5 key questions about climate change in the 2020s

Climate change brings opportunities and risk

Climate change and its impact on lives and livelihoods worldwide will no doubt be one of the biggest issues confronting us in the decade ahead. Here are five key questions and answers about the problem and what can be done about it.

Can we stop climate change and how will innovation help?

In short, yes, there are things we can do to help stop climate change, but it won't happen overnight. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we need to reduce our emissions 45% by 2030 if we want to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. There is very little chance of that happening. However, there is no cliff at 1.5 degrees Celsius — meaning the closer we keep warming to 1.5 degrees, even if we overshoot, the better off we'll be. The bottom line is we can still avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Here is the good news: Unlike many other big problems in life, we know how to fix this — by reducing our use of fossil fuels. And by aggressively combating this problem we can make an even better life for ourselves and future generations. Instead of focusing on denial or avoidance, we can embrace this as an opportunity. Combating climate change will inevitably create vast new industries — it already has — and millions of jobs, a rebirth of American ingenuity and a jolt to the U.S. and world economies. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fastest growing occupations in this upcoming decade are solar and wind technician. With median salaries of $42,000 to $55,000 per year, these are good paying jobs, already being created right now all over the nation. Per unit of energy, for every one job in fossil fuels you need several jobs in solar — so this is a net creator of opportunity. Even with larger employment, because solar and wind are technologies and not commodities like oil, the prices keep falling. In many cases sustainable energy is already cheaper, and certainly cleaner, than fossil fuels.  

Where could we see rapid change over the next decade?

One big concern is tipping points. There are three primary areas climate experts are watching: 

1. The Amazon rain forest is close to a tipping point because of the way land is being abused, combined with climate change. The forest is drying out. That is because rain forests create their own rainfall. The more they are fragmented and burned, the more they dry out and lose the ability to create their own source of rainfall. This means the Amazon is in danger of turning into a savanna — an ecosystem with far less tree-cover. If that happens, the capacity of the forest to absorb heat-trapping carbon dioxide is lost. We really need the Amazon to help lessen the impact of climate change worldwide. 

2. Permafrost, the frozen ground in the Arctic, is thawing fast and releasing carbon that has been locked up for thousands of years. Just this year it seems to have crossed a threshold from being a sink, storing carbon, to being a net emitter of carbon, acting as a feedback to warm the Earth even faster. This feedback will be critical to monitor this decade to see how fast permafrost melts. 

3. Loss of ice — both sea ice in the Arctic and land ice in Greenland and South Pole — is accelerating. Ice helps cool the Earth. The more we lose the faster the climate heats up which is another feedback loop. In addition, monitoring ice shelves on glaciers for instability will be a big telltale sign of how fast sea level will rise in the coming decade. 

Arctic report paints dire climate picture

What does this mean for the economy and homeowners?

This is where climate change hits us in the wallet. As CBS News correspondent Carter Evans reported in November, homeowners are already seeing situations in California where insurance companies will not insure homes in the fire zone, or they are charging exponentially higher, unaffordable rates. As the impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise get worse, it is going to become more difficult for people who are exposed to risk to obtain 30-year mortgages to buy homes. 

This pertains not only to fire-prone areas, but also to homes near sea level and along river basins at risk of flooding. When sellers or buyers can no longer obtain a reasonable mortgage or insurance, home values will plummet.

Fire insurance pricing out homeowners

Can the younger generation turn their ambition into policy?

This is what gives me hope. The younger generation is energized and engaged by this issue. They realize they will have to deal with what we adults helped cause. And they are not likely to give up until they get what they want. In one year, youth activists organized tens of millions of people all over the world in protest. They accomplished in one year what adults were not able to do in 30 years. Imagine what they can do in a decade!

Greta Thunberg named Time Person of the Year

What impacts are people most concerned about?

I asked people on Twitter about their climate-related concerns. The No. 1 answer was migration and refugees. I agree. Climate change is going to continue to cause more extreme heat waves and droughts. Farms in vulnerable areas will turn from crop producing into deserts. Later this century, parts of the Earth near the equator will become so hot as to be uninhabitable, or at the very least not supportive for people to make a living. Millions will be forced to move to survive. Some scientists say we are already witnessing this happen. The concern is that even more widespread migration will create a massive international humanitarian and security issue.

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