U.S. Should Focus on Climate Change Now, Professor and Other Experts Say in National Academy Report

May 12, 2011

The U.S. government and private industry should take steps now to limit and adapt to man-made climate change, according to a new National Academy of Sciences report by a committee that included University of Virginia law professor Jonathan Z. Cannon.

The report released today by the Committee on America's Climate Choices was created at the request of Congress. It reviews the science of climate change and proposes a flexible and systemic response that would adjust to new scientific advances and discoveries.

"We don't recommend any one specific measure," said Cannon, who participated in drafting the committee's final report. "And the set of measures that we do suggest are not revolutionary. They've been discussed by others. The significance of this really is that a diverse group of experts, having thought through this together for two years, affirms the usefulness of these tools against the perception of a significant risk."

The committee included climate scientists, public policy experts, social scientists, private industry leaders and former state and federal elected officials, including former U.S. Rep. Phil Sharp, now of Resources for the Future, and former Wyoming Gov. James Geringer, now of the Environmental Systems Research Institute.

The final report includes a review of the current scientific understanding of man-made climate change. This review was based on a more detailed subcommittee report on the science published last year.

"We felt it was necessary to reprise the science in order to reassure ourselves and the public that there is a credible basis for concern on climate change," Cannon said. "I think it's a good distillation of the science, of what we know and of what remains to be known more fully as we go forward."

The report suggests a variety of short- and long-term steps such as investment in infrastructure and new technologies that limit greenhouse gasses. It also advocates for the creation of a carbon pricing system that would encourage a long-term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

"That pricing system could come in different forms," Cannon said. "It could come as a 'carbon tax'; it could come as a cap-and-trade system. Both of those approaches would establish a price for carbon emissions that would change the calculus for folks who are in a position to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create incentives for them to find alternatives to fossil fuels or to become more efficient in their use of fossil fuels."

Such a system would produce the most cost-effective reductions in emissions across the economy and would limit the government's picking winners and losers, Cannon said.

"There may be institutional barriers that would prevent price signals from producing sufficient incentives in some circumstances, so the report also recognizes that there are other measures that we might want to take, including regulation or subsidies, particularly for research and technology development," he said.

A primary component of the report is a proposed iterative risk management approach. This approach would be designed for flexibility to adapt to inevitable climate science advancements, Cannon said.

The idea would be to create a management system with rich feedback mechanisms, so new information would continue to inform decision-makers, who would regularly review and adjust policy as needed.

"That's particularly important, given the uncertainties about the extent of future climate change and its impacts, but also given the lengthy time frames for responding to climate change," Cannon said. "Stabilizing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at acceptable levels is a long-term challenge. It requires a policy approach that's credible enough to begin to change behavior but also flexible over time. The same goes for adapting to climate change."

The committee first convened in 2009, and Cannon — the only lawyer on the committee — praised the work his colleagues put into developing the report.

"This really was a collective effort, with a number of people taking shots at different parts of the report, and other people reviewing and revising," he said. "It was wonderful. They were very smart people with great ideas."

If there's one take-away from the report, it's that efforts to combat climate change should begin immediately, Cannon said.

"If you're looking for a short-term recommendation that's it: We should begin now. If we fail to begin now we increase the risks of climate change."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights