Are We Gambling with the Climate?

Image-courtesy MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

Image-courtesy MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

These two roulette wheels are putting a new spin on gambling.  They’re the conclusions of new climate research coming from a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. The red hot roulette wheel predicts the accelerated rise in temperatures expected without policy action, while the cooler blue wheel shows a slower rise in temperatures that would come with significant policy intervention.

These findings are based on an MIT Integrated Global Systems Model that not only factored human economic growth and energy usage, but other climate-affecting variables such as underlying warming induced by 20th century volcanoes and the rise of deep ocean temperatures that can affect carbon dioxide transfer between air and water. After 400 runs of the model, each with slight input variations, the results indicated less chance of low emissions than projected in earlier scenarios and an even higher projected median temperature increase than the 2.4 degrees reported in a 2003 study. Specifically, findings showed a 90 percent probability range of a 3.5 to 7.4 degrees Celsius surface warming by the end of this century, depending on how aggressively climate change was addressed.

Given that scientists see even a 2-degree Celsius rise as a dangerous tipping point, the emphasis is not only on action, but aggresive policy action.  But the findings did not go into the minutiae of what that policy action is, though we can assume that it includes moving beyond the current efforts of capping carbon emissions through market schemes.

Aggressive action would require transforming the numerous sectors that rely on energy consumption and production, such as transportation, commercial and residential development. For example, cities must take a leading role in reducing emissions by creating effective systems of public transport and pedestrian pathways accessible to all inhabitants. Smart suburban developments would grow, replacing mallscapes with walkable town centers, and homes and farms that would be built to maximize high quality, low-ecological impact living.

Simultaneously, quality of life options would have to factor into this policy change. In other words, the choice of eating fresh, locally grown food, the choice of walking instead of having to drive, and the choice of spending leisure time at a local park are all factors that enable the public to live healthier, more sustainable lifestyles.  In a sense, aggressive policy must count not only the economic but the environmentally and socially beneficial outcomes of policy to ensure the right incentives to guide the policymaking. 

At this point, as the two roulette wheels show, no matter how aggressive the policies we implement are, we’re already gambling with crossing into a new climate reality—one that the human species is not adapted to. Considering that we’re gambling with the fate of humanity, perhaps we should bet conservatively. Even the strongest policies won’t stop climate change at this point, but at least they can keep warming closer to or maybe even under the tipping point, and give humanity more time to adapt to a warming planet.

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