Society, Science and Climate Change [Excerpt]
…A growing accumulation of evidence has persuaded most of the scientific community that human activity may be contributing to a substantial change in the Earth's climate on a global scale. In particular, large-scale consumption of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and natural gas) is leading to an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which if continued appears likely to increase the average surface temperature of the Earth by several degrees over the next 50 to 70 years. And the release into the atmosphere of other gases arising from human activity may add significantly to this overall "greenhouse effect."
There are, of course, many gaps in our understanding of how the climate system behaves, and hence many uncertainties in this prediction of the future. But few climatologists still doubt that there will be a gradual trend toward a warmer Earth in the decades ahead, assuming we continue to add enormous quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. By the same token, we can anticipate shifts in the current patterns of precipitation due to changes in atmospheric circulation, though the details of these shifts are still unclear.
Since this prospective global change is the result of human activities, we could in principle avert or at least defer it if we decided that the likely consequences were "unacceptable." Or we could accept their onset and take measures to mitigate the adverse effects of the change and to capitalize on its beneficial effects.
Four years ago an informative article in these pages undertook to examine what the broad impact of man-induced climate change might be, particularly in terms of food production and ecological systems. At that time the scientific community was more divided on the issue, but a great deal of research has now made some elements of the future picture more clear. There remains an important need for more organized and systematic analysis, especially in translating overall global trends into a more precise picture of what can be expected for the climate of specific regions ofRead the full article on ForeignAffairs.com