The US climate change report: danger or opportunity?

Last Friday, a day when many Americans are thinking of shopping rather than climate change, the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released by the U. S. government.  A massive 1600-page document, it reportedly goes into great detail about how projected increases in average temperatures are going to affect the U. S., especially the economy.  

I have read only the twelve summary statements at the beginning of the report, but those are pessimistic enough.  Floods, storms, and rising temperatures will threaten to overwhelm our already crumbling infrastructure of drainage systems, water supplies, power grids, and roads.  Agricultural policies and practices that have worked in the past will fail to keep up with changes in crop viabilities worldwide.  The "trillion-dollar coastal property market" will be threatened with collapse, and, well, things are going to go you-know-where in a handbasket, generally speaking.

This is not an alarmist tome.  A lot of serious professionals have done a lot of work to compile evidence-based predictions that have focused not just on gee-whiz sentimental issues such as polar bears (not that I have anything against polar bears), but on bread-and-butter issues like economic and infrastructure problems that will probably get worse.  Given the present climate (so to speak) in Washington, this was a clever strategy on the part of the report's organizers.  If money men are in power, talk about money to get their attention.  Whether the report will inspire the results the writers want to get is another question.

Most people admit there is more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than there used to be, and that this increase will lead to some amount of rise in the average global temperature.  The hard part of this topic is to decide what to do about it.  From my superficial skimming of the report's summary, I glean that its recommendations fall into two categories.

One is to cut down greenhouse-gas emissions.  This is the hardest bullet to bite.  The global economy presently runs largely on fossil fuels, and the green fantasy of a zero-carbon-emission economy is just that—a fantasy.  I'm not saying it will never happen, but to achieve it even in a long lifetime from now would require a global dictatorship that would make Cambodia's Pol Pot look like Mr. Rogers.  

Add to that the fact that greenhouse gases don't stay where they are emitted, but eagerly mix into the global atmosphere, and you have the world's largest tragedy of the commons—it's in every nation's general interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it's in every nation's specific interest to get everybody else to do it while you yourself keep burning coal, oil, and gas.  Given the practical realities of international politics, it begins to look like the wisest course for an individual country is to plan for the worst-case warming scenario defensively, while doing no more than your fair share to cut back emissions.

And that's where another word, "adaptation," becomes prominent in the report's twelve summaries of findings, in the second category of recommendations.  Here's where engineers can make a difference that is pretty uncontroversial.  Are floods going to be predictably more severe?  Improve flood-abatement planning and design so that even the new worst-case flood doesn't kill as many people or damage as much property.  Are tides going to be higher on the coasts?  There are millions of opportunities to do something about that in every stretch of coastline, and most of them involve spending money on engineering projects.  

I'm not saying that engineering firms and engineers should profit by the harm that global warming might otherwise cause.  But most large-scale public engineering works—utility and transportation networks, for instance—already involve forecasting and planning.  Climate change, to the extent that it is predictable, must factor into those plans, and can even motivate new or replacement construction as an added incentive to do something, rather than just letting the old infrastructure continue to crumble while fighting crisis fires as they arise.

Broadly speaking, the profession of engineering bears some responsibility for all that carbon dioxide in the air.  Modern society as a whole made the decision to use first steam power, then electricity and fossil-fueled transportation, but none of that could have happened without engineers.  It is only fitting that engineers will help us deal with the consequences of higher levels of greenhouse gases, whatever those consequences may be. 

The chief danger I see in all the rush to do something about climate change is not technical, but political.  As the English philosopher and political scientist Edmund Burke noted in his 1790 work Reflections on the Revolution in France, institutions are complicated and delicate things.  No one completely understands how a national economy or a national government works.  So it is the better part of wisdom to go slowly when attempting to remedy an ill.  Radical and untried measures such as draconian carbon taxes could trigger a global economic depression that could be more harmful than the climate change it was intended to fight. 

There are those who seem to think that the world's worst existential threat is climate change, and who have the revolutionary attitude that any action is justified by such a threat, including moving toward a global type of European-Union-style government that would systematically implement controls on fossil fuels and energy use.  Burke would caution against any such move.  While it might achieve its intended technical goal of reducing climate change, the price in loss of national sovereignty and the evils that a truly effective world government might do would not be worth paying, in my estimation.

So if you have nothing better to do over the Christmas holidays, curl up with your tablet and the 1600-page Fourth National Climate Assessment and become the best-informed person you know about climate change.  As for me, I've got some Christmas shopping to do instead.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Sources:  I referred to a BBC report carried on Nov. 24, 2018 at, and one at Science Magazine at  The report itself can be accessed at


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