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Climate change: How bad could it get? (and why I have nightmares)

As a climatologist, I read many articles about what future climate will be like. They come from a variety of perspectives and cover a variety of topics related to how the climate is changing and what impacts will be felt by agriculture, forests and foresters, ecosystems, coastal and urban residents, and others.  I need to know this because I talk to people every day who are making decisions based on future climate, whether from year to year (what will I grow next year?) to a decade or more (should I invest in a new barn to shade my cattle?).

Predicting the future climate is hard, because not only are natural changes occurring in the climate on many different time scales (for example, we are headed to the next Ice Age in roughly 10,000 years) but changes due to human causes are also occurring. This includes not only from warming due to greenhouse gases but also land use changes (such as Georgia going from mostly bare cropland in the 19th century to mostly forested today) and urbanization. And it’s even harder to predict how humans will behave in the future (you thought predicting the weather was hard!), so any projections we make about the future climate will necessarily be made by making assumptions that may or may not hold true in the future.

Here is one of the scarier articles from New York magazine about what the future earth could look like if the worst case on climate change comes true. It has a small probability of occurring, but it’s not zero, and thinking about gives me nightmares about how bad life in the future could be. I’m not going to be around to see it, but my son might, and if he has kids, they will certainly experience at least some of the effects. How do you plan for a worst case? I wish I knew the answer to that. Better to make sure it never comes.

Source: NASA