Three Prongs for Prudent Climate Policy
An evaluation of a three-pronged strategy for mitigating climate change risks that emphasizes adding adaptation and amelioration to the emission mitigation approach.
For three decades, advocates for climate change policy have simultaneously emphasized the urgency of taking ambitious actions to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and provided false reassurances of the feasibility of doing so. The policy prescription has relied almost exclusively on a single approach: reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and other GHGs. Since 1990, global CO₂ emissions have increased 60 percent, atmospheric CO₂ concentrations have raced past 400 parts per million, and temperatures increased at an accelerating rate. The one-prong strategy has not worked. After reviewing emission mitigation’s poor performance and low-probability of delivering on long-term climate goals, we evaluate a three-pronged strategy for mitigating climate change risks: adding adaptation and amelioration—through solar radiation management (SRM)—to the emission mitigation approach. We identify SRM’s potential, at dramatically lower cost than emission mitigation, to play a key role in offsetting warming. We address the moral hazard reservation held by environmental advocates—that SRM would diminish emission mitigation incentives—and posit that SRM deployment might even serve as an “awful action alert” that galvanizes more ambitious emission mitigation. We conclude by assessing the value of an iterative act-learn-act policy framework that engages all three prongs for limiting climate change damages.
- A mitigation-only strategy cannot achieve the internationally recognized target of keeping the global average temperature from climbing 2°C above the pre-industrial average.
- Solar radiation management alone would not be an appropriate policy: emissions mitigation will be required to address non-temperature concerns such as ocean acidification.
- Solar radiation management is in the early stages of research and development, but it is projected that it will cost far less to implement than many mitigation and adaptation strategies.
- Solar radiation management could serve as an “awful action alert”: by deploying a strategy that some environmental advocates would label an “awful action.” Policymakers would be signaling to the public the extreme danger posed by climate change. This could galvanize support for more ambitious emission mitigation.
Joseph E. Aldy
Joe Aldy is a university fellow at RFF and professor of the practice of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. His research focuses on climate change policy, energy policy, and mortality risk evaluation.
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