Coming to Grips with Man-Made Climate Change

CAMBRIDGE: This month the United States Government issued a path-breaking report on the impact of long-term climate change on America's society and environment. We know that human activity is causing serious and complex changes in the global climate, mainly through the effects of burning fossil fuels like oil and gas, and the effects of deforestation. These activities raise the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in turn has many effects: a rise in average temperature, a rise in the water level of the oceans, significant changes in the global patterns of rainfall, and an increase in "extreme weather events" such as hurricanes and droughts. The new US study is the first systematic attempt to understand the long-term consequences of these climatic trends in a single country. It is a project of such significance and scope that it should quickly be followed up by similar studies in other parts of the world.

The new report, "Climate Change Impacts on the United States" (available on the website is a remarkable accomplishment, even though it is really only one step in a long-term effort to understand the interactions of climate, environment, and human society. It was produced by a huge team of scientists working in different disciplines and different parts of the United States. If there is one main lesson, it is that long-term climate change is for real, and is likely to have major impacts on US society. If there is a second lesson, it is that those impacts are complex and varied, and depend very much on the characteristics of particular regions. What is good for one part of the country, or indeed one part of the world, might be a disaster for another.

The report stresses that climate change will have several interacting elements. The rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere B which is the main cause of the long-term climate change B might actually have some directly beneficial effects, since a higher concentration of carbon dioxide can stimulate the faster growth of some types of forests and some crops. On the other hand, the effects on temperature, rainfall, ocean levels, flooding and droughts, and other climate patterns, will hurt some regions, while even helping some others. Northern regions, for example, could enjoy a longer growing season for some crops, while more Southerly regions, which are already hot, might suffer from the adverse effects of rising temperatures.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. An employee works at a chemical fiber weaving company VCG/Getty Images

    China in the Lead?

    For four decades, China has achieved unprecedented economic growth under a centralized, authoritarian political system, far outpacing growth in the Western liberal democracies. So, is Chinese President Xi Jinping right to double down on authoritarianism, and is the “China model” truly a viable rival to Western-style democratic capitalism?

  2. The assembly line at Ford Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

    Whither the Multilateral Trading System?

    The global economy today is dominated by three major players – China, the EU, and the US – with roughly equal trading volumes and limited incentive to fight for the rules-based global trading system. With cooperation unlikely, the world should prepare itself for the erosion of the World Trade Organization.

  3. Donald Trump Saul Loeb/Getty Images

    The Globalization of Our Discontent

    Globalization, which was supposed to benefit developed and developing countries alike, is now reviled almost everywhere, as the political backlash in Europe and the US has shown. The challenge is to minimize the risk that the backlash will intensify, and that starts by understanding – and avoiding – past mistakes.

  4. A general view of the Corn Market in the City of Manchester Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

    A Better British Story

    Despite all of the doom and gloom over the United Kingdom's impending withdrawal from the European Union, key manufacturing indicators are at their highest levels in four years, and the mood for investment may be improving. While parts of the UK are certainly weakening economically, others may finally be overcoming longstanding challenges.

  5. UK supermarket Waring Abbott/Getty Images

    The UK’s Multilateral Trade Future

    With Brexit looming, the UK has no choice but to redesign its future trading relationships. As a major producer of sophisticated components, its long-term trade strategy should focus on gaining deep and unfettered access to integrated cross-border supply chains – and that means adopting a multilateral approach.

  6. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now