U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Date of this Version



Clean Techn Environ Policy; DOI 10.1007/s10098-012-0577-z


The science of climate change integrates many scientific fields to explain and predict the complex effects of greenhouse gas concentrations on the planet’s energy balance, weather patterns, and ecosystems as well as economic and social systems. A changing climate requires responses to curtail climate forcing as well as to adapt to impending changes. Responses can be categorized into mitigation and adaptation—the former involving efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the latter involving strategies to adapt to predicted changes. These responses must be of significant scale and extent to be effective, but significant tradeoffs and unintended effects must be avoided. Concepts and science based on systems theory are needed to reduce the risk of unintended consequences from potential responses to climate change. We propose expanding on a conventional risk-based approach to include additional ways of analyzing risks and benefits, such as considering potential cascading ecological effects, full life cycle environmental impacts, and unintended consequences, as well as considering possible co-benefits of responses. Selected responses to climate change are assessed with this expanded set of criteria, and we find that mitigation measures that involve reducing emissions of greenhouse gases that provide corollary benefits are likely to have less negative indirect impacts than large-scale solar radiation management approaches. However, because effects of climate change are unavoidable in the near and medium-term, adaptation strategies that will make societies more resilient in the face of impending change are essential to sustainability.