Climate Future: Averting and Adapting to Climate Change

Robert S. Pindyck,

October 2021

Most books, articles and discussions about climate change focus on two very important questions. First, if the world continues to emit growing amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs), what will happen to the climate over the coming decades? By how much will temperatures increase? What will warming do to sea levels, the severity and frequency of storms and hurricanes, the extent of droughts, and other aspects of climate? And perhaps most important, what will be the economic and social damage resulting from these changes?

Second, what should be done to avert climate change? In particular, by how much and how rapidly should GHG emissions be reduced, and what policy tools should be used to achieve those emission reductions? Is a carbon tax the best policy tool, and if so, how large should the tax be?

But there are two additional questions that are equally important. First, while we might agree on what should be done, we need to ask what will be done to avert or reduce the extent of climate change? Even if we are optimistic about the likelihood of countries agreeing to major reductions in their GHG emissions, what kinds of emission scenarios can we realistically expect to see? Is it reasonable to think that worldwide emissions will fall drastically and rapidly enough during the next few decades to prevent severe climate change?

Second, suppose we conclude that it is not realistic to expect global GHG emissions to fall sufficiently and quickly enough, so that despite our best efforts we (or our children and grandchildren) are likely to experience higher temperatures and rising sea levels. Then what should we do in response? Should we take actions now to avert or reduce the impact of climate change that is likely to result given realistic emission scenarios, and if so, what kinds of actions?

This second set of questions is a major focus of this book. I will explain that there is a great deal of uncertainty over what might happen, and we might be lucky and end up with only a mild degree of climate change. But counting on good luck does not make for smart policy. The fact is that given the economic and political realities, it is simply not realistic to expect the kinds of GHG emission reductions needed to avert a substantial amount of global warming, and as a result, we should take actions now to reduce the possible impacts of that warming. The actions I am referring to involve various forms adaptation. How do I reach those conclusions, and what forms of adaption do I have in mind? Read on to find out.

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