What Might Man-Induced Climate Change Mean?

Pieces of ice fall from the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, December 16, 2009. Marcos Brindicci / Reuters

Climate has always influenced human affairs. There are now increasing signs that man may in turn be altering global climate. This could change economic, political and even military relations among nations.

Climate drives agricultural and forest production, and it largely governs the way people live and work. Unexplained natural climatic variation has characterized all of human history and prehistory. Many climatologists now believe that in the present advanced stage of industrialization the addition of carbon dioxide and particulate matter to the atmosphere through burning of fossil fuels and clearing of land has become a significant agent of climatic change that could measurably raise the temperature of the earth by the end of this century. This would bring about appreciable shifts in the global pattern of activities dependent upon climate: agriculture, forestry, residential heating and cooling, water-dependent industry, recreation, and many more. It could affect the level of the seas.1

Movement of climatic zones is likely to be at least as important as the global temperature change itself. The ultimate result of higher temperature, and of the more active atmospheric water circulation that will probably accompany it, could well be a net increase in global biological productivity. But the impacts will not be felt equally. Some regions and nations will gain; others will lose.

If the geophysical assumptions are correct, the process of climatic change due to industrialization is probably almost irreversible; the only practical strategy is adjustment. Technology will help to ease that adjustment, but the institutional rigidities of our advanced societies may correspondingly make the response to changed climate stickier than in earlier, simpler ages.

No one can yet say surely that the cumulative burning of fossil fuels at high rates will alter climate significantly. The answer lies at the end of a long cascade of uncertainties. There is uncertainty about the rates at which carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and other materials will be added to the atmosphere. How much will remain, and how much will be removed by physical

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