Projections based on climate models suggest that the globe will continue to warm another 3 to 7°F over the next century. This is similar to the temperature change one could experience by moving, say, from Boston to Philadelphia. Moreover, the warming of already hot regions—the tropics—is expected to be somewhat less, while the warming of cold regions like the arctic is projected to be more, a signal already discernable in global temperature measurements. Nighttime temperatures are increasing more rapidly than daytime warmth.
Is this really so bad? In all the negative publicity about global warming, it is easy to overlook the benefits: It will take less energy to heat buildings, previously infertile lands of high latitudes will start producing crops, and there will be less suffering from debilitating cold waves. Increased CO2 might also make crops grow faster. On the down side, there will be more frequent and more intense heat waves, air conditioning costs will rise, and previously fertile areas in the subtropics may become unarable. Sure, there will be winners and losers, but will the world really suffer in the net? Even if the changes we are bringing about are larger than the globe has experienced in the last few thousand years, they still do not amount to the big natural swings between ice ages and interglacial periods, and the earth and indeed human beings survived these.
But there are consequences of warming that we cannot take so lightly. During the peak of the last ice age, sea level was some 400 feet lower than today’s, since huge quantities of water were locked up in the great continental ice sheets. As polar regions warm, it is possible that portions of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will melt, increasing sea level. Highly detailed and accurate satellite-based measurements of the thickness of the Greenland ice show that it is actually increasing in the interior but thinning around the margins, and while there are also patterns of increase and decrease in Antarctic ice, it appears to be thinning on the whole. Meltwater from the surface of the Greenland ice sheet is making its way to the bottom of the ice, possibly allowing the ice to flow faster toward the sea. Our understanding of the physics of ice under pressure is poor, and it is thus difficult to predict how the ice will respond to warming. Were the entire Greenland ice cap to melt, sea level would increase by around 22 feet—flooding many coastal regions including much of southern Florida and lower Manhattan.
My own work has shown that hurricanes are responding to warming sea surface temperatures faster than we originally expected, especially in the North Atlantic, where the total power output by tropical cyclones has increased by around 60 percent since the 1970s. The 2005 hurricane season was the most active in the 150 years of records, corresponding to record warmth of the tropical Atlantic. Hurricanes are far and away the worst natural disasters to affect the U.S. in economic terms. Katrina may cost us as much as $200 billion, and it has claimed at least 1,200 lives. Globally, tropical cyclones cause staggering loss of life and misery. Hurricane Mitch of 1998 killed over 10,000 people in Central America, and in 1970 a single storm took the lives of some 300,000 people in Bangladesh. Substantial changes in hurricane activity cannot be written off as mere climate perturbations to which we will easily adjust.
Basic theory and models show another consequential result of a few degrees of warming. The amount of water vapor in the air rises exponentially with temperature: a seven-degree increase in temperature increases water vapor by 25 percent. One might at first suppose that since the amount of water ascending into clouds increases, the amount of rain that falls out of them must increase in proportion. But condensing water vapor heats the atmosphere, and in the grand scheme of things, this must be compensated by radiative heat loss. On the other hand, simple calculations show that the amount of radiative heat loss increases only very slowly with temperature, so that the total heating by condensation must increase slowly as well. Models resolve this conundrum by making it rain harder in places that are already wet and at the same time increasing the intensity, duration, or geographical extent of droughts. Thus, the twin perils of flood and drought actually both increase substantially in a warmer world.
It is particularly sobering to contemplate such outcomes in light of the evidence that smaller, natural climate swings since the end of the last ice age debilitated and in some cases destroyed entire civilizations in such places as Mesopotamia, Central and South America, and the southwestern region of what is today the United States.
In pushing the climate so hard and so fast, we are also conscious of our own collective ignorance of how the climate system works. Perhaps negative-feedback mechanisms that we have not contemplated or have underestimated will kick in, sparing us from debilitating consequences. On the other hand, the same could be said of positive feedbacks, and matters might turn out worse than projected. The ice-core record reveals a climate that reacts in complex and surprising ways to smoothly and slowly changing radiative forcing caused by variations in the earth’s orbit. Far from changing smoothly, it remains close to one state for a long time and then suddenly jumps to another state. We do not understand this, and are worried that a sudden climate jump may be part of our future.
While the American public has been misinformed by a media obsessed with sensational debate, climate scientists developed a way forward that helps them to compare notes and test one another’s ideas and also creates a valuable communication channel. Called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, it produces a detailed summary of the state of the science every four years, with the next one due out in February 2007. Although far from perfect, the IPCC involves serious climate scientists from many countries and has largely withstood political attack and influence.
The IPCC reports are fairly candid about what we collectively know and where the uncertainties probably lie. In the first category are findings that are not in dispute, not even by les refusards:
• Concentrations of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide are increasing owing to fossil-fuel consumption and biomass burning. Carbon dioxide has increased from its pre-industrial level of about 280 parts per million (ppmv) to about 380 ppmv today, an increase of about 35 percent. From ice-core records, it is evident that present levels of CO2 exceed those experienced by the planet at any time over at least the past 650,000 years.
• Concentrations of certain anthropogenic aerosols have also increased owing to industrial activity.
• The earth’s average surface temperature has increased by about 1.2°F in the past century, with most of the increase occurring from about 1920 to 1950, and again beginning around 1975. The year 2005 was the warmest in the instrumental record.
• Sea level has risen by about 2.7 inches over the past 40 years; of this, a little over an inch occurred during the past decade.
• The annual mean geographical extent of arctic sea ice has decreased by 15 to 20 percent since satellite measurements of this began in 1978.
In the second category are findings that most climate scientists agree with but are disputed by some:
• The global mean temperature is now greater than at any time in at least the past 500 to 1,000 years.
• Most of the global mean temperature variability is caused by four factors: variability of solar output, major volcanic eruptions, and anthropogenic sulfate aerosols and greenhouse gases.
• The dramatic rise in global mean temperature in the past 30 years is owing primarily to increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations and a leveling off or slight decline in sulfate aerosols.
• Unless measures are taken to reduce greenhouse-gas production, global mean temperature will continue to increase, about 2.5 to 9°F over the next century, depending on uncertainties and how much greenhouse gas is produced.
• As a result of the thermal expansion of sea water and the melting of polar ice caps, sea level will increase six to 16 inches over the next century,though the increase could be larger if large continental ice sheets become unstable.
• Rainfall will continue to become concentrated in increasingly heavy but less frequent events.
• The incidence, intensity, and duration of both floods and drought will increase.
• The intensity of hurricanes will continue to increase, though their frequency may dwindle.
All these projections depend, of course, on how much greenhouse gas is added to the atmosphere over the next century, and even if we could be certain about the changes, estimating their net effect on humanity is an enormously complex undertaking, pitting uncertain estimates of costs and benefits against the costs of curtailing greenhouse-gas emissions. But we are by no means certain about what kind of changes are in store, and we must be wary of climate surprises. Even if we believed that the projected climate changes would be mostly beneficial, we might be inclined to make sacrifices as an insurance policy against potentially harmful surprises.
This article is part of a book! To read more, buy it now.
Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, is author of Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes and What We Know About Climate Change. In 2006, Time recognized him as one of the worlds 100 most influential people.
Michael D. Mastrandrea and Stephen H. Schneider,
The Rising Tide
Various Authors, Meeting the Demand: A year-long series on resources and climate change