This FAQ addresses global warming—the rise in the average temperature of our planet as a whole—and climate change—the complex ways Earth's ecosystems respond. The evidence-based conclusion of scientists around the world is that global warming due to human activity is happening. The mounting data from real-world observations and the projections of future changes from reality-tested climate models have provoked a variety of actions and reactions from all levels of society. These actions boil down to three basic responses.
Mitigation is reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for climate change, so that less change occurs.
Adaptation is dealing with the consequences of warming and other aspects of climate change, such as changes in extreme weather events.
"Business as usual" is also a response. This option saves expenditures for mitigation in the near term, but risks higher adaptation costs to wildlife, human populations, infrastructure, and economies later on. It also increases the odds of unforeseen consequences from unchecked climate change.
Because some amount of climate change has already occurred, and more change is inevitable based on the greenhouse gases we have already added to the atmosphere and oceans, society will need to adapt. Yet in order to prevent even more-extreme climate change from happening, mitigation will be required.
Democratic societies around the world are examining these options, including how much attention and which resources to devote to each one, and how to find a balance between mitigation, adaptation, and competing economic and social concerns.
Fossil fuels pour carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere whenever we burn these fuels to power our transportation, heat and light our homes, and keep our industries and other businesses running. Alternatives to coal, gasoline, heating oil, and other fossil fuels are being explored, improved, and put to use by the private sector and governments around the world, across a wide range of options.
In the United States, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory serves as a hub for research and development across the renewable energy spectrum, including
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A recent search on a popular online search engine produced 23,900,000 results for "renewable energy"—just one indication that the global hunt for solutions to the fossil fuel problem is in full swing.
Numerous colleges and universities are also focusing research and course offerings on renewable energy questions, including many of UCAR's member, affiliate, and international affiliate universities. Since 2009, NCAR researchers have been developing methods to produce highly detailed, localized weather forecasts that are helping electric utilities pinpoint when wind power will be available.
People around the world are noticing and responding to impacts on natural systems; human adaptation is already happening. Farmers are exploring drought-resistant plants and modifying planting and harvesting schedules. Insurance companies are accounting for climate change as they set rates and examine policies. In the developed world, air conditioning is becoming more widespread in places it was never needed before. Some communities on small islands are planning how they will relocate as sea levels rise around them. The fate of plants and animals that cannot readily adapt is being discussed.
Mitigation is also happening on the local and personal level. Many U.S. cities and states have committed to reducing their output of greenhouse gases over the coming decades. Individuals are choosing fuel-thrifty or hybrid vehicles, for instance, or installing energy-saving light bulbs, and a growing number of businesses and organizations have pledged to become carbon neutral.
Volunteer "citizen scientists" are recording their observations to provide information about our climate over time. Some researchers are tapping a rich historical record of bird migration and seeking new student and backyard volunteers to report migration arrivals and departures. A collaboration between public and private agencies encourages volunteers of all ages to report the timing of budburst in spring. Participants record when dormant plants produce leaves and their flower buds first open in response to climate signals.
The United States joined with many other nations in signing a treaty in 1994 known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC, which has been ratified by 192 countries, recognizes that the climate system has no boundaries and that international cooperation is needed to seek solutions to the problems posed by rising greenhouse gases.
Considered a first step in a long diplomatic process, the Kyoto Protocol was an early and well-known agreement that emerged from the UNFCCC process. The protocol, which set modest targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, was adopted in 1997 and ratified by most countries in the world, though not the United States. Canada withdrew from the protocol in 2011.
The targets have been in force for over 180 signatory nations since early 2005. Before this point, more than 50 industrialized countries (referred to as “Annex I”) had agreed to reduce emissions by an average of 5.2% for the period 2008–12 compared to 1990. The signatories then dropped the rate to 4.2% in 2005 because the United States had not ratified the treaty.
While final numbers have not yet been calculated, it appears that the Annex I emissions have dropped by more than 10% (see PDF). However, emissions outside Annex I have risen dramatically. China’s alone have more than doubled, now comprising about 30% of all global emissions. As a result, total global emissions have continued to rise, apart from short-lived drops related to the 2008 economic crisis and recession.
The process of creating a post-Kyoto agreement has been challenging. In the most recent annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, which took place in Doha, Qatar, in late 2012, many nations agreed to continue their participation in the Kyoto Protocol. But getting a majority of nations around the world to agree on anything new takes time. The next global protocol, based on the Durban Platform from the 2011 Conference of the Parties meeting, is expected to take shape in negotiations extending from now through 2015.
Policy-relevant news from NCAR & UCAR
Climate change in cities: Vulnerabilities and strengths (July 18, 2012)
Climate change poses major risks for unprepared cities (April 06, 2011)
U.S. must take steps to adapt to climate change (September 29, 2010)
Climate in 2050 crucial to impacts in 2100 (January 11, 2010)
Cuts in Emissions Would Save Arctic Ice (April 14, 2009)
What You Can Do
Environmental Protection Agency
IGLO: International Action on Global Warming
Adaptation, Mitigation, and Other Policy Issues
In the United States
America's Climate Choices (National Academy of Sciences)
Around the World
At the United Nations
Research Partnerships - Examples
Updated: October 2013