What can we do about climate change?

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By Jody Benson

Here’s something most of us know: There is a correlation between the Earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. And here’s another measure: CO2 concentrations grew 60 percent faster during the last eight years than in the 1990s.

To many, this fact is a big ho-hum. Climate scientists say the globe is warming. Michael Crichton says it’s not (he ought to know – he wrote “Jurassic Park”), so what could we do about it anyway? What possible effect would my taking the Atomic City Transit to work have on global climate?

Good question. But what if we could answer it? What if there were a way to investigate quantitatively the consequences of, say, something easy like turning off a light? Would that information actually change our behavior?

Quantifying our actions relative to climate change is the purpose of LANL’s model Climate Energy Assessment for Resiliency (CLEAR). In a recent presentation to the Sierra Club, Donatella Pasqualini (with the Laboratory’s Computational Earth Sciences Group) described the Model’s development and purpose: to allow individuals to understand their personal role in global warming.

CLEAR is being piloted as an interactive model in Sonoma County, California, a community like ours that wants to understand what it would take to decrease its carbon footprint.

Recognizing individual behavior as the critical component, CLEAR focuses not on the usual top-down decision-making where only a nation’s leader decides whether climate change is an issue, but bottom-up where communities understand the consequences of increased CO2 for climate change, as well as how personal actions contribute to its increase. They can then make decisions to change or mitigate CO2-creating choices.

“We act as if we’re acting in a steady state, but that’s no longer valid,” Pasqualini said. “Decision makers make decisions based on a target, but if the target changes really fast, then they must have the ability to change the decision quickly. Decision makers need new kinds of information and new ways of thinking and learning based not only on data about climate, but about society.” How people actually engage with the data is the most variable component, and the one on which the final outcome depends.

Pasqualini pointed out that human survival depends on two elements, adaptation and mitigation. We have those two options with climate change. For example, she said, we can adapt by developing more drought-tolerant plants and mitigate by moving coastal cities to higher ground. Or, we could mitigate by changing our behavior to slow the seemingly inevitable drought and sea-level rise.

CLEAR simulates the complex interactions among the many variables of technology deployment, economics and social behavior, agriculture and transportation.

These data create a model that is not predictive but prognostic to help understand how the major components – energy, water, climate, economics, policies, transportation, population, agriculture, industry and behavior – affect each other.

The model-interface informs stakeholders and policy-makers to better understand options for implementation of technologies and to avoid unintended consequences.

Say you want to see what would happen if half of Los Alamos rides the bus and selects the Green Energy option for utilities. Input these parameters to create a scenario, then run it to see the effect of these choices for both today and up to 2020. You can do scenario comparisons and also policy selection. What if we do X or what if we don’t?

As Pasqualini emphasized, “One of the biggest challenges of the 21st century is to meet the global energy demand and at the same time to manage carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic socio-economic and environmental consequences.”

It seems as if people would rather relocate New York City than turn off their computer. A case in point is: How much has our national behavior changed since Katrina?

Perhaps because we think we’re helpless against what seems like such an overwhelmingly global problem, we believe there’s absolutely nothing we can do. Yet if data actually proved that a thousand of us shutting down our computers every night would make a significant difference, would we make the effort? I’d do it. I love the Earth too much to waste it for eight seconds of convenience. I bet you would, too.

For more information on CLEAR, please visit http://public.lanl.gov/dp/CLEAR.html