Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program assumes that global climate will be warmer and its consequences increasingly extreme in 2050. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Over the last quarter century, climate change impacts have grown in scope and scale. Global temperatures rose by two degrees Celsius since the 19th century, a tremendous change given the amount of energy it takes to raise earth’s average surface temperature even a small amount. The seemingly small increase has resulted in drastic effects, from more horrific hurricanes to hotter temperatures to wildfires more destructive than anything recorded history has seen. How these shifts will play out over time is something beyond predictive capability - there are too many influencing events and inputs beyond our control. Even with the best research and foresight techniques, conditions will change in ways we can’t fully anticipate.
Despite that uncertainty, there are a few emergent trends on which scientists increasingly agree. For starters, global temperatures will continue to rise. Cities like New York will soon have dramatically longer and hotter summers, with the number of days above 32 degrees Celsius slated to more than double by 2050. In a region like metropolitan New York, where hot weather comes with significant humidity, such high temperatures over prolonged periods will result not just in serious impacts to human health and well being, but also damage to the essential myriad systems that rely on ambient air cooling, like HVAC systems and electrical grids. CO2 levels associated with those kinds of temperature increases could easily range from 550 to 600pm, up from the roughly 420ppm levels of today. Those amounts of CO2 would directly result in decreased nutrient levels in agricultural production, spikes in pollution related deaths, and widespread slowing of human cognitive function.
Hotter temperatures will also lead to rising seas. Sea levels are likely to rise at least 38cm within the next thirty years, with those numbers quite possibly reaching 100cm in certain areas. Under those conditions, coastal centers like South Beach in Miami would lie underwater. Entire regions, such as greater Bangkok and the low-lying areas of southern Bangladesh, would sit below annual flood levels, placing millions of people at risk and sparking mass migration across the globe. Wealthier areas like the Netherlands and coastal England will likewise face mounting pressure, with growing swaths of land lying fully inundated for greater periods of time.
But rising seas mean more than higher oceans. The climatic changes that bring sea level rise also result in stronger storms, more intense rainfall, and bigger storm surge. Areas shaped by major rivers, like development along the Mississippi River Valley, will experience increasingly frequent flooding. Without intense intervention or adoption of new approaches to living with water, these regions will see higher levels of deluge, with daily life interrupted on more regular bases for hundreds of thousands of people.
In more arid areas, rising temperatures are slated to bring both more intense rainfall as well as drought. When drought arrives, it will last longer. When rain comes, it will fall harder over shorter periods. The droughts will leave ground more compacted, making it harder for rain to absorb into soils and increasing the likeliness of mudslide. They will also make areas more vulnerable to wildfire. By 2050, the events that have recently wracked Australia with previously unseen levels of devastation will become much more common. From California to the front range of Colorado to Spain and beyond, longer and more dangerous fire seasons will become the norm.
While the precise dates and degrees of change remain a mystery, the general trends are clear – global climate in 2050 will be warmer and its consequences increasingly more extreme.
Posted By Administration,
Monday, December 18, 2017
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019
Ariana Lutterman is one of our Emerging Fellows. She and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. Her first article seeks to clarify what climate change is and its implications for the present and the future.
Climate change is often cited as the most pressing problem facing humanity today. To truly understand its implications, it’s important to first understand its language. Here I hope to present a framework for how climate change has been defined through a process of international scientific consensus as well as how human actions are implicated in what we are currently observing as climate change.
Climate is weather over time, the earth’s climate is a combination of climates across the planet, and planetary climate change is a change in the earth’s climate over an extended period of time.
Phrased slightly differently, planetary climate change is a change in the combined climates made up of combined weather around the planet over a long period of time. Everyone anywhere experiences weather on a daily basis, and while everyone on the planet is affected by planetary climate change, its effects are infinitesimally small and often more intangible.
Global warming, a rise in the average global temperature, is one measure of planetary climate change. Often used interchangeably, global warming is just one measure of climate change. As the name suggests, it is an overall rise in planetary climate change, but this is only one aspect of what climate change means. The daily lived experience of climate change may, in many areas, look like cooler seasonal temperatures or more frequent cold weather events. So climate change as a term indicates that not only warming is occurring but also a host of other fluctuations to the usual planetary weather patterns.
The earth’s climate is constantly changing. Historically there have been periods both warmer and cooler than now. These fluctuations have resulted from natural processes like variations in Earth’s distance and energy received from the sun, volcanic eruptions, plate tectonics, and changes in earth’s oceans. There is a distinction between this natural climate change variability and what we are now observing. Current observable climate change is occurring much more rapidly than any historic climate event. It is this speed of change we are currently observing with which scientists are concerned. It is this that is attributed primarily to human activities.
The primary anthropogenic, or human-induced, contribution has been a dramatic increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) since industrial times largely through the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas). Though a misnomer (not actually the mechanism through which a greenhouse functions), the greenhouse effect describes how solar radiation trapped by a planet’s atmosphere warms the surface. Human actions since the industrial era have dramatically increased the number of atmospheric greenhouse gases. This anthropogenic greenhouse effect is caused primarily by actions like burning fossil fuels, agriculture, and deforestation which significantly increase atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide and cause higher than normal rates of solar radiation to become trapped by the atmosphere.
I plan to follow the international scientific community’s consensus in recognizing climate change as referring to planetary and anthropogenic changes to climatic patterns. Climate change is a part of a complex system of Earth processes, and its consequences manifest in similarly systemic ways. It represents not only an environmental crisis, but a social, economic, and cultural crisis as well.