Earth Will Continue to Warm and the Effects Will Be Profound
Global climate change is not a future problem. Changes to Earth’s climate driven by increased human emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are already having widespread effects on the environment: glaciers and ice sheets are shrinking, river and lake ice is breaking up earlier, plant and animal geographic ranges are shifting, and plants and trees are blooming sooner.
Effects that scientists had long predicted would result from global climate change are now occurring, such as sea ice loss, accelerated sea level rise, and longer, more intense heat waves.
"The magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions, and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages escalate with every increment of global warming."
Some changes (such as droughts, wildfires, and extreme rainfall) are happening faster than scientists previously assessed. In fact, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the United Nations body established to assess the science related to climate change — modern humans have never before seen the observed changes in our global climate, and some of these changes are irreversible over the next hundreds to thousands of years.
Scientists have high confidence that global temperatures will continue to rise for many decades, mainly due to greenhouse gases produced by human activities.
The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment report, published in 2021, found that human emissions of heat-trapping gases have already warmed the climate by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) since 1850-1900.1 The global average temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees C (about 3 degrees F) within the next few decades. These changes will affect all regions of Earth.
The severity of effects caused by climate change will depend on the path of future human activities. More greenhouse gas emissions will lead to more climate extremes and widespread damaging effects across our planet. However, those future effects depend on the total amount of carbon dioxide we emit. So, if we can reduce emissions, we may avoid some of the worst effects.
Future Effects in the U.S."The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss the brief, rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future."2
U.S. Regional Effects
Climate change is bringing different types of challenges to each region of the country. Some of the current and future impacts are summarized below. These findings are from the Third3 and Fourth4 National Climate Assessment Reports, released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Northeast. Heat waves, heavy downpours, and sea level rise pose increasing challenges to many aspects of life in the Northeast. Infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised. Farmers can explore new crop options, but these adaptations are not cost- or risk-free. Moreover, adaptive capacity, which varies throughout the region, could be overwhelmed by a changing climate. Many states and cities are beginning to incorporate climate change into their planning.
Northwest. Changes in the timing of peak flows in rivers and streams are reducing water supplies and worsening competing demands for water. Sea level rise, erosion, flooding, risks to infrastructure, and increasing ocean acidity pose major threats. Increasing wildfire incidence and severity, heat waves, insect outbreaks, and tree diseases are causing widespread forest die-off.
Southeast. Sea level rise poses widespread and continuing threats to the region’s economy and environment. Extreme heat will affect health, energy, agriculture, and more. Decreased water availability will have economic and environmental impacts.
Midwest. Extreme heat, heavy downpours, and flooding will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation, air and water quality, and more. Climate change will also worsen a range of risks to the Great Lakes.
Southwest. Climate change has caused increased heat, drought, and insect outbreaks. In turn, these changes have made wildfires more numerous and severe. The warming climate has also caused a decline in water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, and triggered heat-related health impacts in cities. In coastal areas, flooding and erosion are additional concerns.
- IPCC 2021, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, the Working Group I contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
- IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
- USGCRP 2014, Third Climate Assessment.
- USGCRP 2017, Fourth Climate Assessment.
Header image shows cracked mud stretches across sections of the Panamint Valley. Credit: NPS/Kurt Moses; A degree of concern thermometer image credit: Pixabay/geralt