In This Issue
Climate Change
September 15, 2010 Volume 40 Issue 3

Bringing Climate Down to Earth

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Author: Robert W. Fri

Editor's Note

In May 2010, the National Research Council (NRC) simultaneously released three reports on climate change, part of a major project called America’s Climate Choices (ACC). The headline on the summary of the three reports stated that strong evidence of climate change underscores the need to limit emissions and adapt to inevitable impacts. Somewhat more expansively, the reports concluded that:

  • A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a wide range of human and natural systems (NRC, 2010a).
  • Meeting internationally discussed targets for limiting atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will require a major departure from business as usual in how the world uses and produces energy (NRC, 2010b).
  • Adaptation to climate change calls for a new paradigm—one that considers a variety of possible future climate conditions, some well outside the realm of past experience (NRC, 2010c).

Taken together, these reports address numerous complex issues that continue to arise in dealing with the climate problem over many decades. The scope of this issue of The Bridge is more modest, but I think important nonetheless. In it, five authors—all participants in the ACC project—look at the way industry, public officials, and households must begin now to incorporate climate change into their planning and decision making.

Henry G. Schwartz Jr. examines the likely effects of climate change on the transportation infrastructure. The extent of the possible impacts is impressive and, for me at least, unexpected. Schwartz points out that the ports of New York, Boston, and New Orleans are all in coastal, flood-prone zones at risk from rising ocean levels and stronger storm surges due to climate change. Many of the nation’s highways and rail lines are similarly exposed. Other impacts on the built infrastructure are less direct but equally important; for example, rising temperatures could affect thermal expansion joints on bridges, buckle rail tracks, and degrade pavements. Schwartz concludes that engineers should be thinking about these matters now in their design decisions.

Gary Yohe explores how this thinking might be structured. The problem is uncertainty. Even as climate science makes a clear case for action, it cannot tell designers the specific impacts to expect at the local level. As a result, Yohe says, decisions about adapting to climate change are best considered in a risk-management framework. He explores the issue at both theoretical and practical levels. Of special interest is his review of the process developed in New York City to incorporate adaptation into the city’s planning for infrastructure investment. A key observation from this experience is that adaptation decisions are driven more by the frequency of extreme events caused by climate change than by broad indicators of change.

The remaining articles turn to the transformations climate change will require in the nation’s energy system. The U.S. energy system is more than 80 percent dependent on fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—and produces 85 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since limiting future climate change will require a reduction in these emissions by around 80 percent by 2050, the future energy system will necessarily look very different from the current system. And 40 years is not a long time to transform a massive system that is deeply embedded in the nation’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, it is both necessary and possible to start the transformation now, and two authors suggest how we might begin.

Marilyn A. Brown and her colleagues take on the problem of energy efficiency in industry. Improving energy efficiency is important in all sectors, of course, but as Brown points out, industry has special opportunities. For example, some industries can use waste heat profitably and with substantial effect in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And in many cases, technology that uses less energy is also more productive in other ways. Then, expanding her focus beyond the United States, Brown also argues that energy efficiency is becoming a decisive strategy for maintaining U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.

Increasing electricity production from renewable energy sources, such as wind, is another step toward transforming our energy system that can begin now. Douglas J. Arent reviews the current state of our rapidly growing renewable energy production and makes a crucially important point about the future of these sources. Some energy industry analysts assign demerits to wind and solar energy because of their variable availability. It’s true, of course, that the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine uniformly throughout the day. But Arent points out several practical steps that could be taken to integrate these variable sources into the electric system. These ideas are just beginning to take hold, and more experience with them could have important benefits for the potential of renewable energy.

In the final article, I look at the energy system as a whole and ask whether technology is available to transform it to the necessary extent. By estimating a greenhouse gas emissions budget for the United States, it is possible to make a quantitative, but rough comparison of the need for technology and its availability. This analysis suggests that we could go a long way toward meeting the emissions budget with existing technological know-how but cautions against being overly optimistic. Substantial barriers to the diffusion of known technology will have to be overcome, and we need more research to produce new technologies that can do the job at lower cost.

These five articles obviously cannot cover the full range of steps we must take to manage climate change. But they do share a common theme—that engineers and scientists should lead the way. Getting technology actually working in place and learning from experience with it are essential first steps in transforming the energy system. Similarly, as New York City and other jurisdictions have learned, assessing the impact of climate change on the built infrastructure can have real consequences for infrastructure planning. In short, there is plenty of work to be done, and it should begin now.

Robert W. Fri
Senior Fellow Emeritus and Visiting Scholar
Resources for the Future Inc.


NRC (National Research Council). 2010a. Advancing the Science of Climate Change. Prepublication. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Available online at

NRC. 2010b. Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change. Prepublication. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Available online at

NRC. 2010c. Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. Prepublication. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Available online at

About the Author:Robert W. Fri is Senior Fellow Emeritus and Visiting Scholar, Resources for the Future.