There are a number of possible responses to these forecasts. We could do nothing in particular about them. We could decide to continue emitting carbon dioxide, but to study its effects closely, planning to take some action if effects begin to look dangerous. We could decide that some change in the global mean state is acceptable, and limit carbon dioxide emissions to an amount that we think will prevent change in excess of the acceptable limit. We could decide that no human-caused change in the mean climate is acceptable, and aim to live our lives with zero net carbon emissions. Finally, we could attempt to manage multiple aspects of the earth’s climate system in an attempt to globally optimize climate. Decisions, of course, are not matters of science, but of ethics. To decide, we consider the harms and benefits of our actions, understanding in this case that our actions will constrain the choices of our descendants: carbon dioxide lasts a long time in the atmosphere, climate change takes a long time to occur, and loss of species diversity is permanent on human time scales. In the particular case of climate change, the international community has committed itself, through the Framework Convention on Climate Change (signed in Rio in 1994 and ratified by 150 nations, including the United States), to “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-caused] interference with the climate system.” Since “danger” in the context of the treaty includes danger to ecosystems, the climate change science community would say that we are at or above that level of greenhouse gas concentrations now. The question remaining before us is, will it be so expensive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions or concentrations that we will fail to live up to the Framework convention? The problem is challenging because the rapid industrialization of China and India means that we must reduce emissions...
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