05/30/2013 - 16:18

Weighing the risks of climate change mitigation strategies

Evan Mills

Evan Mills is a staff scientist at the US Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He served as an author for several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change...

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Most experts agree that the greatest risk associated with climate change is pretending that the problem does not exist, or that it does not require immediate attention and action. That said, the potential pathways for mitigating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions are not created equal in terms of the risks and benefits they entail. Public discourse tends to focus on the most optimistic scenarios for implementing new technologies and to ignore not only the hazards but also the non-climate-related benefits associated with some approaches. Climate mitigation strategies currently undergo economic and engineering analyses, but they are not consistently subjected to rigorous risk assessment and risk management. The author offers the beginnings of a more cohesive decision-support analysis framework. Assessments of various mitigation strategies by the world’s largest industry—insurance—are critically important in this process because insurers can provide a dispassionate view and internalize the costs of risk through pricing. Bank financing cannot be mobilized without insurance, and the public sector may be forced to assume many of the risks associated with emerging technologies if insurers opt out. A century of dangerously blending technological enthusiasm with lack of care in assessing the comparative risks of energy and land-use choices ushered in today’s climate crisis. Continued inattention threatens to saddle society with new risks from poorly prioritized efforts to solve the climate problem. Procrastination is painting humankind into a corner in which progressively riskier and unproven technologies will be required to mitigate climate change.