The Future of Climate Change
Scientists have observed dramatic changes in global temperatures over the last several decades. They also know that if we continue on our present course, future temperatures are likely to rise much higher.
There is high confidence that a world warming two degrees will lead to increased risks from weather disasters such as wildfires, coastal flooding and inland flash floods; reduced snowpack in the mountains; and diminished yields of rain-fed crops.
The Earth’s climate is changing rapidly. The global average temperature has already risen by about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the preindustrial era began 250 years ago, and it could rise much more if we continue to pollute our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
Warmer temperatures drive changes like melting glaciers and a growing loss of polar sea ice, and they also cause extreme weather events that are more frequent and intense. These changes threaten water supplies, agricultural production, food security, natural habitats, health, safety and much more.
Even though the planet as a whole will feel the impacts of climate change, some areas will be more affected than others. The poorest nations, which have contributed least to the problem, will be most vulnerable, as they lack the resources to adapt and are largely dependent on a healthy natural world for food and income. Climate leaders on major political stages and in community organizing are working to make a difference by cutting emissions and protecting communities on the frontlines of climate change.
In the United States, farmers and ranchers depend on a range of environmental conditions to grow crops, raise animals, and catch fish. Higher temperatures and CO2 can increase crop yields in some places, but nutrient levels, soil moisture, water availability, and drought are also crucial.
Droughts are expected to become more frequent and severe as the climate warms. Rising temperatures decrease surface soil moisture even without changes in precipitation patterns, and reducing snowpack and faster snowmelt can lower water supply.
Relatively wet regions in the tropics and higher latitudes will likely get wetter, but dry areas will be much drier—adding to existing drought risks. In addition, more extreme weather events like heat waves can make it harder for livestock to find enough food and water to survive.
The amount of climate change we experience in this century and beyond depends largely on the level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With significant reductions in GHG emissions, global average temperatures could be limited to 2°C or less above pre-industrial levels. Without such reductions, the warming trend is expected to accelerate and could reach 5°C or more.
Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is one of the major causes of climate change, mainly through carbon dioxide and methane emissions. It also exacerbates warming through short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon and ground-level ozone, which form in the presence of heat and sunlight.
Changing from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources will dramatically reduce these harmful air pollutants and greenhouse gases. A growing number of states, cities and corporations are leading the way by supporting clean energy industries, promoting public transport and reducing the use of polluting vehicles. NRDC’s Clean Air Project works to promote these policies and more.
Arctic Sea Ice
The Arctic’s sea ice is now much smaller than it has been in the satellite record and likely throughout recorded history. Sea ice retreat opens coastlines to shipping, tourism, commercial fishing, and oil extraction. These changes have a number of environmental impacts including habitat loss and increased interactions between humans and marine mammals.
As the ice cover melts, wind-driven waves may cause coastal erosion. Thawing permafrost is releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the ocean. This feedback loop could accelerate warming, leading to potentially catastrophic results.
WWF is working with communities and governments in the region where summer ice is projected to last the longest, known as the Last Ice Area, to develop conservation goals and help them manage this important ecosystem. Our goal is to delay the worst impacts of climate change on Arctic species and their human neighbors. To do this, we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.