If you want to offset your emissions, you can buy certificates, with the money going to projects that protect forests, capture greenhouse gases and so forth. You can also buy offset certificates in a private marketplace, from companies such as TerraPass ; some people even give these as holiday gifts. In states that allow you to choose your own electricity supplier, you can often elect to buy green electricity; you pay slightly more, and the money goes into a fund that helps finance projects like wind farms.
Leading companies are also starting to demand clean energy for their operations. You can pay attention to company policies, patronize the leaders, and let the others know you expect them to do better. In the end, though, experts do not believe the needed transformation in the energy system can happen without strong state and national policies. So speaking up and exercising your rights as a citizen matters as much as anything else you can do.
In the best case that scientists can imagine, several things happen: Earth turns out to be less sensitive to greenhouse gases than currently believed; plants and animals manage to adapt to the changes that have already become inevitable; human society develops much greater political will to bring emissions under control; and major technological breakthroughs occur that help society to limit emissions and to adjust to climate change. Some technological breakthroughs are already making cleaner energy more attractive. In the United States, for instance, coal has been losing out to natural gas as a power source, as new drilling technology has made gas more abundant and cheaper; for a given amount of power, gas cuts emissions in half.
In addition, the cost of wind and solar power has declined so much that they are now the cheapest power source in a few places, even without subsidies. Unfortunately, scientists and energy experts say the odds of all these things breaking our way are not very high. The Earth could just as easily turn out to be more sensitive to greenhouse gases as less. Global warming seems to be causing chaos in parts of the natural world already, and that seems likely to get worse, not better.
So in the view of the experts, simply banking on rosy assumptions without any real plan would be dangerous. They believe the only way to limit the risks is to limit emissions. Agriculture of all types produces greenhouse gases that warm the planet, but meat production is especially harmful — and beef is the most environmentally damaging form of meat. Some methods of cattle production demand a lot of land, contributing to destruction of forests; the trees are typically burned, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Other methods require huge amounts of water and fertilizer to grow food for the cows. The cows themselves produce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes short-term warming. Meat consumption is rising worldwide as the population grows, and as economic development makes people richer and better able to afford meat.
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This trend is worrisome. Studies have found that if the whole world were to start eating beef at the rate Americans eat it, produced by the methods typically used in the United States, that alone might erase any chance of staying below an internationally agreed-upon limit on global warming. Pork production creates somewhat lower emissions than beef production, and chicken lower still. So reducing your meat consumption, or switching from beef and pork to chicken in your diet, are moves in the right direction.
Of course, as with any kind of behavioral change meant to benefit the climate, this will only make a difference if lots of other people do it, too, reducing the overall demand for meat products. That is actually hard to say, which is one reason scientists are urging that emissions be cut; they want to limit the possibility of the worst case coming to pass. Perhaps the greatest fear is a collapse of food production, accompanied by escalating prices and mass starvation. It is unclear how likely this would be, since farmers are able to adjust their crops and farming techniques, to a degree, to adapt to climatic changes.
But we have already seen heat waves contribute to broad crop failures. A decade ago, a big run-up in grain prices precipitated food riots around the world and led to the collapse of at least one government, in Haiti. In places like Florida and Virginia, towns are already starting to have trouble with coastal flooding. Scientists also worry about other wild-card events.
Will the Asian monsoons become less reliable, for instance? Billions of people depend on the monsoons to provide water for crops, so any disruptions could be catastrophic. Another possibility is a large-scale breakdown of the circulation patterns in the ocean, which could potentially lead to sudden, radical climate shifts across entire continents. As more companies, governments and researchers devote themselves to the problem, the chances of big technological advances are improving. But even many experts who are optimistic about technological solutions warn that current efforts are not enough.
For instance, spending on basic energy research is only a quarter to a third of the level that several in-depth reports have recommended. And public spending on agricultural research has stagnated even though climate change poses growing risks to the food supply.
People like Bill Gates have argued that crossing our fingers and hoping for technological miracles is not a strategy — we have to spend the money that would make these things more likely to happen.
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The ocean is rising at a rate of about a foot per century. That causes severe effects on coastlines, forcing governments and property owners to spend tens of billions of dollars fighting erosion. But if that rate continued, it would probably be manageable, experts say. The risk is that the rate will accelerate markedly. A recent study found that burning all the fossil fuels in the ground would fully melt the polar ice sheets, raising the sea level by more than feet over an unknown period.
Many coastal experts believe that even if emissions stopped tomorrow, 15 or 20 feet of sea-level rise is already inevitable. The crucial issue is probably not how much the oceans are going to rise, but how fast. And on that point, scientists are pretty much flying blind. Studies suggest that big cuts in emissions could slow the rise, buying crucial time for society to adapt to an altered coastline.
The idea that Earth is sensitive to greenhouse gases is confirmed by many lines of scientific evidence. For instance, the basic physics suggesting that an increase of carbon dioxide traps more heat was discovered in the 19th century, and has been verified in thousands of laboratory experiments. Climate science does contain uncertainties, of course. The biggest is the degree to which global warming sets off feedback loops, such as a melting of sea ice that will darken the surface and cause more heat to be absorbed, melting more ice, and so forth.
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It is not clear exactly how much the feedbacks will intensify the warming; some of them could even partly offset it. This uncertainty means that computer forecasts can give only a range of future climate possibilities, not absolute predictions. But even if those computer forecasts did not exist, a huge amount of evidence suggests that scientists have the basic story right. The most important evidence comes from the study of past climate conditions, a field known as paleoclimate research. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has fluctuated naturally in the past, and every time it rises, the Earth warms up, ice melts and the ocean rises.
These past conditions are not a perfect guide to the future, because humans are pumping carbon dioxide into the air far faster than nature has ever done. But they show it would be foolish to assume that modern society is somehow immune to large-scale, threatening changes. Most of the attacks on climate science are coming from libertarians and other political conservatives who do not like the policies that have been proposed to fight global warming.
Instead of negotiating over those policies and trying to make them more subject to free-market principles, they have taken the approach of blocking them by trying to undermine the science. This ideological position has been propped up by money from fossil-fuel interests, which have paid to create organizations, fund conferences and the like.
The scientific arguments made by these groups usually involve cherry-picking data, such as focusing on short-term blips in the temperature record or in sea ice, while ignoring the long-term trends. As the arguments have become more strained, many oil and coal companies have begun to distance themselves publicly from climate denialism, but some are still helping to finance the campaigns of politicians who espouse such views.
Scientists have published strong evidence that the warming climate is making heat waves more frequent and intense. It is also causing heavier rainstorms , and coastal flooding is getting worse as the oceans rise because of human emissions. In many other cases, though, the linkage to global warming for particular trends is uncertain or disputed. That is partly from a lack of good historical weather data, but it is also scientifically unclear how certain types of events may be influenced by the changing climate.
The Internet has made us all more aware of weather disasters in distant places.