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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

CRS Issue Statement on Climate Change: Impacts, Mitigation, and Adaptation

Jane A. Leggett, Coordinator
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy

Without radical changes globally from current policies and economic trajectories, experts uniformly expect that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will continue to grow and lead to continued warming of the Earth's climate. GHG emissions released now will induce climate changes for centuries. Regions that now are dry are likely to get drier, while regions that now are wet, are likely to get wetter. Extreme precipitation and droughts are expected to become more frequent. Experts project that warming ocean waters will expand, and melting glaciers and ice sheets will add to sea level rise. The Arctic Ocean could become free of pack ice in summers within a few decades. Changes in ocean circulation could reduce ocean productivity and alter continental climates. Abrupt changes in the state of the climate system could occur, with unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences. These have implications for virtually all activities and sectors, including agriculture and forestry, water supply and other infrastructure, insurance, public health, emergency management; and security. 

Experts agree that climate change, in the near term, will create both those who gain (e.g., agricultural producers in cool to moderate and wet climates) and those who will suffer (e.g., agricultural producers in hot and dry climates). Some people are likely to experience such radical changes in their climate that their current ways of life—and possibly their locales—become unsustainable. Some people will have the resources to migrate and adapt successfully—even profit from new opportunities that will emerge—while others could lose livelihoods or lives. Embodied in any debate over climate change and what to do to promote successful adaptation, and how to address the potential inequities of policies to mitigate or to adapt to climate change. 

A growing set of legislative proposals and international actions aim to promote understanding of climate change impacts, and to stimulate adaptation to climate change. Policy options include: 

• improved research and characterization of climate variability, potential change, and implications for different sectors and ecosystems; 

• public information, both broad and targeted to specific risks; 

• development of practical tools to assist decision-makers for their areas of operation (e.g., water management, infrastructure engineering, disease vector prediction, federal or state policy, etc.); 

• financial or regulatory incentives to reduce risks (e.g., to discourage construction in vulnerable flood plains and coastal zones, to encourage insurers to include climate change risks in their premium schedules, etc.); 

• improved emergency planning, etc.; and 

• acquisition of key assets, such as easements in coastal zones or lands along wildlife migratory routes, that may be valuable for long-term adaptation. 

Controversies include the relative priority to give to adaptation versus mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions; the appropriate roles of governments at various levels; how much effort and funding to devote to impacts research and adaptation; who should pay; and how to make adaptation efforts most efficient.

Date of Report: January 11, 2010
Number of Pages: 3
Order Number: IS41019
Price: $19.95

Document available electronically as a pdf file or in paper form.
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