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Kevin Bullis

A View from Kevin Bullis

Leaked Climate Report Implies the Need for Improved Technologies

The uncertainties about climate change discussed in an upcoming report highlight the need for ways to adapt quickly.

  • August 20, 2013

Scientists are more certain than ever that human-caused climate change is happening, according to on a leaked draft of an upcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To be precise, the group says it’s “extremely likely,” judging from a review of the scientific literature, that more than half of the temperature rise observed in the last 59 years is due to factors such as greenhouse-gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

But the scientists also acknowledge a large degree of uncertainty about just how much temperatures will rise in the future and precisely how this will affect weather or sea levels, all of which makes it hard for governments and corporations to make plans. If greenhouse-gas emissions don’t precipitously decline soon, they’ll need to know how high to build seawalls, how to reinforce the power grid to accommodate storms and high temperatures, and how to plan for droughts, floods, and the famine and displacement those could cause.

Improved technology can help. Better computer models and climate observation methods can help reduce uncertainty, but Ronald Prinn, a climate scientist at MIT, says that there will always be limits to how certain scientists can be, given the enormous complexity of climate and uncertainties about future greenhouse-gas emissions.

High on the list of technologies that can help, of course, are those that could reduce emissions: cheaper solar panels, supergrids that can help even out variations from renewable energy, carbon capture technology that can reduce emissions from power plants, more efficient engines, cheaper electric cars, and a whole range of technologies to improve the efficiency of buildings and industrial processes (see “A Material That Could Make Solar Power ‘Dirt Cheap’”). Better nuclear power plants could provide stable, large-scale power with low carbon dioxide emissions (see “A Nuclear Reactor Competitive with Natural Gas”). Though currently far-fetched, technologies that could take carbon dioxide directly out of the air could allow us to reducethe impact of the greenhouse gases we’ve already released.

But these technologies will take time to develop and implement. Meanwhile, the challenge of competing with fossil fuels only grows as technological advances unlock vast quantities of new resources. So just as important as low-carbon power technologies will be technologies that allow communities and nations to adapt quickly.

Building more sensors, automated controls, and distributed power generation into the grid will make it adaptable so that it can more easily ride out storms and heat waves (see “With Florida Project, the Smart Grid Has Arrived”). Pushing forward biotechnologies will allow us to produce better drought- and heat-resistant crops and continue to increase yields. Can someone invent something that’s cheaper and faster than building seawalls to counter storm surges? Can ubiquitous cell phones help spread the word to farmers in poor countries about ways to save water, or alternative crops to plant as conditions change? Is there a role for social networks, which have helped foment revolution, in helping countries quickly change to accommodate climate changes?

Given how uncertain climate predictions can be, and how little success we’ve had in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions so far, we should be doing everything we can to improve our ability to adapt.

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