National Academies Press: OpenBook

Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions (2001)

Chapter:6. Future Climate Change

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Suggested Citation:"6. Future Climate Change." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.

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6 Future Climate Change

How much of the expected climate change is the consequence of climate feedback processes (e.g., water vapor, clouds, snow packs)?

By how much will temperatures change over the next 100 years and where?

What will be the consequences (e.g., extreme weather, health effects) of increases of various magnitude?

Has science determined whether there is a “safe” level of concentration of greenhouse gases?


Projecting future climate change first requires projecting the fossil-fuel and land-use sources of CO2 and other gases and aerosols. How much of the carbon from future use of fossil fuels will be seen as increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will depend on what fractions are taken up by land and the oceans. The exchanges with land occur on various time scales, out to centuries for soil decomposition in high latitudes, and they are sensitive to climate change. Their projection into the future is highly problematic.

Future climate change depends on the assumed scenario for future climate forcings, as well as upon climate sensitivity. The IPCC scenarios include a broad range of forcings. One scenario often used for climate model studies employs rapid growth rates such that annual greenhouse gas emissions continue to accelerate. This is a useful scenario, in part because it yields a reasonably large “signal/noise” in studies of the simulated climate response. More important, it provides a warning of the magnitude of climate change that may be possible if annual greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. There are sufficient fossil fuels in the ground to supply such a scenario for well over a century.

IPCC scenarios cover a broad range of assumptions about future economic and technological development, including some that allow greenhouse gas emission reductions. However, there are large uncertainties in underlying assumptions about population growth, economic development, life style choices, technological change, and energy alternatives, so that it is useful to examine scenarios developed from multiple perspectives in considering strategies for dealing with climate change. For example, one proposed growth scenario 1 for the next 50 years notes that CO2 emissions have grown by about 1% annually in the past 20 years and assumes a zero growth rate for CO2 emissions until 2050 (that is, constant emissions). The scenario also focuses on forcings from non-CO2 greenhouse gases such as methane, and assumes a zero growth rate for them (that is, atmospheric amounts in 2050 similar to those in 2000). Plausible assumptions for technological progress and human factors were proposed to achieve this trajectory for radiative forcing. This scenario leads to a predicted temperature increase of 0.75°C by 2050, approximately half of that resulting from more conventional assumptions. One rationale for focusing first on 2050 rather than 2100 is that it is more difficult to foresee the technological capabilities that may allow reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2100.

Scenarios for future greenhouse gas amounts, especially for CO2 and CH4, are a major source of uncertainty for projections of future climate. Successive IPCC assessments over the past decade each have developed a new set of scenarios

1Hansen, J., M.Sato, R.Ruedy, A.Lacis, and V.Oinas, Global warming in the twenty-first century: an alternative scenario, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97:9875–9880, 2000.

Suggested Citation:"6. Future Climate Change." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.

Page 19

with little discussion of how well observed trends match with previous scenarios. The period of record is now long enough to make it useful to compare recent trends with the scenarios, and such studies will become all the more fruitful as years pass. The increase of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions in the past decade, averaging 0.6% per year, has fallen below the IPCC scenarios. The growth of atmospheric CH4 has fallen well below the IPCC scenarios. These slowdowns in growth rates could be short-term fluctuations that may be reversed. However, they emphasize the need to understand better the factors that influence current and future growth rates.

Global warming will not be spatially uniform, and it is expected to be accompanied by other climate changes. In areas and seasons in which there are large temperature changes, feedbacks may be much larger than their global values. An example of such regionally large effects is the ice-albedo feedback. Reduced snow cover and sea and lake ice will be important at high latitudes and higher elevations, especially during winter and spring. In the presence of the higher temperatures, atmospheric water vapor concentration and precipitation will also be higher. Determining the net ice-albedo feedback effect is complicated by its connections to other aspects of the hydrologic and energy cycles. Clouds may change to amplify or reduce its effect. Increased precipitation with warming at the margin of ice and snow may act to either reduce or amplify this effect, e.g., reducing the effect by increasing snow levels where it is below freezing. Changing vegetation cover likewise can introduce major modification.

An increase in the recycling rate of water in the hydrologic cycle is anticipated in response to higher global average temperatures. Higher evaporation rates will accelerate the drying of soils following rain events, thereby resulting in drier average conditions in some regions, especially during periods of dry weather during the warm season. The drier soils, with less water available for evapotranspiration, will warm more strongly during sunlight hours resulting in higher afternoon temperatures, faster evaporation, and an increase in the diurnal temperature range. The effect is likely to be greatest in semi-arid regions, such as the U.S. Great Plains. The faster recycling of water will lead to higher rainfall rates and an increase in the frequency of heavy precipitation events.

There is a possibility that global warming could change the behavior of one or more of the atmosphere's natural modes of variability such as ENSO or the so-called North Atlantic or Arctic Oscillation. Such changes could lead to complex changes in the present-day patterns of temperature and precipitation, including changes in the frequency of winter or tropical storms. Higher precipitation rates would favor increased intensity of tropical cyclones, which derive their energy from the heat that is released when water vapor condenses.

Temperatures are expected to increase more rapidly over land compared to oceans because of the ocean's higher heat capacity and because it can transfer more of the trapped heat to the atmosphere by evaporation. Over land, the warming has been—and is expected to continue to be—larger during nighttime than during daytime.

Consequences of Increased Climate Change of Various Magnitudes

The U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts, augmented by a recent NRC report on climate and health, provides a basis for summarizing the potential consequences of climate change. 2 The National Assessment directly addresses the importance of climate change of various magnitudes by considering climate scenarios from two well-regarded models (the Hadley model of the United Kingdom and the Canadian Climate Model). These two models have very different globally-averaged temperature increases (2.7 and 4.4°C (4.9 and 7.9°F), respectively) by the year 2100. A key conclusion from the National Assessment is that U.S. society is likely to be able to adapt to most of the climate change impacts on human systems, but these adaptations may come with substantial cost. The primary conclusions from these reports are summarized for agriculture and forestry, water, human health, and coastal regions.

In the near term, agriculture and forestry are likely to benefit from CO2 fertilization effects and the increased water efficiency of many plants at higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Many crop distributions will change, thus requiring significant regional adaptations. Given their resource base, the Assessment concludes that such changes will be costlier for small farmers than for large corporate farms. However, the combination of the geographic and climatic breadth of the United States, possibly augmented by advances in genetics, increases the nation's robustness to climate change. These conclusions depend on the climate scenario, with hotter and drier conditions increasing the potential for declines in both agriculture and forestry. In addition, the response of insects and plant diseases to warming is poorly understood. On the regional scale and in the longer term, there is much more uncertainty.

Increased tendency toward drought, as projected by some models, is an important concern in every region of the United States even though it is unlikely to be realized everywhere in the nation. Decreased snow pack and/or earlier season melting are expected in response to warming because the freeze line will be moving to higher elevations. The western part of

2Except where noted, this section is based on information provided in the U.S. National Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, “Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change”, 2001, Cambridge University Press, 612 pp.

Suggested Citation:"6. Future Climate Change." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.

Page 20

the nation is highly dependent on the amount of snow pack and the timing of the runoff. The noted increased rainfall rates have implications for pollution run-off, flood control, and changes to plant and animal habitat. Any significant climate change is likely to result in increased costs because the nation's investment in water supply infrastructure is largely tuned to the current climate.

Health outcomes in response to climate change are the subject of intense debate. Climate change has the potential to influence the frequency and transmission of infectious disease, alter heat- and cold-related mortality and morbidity, and influence air and water quality. Climate change is just one of the factors that influence the frequency and transmission of infectious disease, and hence the assessments view such changes as highly uncertain. 3 This said, changes in the agents that transport infectious diseases (e.g., mosquitoes, ticks, rodents) are likely to occur with any significant change in precipitation and temperature. Increases in mean temperatures are expected to result in new record high temperatures and warm nights and an increase in the number of warm days compared to the present. Cold-related stress is likely to decline whereas heat stress in major urban areas is projected to increase if no adaptation occurs. The National Assessment ties increases in adverse air quality to higher temperatures and other air mass characteristics. However, much of the United States appears to be protected against many different adverse health outcomes related to climate change by a strong public health system, relatively high levels of public awareness, and a high standard of living. Children, the elderly, and the poor are considered to be the most vulnerable to adverse health outcomes. The understanding of the relationships between weather/climate and human health is in its infancy and therefore the health consequences of climate change are poorly understood. The costs, benefits, and availability of resources for adaptation are also uncertain.

Fifty-three percent of the U.S. population lives within the coastal regions, along with billions of dollars in associated infrastructure. Because of this, coastal areas are more vulnerable to increases in severe weather and sea level rise. Changes in storm frequency and intensity are one of the more uncertain elements of future climate change prediction. However, sea level rise increases the potential damage to coastal regions even under conditions of current storm intensities and can endanger coastal ecosystems if human systems or other barriers limit the opportunities for migration.

In contrast to human systems, the U.S. National Assessment makes a strong case that ecosystems are the most vulnerable to the projected rate and magnitude of climate change, in part because the available adaptation options are very limited. Significant climate change will cause disruptions to many U.S. ecosystems, including wetlands, forests, grasslands, rivers, and lakes. Ecosystems have inherent value, and also supply the country with a wide variety of ecosystem services.

The impacts of these climate changes will be significant, but their nature and intensity will depend strongly on the region and timing of occurrence. At a national level, the direct economic impacts are likely to be modest. However, on a regional basis the level and extent of both beneficial and harmful impacts will grow. Some economic sectors may be transformed substantially and there may be significant regional transitions associated with shifts in agriculture and forestry. Increasingly, climate change impacts will have to be placed in the context of other stresses associated with land use and a wide variety of pollutants. The possibility of abrupt or unexpected changes could pose greater challenges for adaptation.

Even the mid-range scenarios considered in the IPCC result in temperatures that continue to increase well beyond the end of this century, suggesting that assessments that examine only the next 100 years may well underestimate the magnitude of the eventual impacts. For example a sustained and progressive drying of the land surface, if it occurred, would eventually lead to desertification of regions that are now marginally arable, and any substantial melting or breaking up of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps could cause widespread coastal inundation. 4

“Safe” Level of Concentration of Greenhouse Gases

The potential for significant climate-induced impacts raises the question of whether there exists a “safe” level of greenhouse gas concentration. The word “safe” is ambiguous because it depends on both viewpoint and value judgment. This view changes dramatically if you are part of an Eskimo community dependent on sea ice for hunting, or an inhabitant of a coastal city, or a farm community. It depends on whether an industry is robust or sensitive to climate change. The viewpoint changes distinctly between countries with sufficient resources for adaptation and poorer nations. Value judgments become particularly important when assessing the potential impacts on natural ecosystems. The question can be approached from two perspectives. The first issue is whether there is a threshold in the concentration of greenhouse gases that, if exceeded, would cause dramatic or catastrophic changes to the Earth system. The second issue

3Under the Weather: Climate, Ecosystems, and Infectious Disease, 2001.

4Appreciable desertification on a regional scale could take place within a decade or two. Many centuries would be required for substantial melting of the ice sheets to occur and the likelihood of a breakup during this century is considered to be remote.

Suggested Citation:"6. Future Climate Change." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.

Page 21

is whether the consequences of greenhouse warming, as a function of the concentration of greenhouse gases, are sufficiently well known that the scientific community can define “an acceptable concentration” based on an analysis of potential risks and damages. The first issue is best addressed by examining Earth's history. Guidance for the second issue can be derived from assessments of the impacts of climate change.

A variety of measurements demonstrate that CO2 has varied substantially during Earth's history, reaching levels between three and nine times pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide prior to 50 million years ago. During the periods of hypothesized high carbon dioxide concentrations, there are strong indicators of warmth (although many different factors have contributed to climate change during Earth's history). These indicators include warm deep-sea temperatures and abundant life within the Arctic Circle. There are also some records of abrupt warming (thousands of years) in Earth's history that may be related to atmospheric greenhouse concentrations, which caused significant perturbations to the Earth system. The global temperature increases determined for some of these warm periods exceed future projections from all climate models for the next century. These changes are associated with some extinctions, and both the periods of warmth and abrupt transitions are associated with the large-scale redistribution of species. However, a substantial biosphere is evident (i.e., no catastrophic impact tending toward wholesale extinctions) even with substantially higher CO2 concentrations than those postulated to occur in response to human activities.

The course of future climate change will depend on the nature of the climate forcing (e.g., the rate and magnitude of changes in greenhouse gases, aerosols) and the sensitivity of the climate system. Therefore, determination of an acceptable concentration of greenhouse gases depends on the ability to determine the sensitivity of the climate system as well as knowledge of the full range of the other forcing factors, and an assessment of the risks and vulnerabilities. Climate models reflect a range of climate sensitivities even with the same emission scenario. For example, the consequences of climate change would be quite different for a globally-averaged warming of 1.1°C (2.0°F) or a 3.1°C (5.6°F) projected for the IPCC scenario in which CO2 increases by 1% per year leading to a doubling from current levels in the next 70 years.

Both climate change and its consequences also are likely to have a strong regional character. The largest changes occur consistently in the regions of the middle to high latitudes. Whereas all models project global warming and global increases in precipitation, the sign of the precipitation projections varies among models for some regions.

The range of model sensitivities and the challenge of projecting the sign of the precipitation changes for some regions represent a substantial limitation in assessing climate impacts. Therefore, both the IPCC and the U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts assess potential climate impacts using approaches that are “scenario-driven.” In other words, models with a range of climate sensitivities are used to assess the potential impacts on water, agriculture, human health, forestry, and the coastal zones, nationally and region by region. The differences among climate model projections are sufficiently large to limit the ability to define an “acceptable concentration” of atmospheric greenhouse gases. In addition, technological breakthroughs that could improve the capabilities to adapt are not known. Instead, the assessments provide a broader level of guidance:

  • The nature of the potential impacts of climate change increases as a function of the sensitivity of the climate model. If globally-averaged temperature increases approach 3°C (5.4°F) in response to doubling of carbon dioxide, they are likely to have substantial impacts on human endeavors and on natural ecosystems.

  • Given the fact that middle and high latitude regions appear to be more sensitive to climate change than other regions, significant impacts in these regions are likely to occur at lower levels of global warming.

  • There could be significant regional impacts over the full range of IPCC model-based projections.

  • Natural ecosystems are less able to adapt to change than are human systems.

In summary, critical factors in defining a “safe” concentration depend on the nature and level of societal vulnerability, the degree of risk aversion, ability and/or costs of adaptation and/or mitigation, and the valuation of ecosystems, as well as on the sensitivity of the Earth system to climate change.

Suggested Citation:"6. Future Climate Change." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.
Suggested Citation:"6. Future Climate Change." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.
Suggested Citation:"6. Future Climate Change." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.
Suggested Citation:"6. Future Climate Change." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.
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The warming of the Earth has been the subject of intense debate and concern for many scientists, policy-makers, and citizens for at least the past decade. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, a new report by a committee of the National Research Council, characterizes the global warming trend over the last 100 years, and examines what may be in store for the 21st century and the extent to which warming may be attributable to human activity.

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