate change and what does change will be within our normal capacity to cope.

It is also like driving a car without insurance, cheap and cheerful until there is an accident and perfectly fine if you get away with it.

It is also a popular option when there are other, more immediate issues requiring our attention. Terrorism for example.

Try to fix the problem

Mitigation means taking actions that remove the drivers of change. Try and reduce of stop the actions that are causing the problem. It assumes that we have sufficient control over the causes of climate change to slow or reverse the warming trend.

The key assumption is that human activity has increased concentrations of greenhouse gases — mainly from land clearing fossil fuel use — so if these activities are curbed then warming should slow and lessen potential impacts 

The basic physics and chemistry of this assumption make sense but are contentious because of the complexities of large atmospheric system and the problem that there are other important causes of climate change.

Mitigation also requires that along with greenhouse gas emissions reduction there will be capture some of the carbon dioxide already emitted. This can be done through sequestration into vegetation and soil — and is an option for land management. 

Except that greenhouse gas emissions are what happens in our industrialized world. Curbing emissions would require that we change the energy source for our societies and this is quite a challenge without slowing economic activity.

It could be quite expensive to achieve with no guarantee of success at least on economic timeframes.

Get things ready

Adaptation is actually more realistic solution to climate change issues than we imagine. It would involve knowing more precisely the what, where, when, and intensity of climate change impacts.

Thanks to the capacity of modern modeling techniques this is relatively easy to predict for direct climate change effects such as the local frequency and intensity of floods, storms, sea level rise, wildfire and the like.

Indirect consequences of climate change such as shifts in growing seasons, the economic impacts of direct effects and the need to alter land use are less easy to predict. It is much harder to find adaptation solutions for these diffuse consequences.

What we do know is that adaptation will cost money.

But just like insurance, some adaptation would be wise even if climate does not change dramatically, especially in food production because this will be under pressure from growing population.

Pragmatology of climate change issues

There are many opinions on climate change issues…

  • is it real?
  • are we to blame?
  • what must we do about it, if anything?

Part of why controversy stalks every thought on the topic is that it actually is rather important — even if putting a finger on exactly what to do about climate change issues eludes us.

Only the import is not what we think.

Bigger storms or more severe wildfires will be what we see, but what matters is what these disturbances will do to the increasingly delicate balance between our needs and the capacity of the environment to support them.

› climate change issues

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in areas where climate change delivers dry windy conditions the likelihood of wildfires increases | damaging fire that destroyed houses, NSW Australia 2013

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