Should We Try to Adapt to Climate Change Instead of Trying to Prevent It? | Opinion

This originally appeared on Quora. Answered by Richard Muller.

The natural climate cycles, for the past million years, consist of long periods of glaciation with short interglacial warm periods. We are now in one of those warm periods. We don’t expect the natural cycles to contribute significantly to warming.

Humans have taken over. The human-caused increase in CO2 in the last two centuries has led to a 1.5°C rise in land temperatures. With the expected CO2 increases from human burning of fossil fuels, we can expect another 1.5°C rise in the next 50 to 100 years. That is my own conclusion based on our independent analysis at BerkeleyEarth.org. It does not depend on the IPCC models or on government analysis.

11_01_climate_change Scientists agree: the climate is changing and it's our fault. Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

We can adapt, but it is difficult to adapt rapidly without significant disruption. However, we can also avoid the large temperature rise. Doing so requires three approaches (I call this the triad):

  1. improved energy conservation
  2. substitution of natural gas for coal (½ to ⅓ the CO2 emissions)
  3. greater reliance on nuclear power

Any one of these could have a bigger impact than the treaty proposed in Paris. If you read my older books, such as Physics for Future Presidents, you’ll recall that I was once a big fan of solar. However solar has disappointed; right now less than 0.1% of the energy use in China is solar, and in China the capability for new coal burning is growing much more rapidly than is the solar cell production.

The real reason for the choice of items on my triad is that all of them can be done profitably. In the developing world, if it isn’t profitable, it isn’t sustainable. Please quote me.

Yes, we can and will adapt. But countries fight wars over energy, and adaptation is likely more filled with misery than making a profit from the triad. The difficulties with the triad are largely government disinterest (e.g. conservation) or active opposition. The US has not been setting a good example by its exaggerated fears of nuclear power. We have been setting a good example by our rapid development of natural gas (no, it is not really a greenhouse threat; see this and this).