Since 1965 the
scientific world has issued grim warnings, and now we’re actually experiencing
global warming. Evidence of this warming trend appears in reports issued
by the widely recognized Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The U.S. National Assessment of Potential Consequences of Climate
Variability and Change, which was released for public review on
June 12, 2000, discusses the likely impacts of climate change in the
United States. This report notes that the warming has already had an
impact in Alaska. Because the Arctic permafrost there is thawing, roads
and airstrips are buckling, requiring constant and costly repairs. As
the ice melts, Alaskans who hunt ice-dwelling seals for food are struggling
to adjust to a more uncertain future.
Adapting to climate
change has never been easy for humans, but now that there is a consensus
that global warming is occurring, three ORNL researchers are focusing
on adaptation to climate change and to increased variability in weather
"We are among
the first to do a study that will compare the costs and benefits of
investing in methods to adapt to climate change with investing in ways
to avoid it," says Tom Wilbanks. Wilbanks, who leads the Global Change
and Developing Country Programs in ORNL's Energy Division, is an ORNL
corporate fellow and a contributor to the national assessment report.
"In the 1980s
and 1990s, the emphasis had been on using increased energy efficiency
and fuel switching to avoid climate change. But now it is accepted that
the global average surface temperature could rise 2.5°F in 100 years
even if the controls recommended at the Kyoto conference are put into
place. So, adaptation is likely to be required regardless how successful
we are with mitigation."
Brown, deputy director of ORNL's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
Program, and Russell Lee, director of the Energy Division's Center for
Energy and Environmental Analysis, are developing an analytical approach
to compare the costs and benefits of adaptation versus avoidance. This
project is a three-year study funded internally by the Laboratory Directed
Research and Development Program. They note that reducing greenhouse
gas levels to avoid climate change has national and international impacts,
whereas adaptation approaches and their payoffs may vary from region
For example, large
cities such as Chicago are likely to have hotter summers. One adaptation
strategy might be to ensure that all homes in the city have air conditioning
to prevent severe, even lethal, health risks to the elderly poor. (Some
have died from stifling heat because they wouldn't open their windows
for fear of break-ins by burglars.)
unusual weather in 1998 brought a flood to Clear Lake, California.
in the southeastern United States may face more hurricanes and tropical
storms such as Hurricane Floyd, which caused such devastating flooding
of hog farms in eastern North Carolina in 1999. Adaptation strategies
to reduce the population’s vulnerability to the effects of future hurricanes
might include better management of river systems, protection of municipal
water supplies, changes in building codes to make houses more flood-resistant,
and improved management of animal wastes (which could be used as a relatively
clean energy source).
Virginia, was flooded in 1999 as a result of Hurricane Floyd,
which caused 40 deaths.
If the ocean rises
and the coast of Florida is in danger of being perpetually flooded,
people may have to evacuate their houses permanently or replace them
with flood-resistant houses that may be called for by building codes.
"Better warning systems will be needed," Brown says. "Dikes may have
to be built. But building a sea-wall can be a problem ecologically because
some species inland thrive on the influx of saline water."
a result of the drought in July and August 1999, part of the streambed
of Bear Creek at Forest Park, Maryland, was dry.
Farmers in the
Midwest may face more and longer droughts. Adaptation strategies could
include improved water resource management and planning, such as transporting
water to the region from long distances or drilling deeper wells. Farmers
could switch from one crop to a variety of crops, including newly developed
drought-resistant grains. Another option would be to shift agricultural
production to areas less prone to drought.
"The sugar maple
industry is already moving from Maine to Canada," Wilbanks notes, "and
commercial forestry is switching from hardwoods to pulpwoods."
"States may put political
pressure on Washington to provide funding to their regions for adaptation,"
Lee says. "Regions may want to make investments in anticipation of relatively
high-probability changes such as drying and lower-probability but higher-impact
changes such as increases in the frequency and severity of storms."
could also have an impact on health and health-care facilities. For
example, tropical diseases such as dengue fever might spread to northern
climes. "The U.S. government may have to strengthen its public health
care system to make sure physicians know how to treat diseases they
are not used to seeing," Wilbanks says.
"A key challenge
in our project," says Lee, "is to develop an analytical approach that
assesses the costs and benefits of such varied adaptation options and
increases our knowledge about how much they can help reduce impacts
of climate change."
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program