Global warming tends to inspire great huddles of pessimists and smaller gaggles of optimists. Happily, each faction can find grist for its mill in a new government report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program that projects how warming trends will affect this country. A draft of the report is being posted for commentary on-line at www.gcrio.org/NationalAssessment/ as this magazine goes to press.
According to the report's authors, climate models suggest that temperatures in the U.S. will rise on average five to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (three to six degrees Celsius) over the next 100 years—a larger increase than the rest of the world will generally see. The effects will vary from region to region: over much of the country, rainfall and humidity should increase, but the southeastern states might get hotter and drier. Flooding may be more widespread, but perversely, so too might drought, because water management grows more complex as winter snowpacks in the mountains recede.
Western deserts could give ground to shrublands. Some ecosystems, such as vulnerable coral reefs or alpine meadows, could disappear. Fortified by higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, forests might flourish, at least over the near term, but with a shifted mix of tree species. We humans, meanwhile, will probably contend with coastal flooding and other disruptions.
Conversely, the new hothouse conditions could benefit agriculture. The government report is optimistic about the potential of farmers to adapt to changing climates and to raise crop productivity. For a world that depends so heavily on U.S. grains and other foods, this is good news. But the changes may not entirely be a boon for the farm belt: not all regions or crops would gain equal advantage, and farmers may suffer in an economic climate of more fierce competition and surplus. Nor does anyone yet know precisely how the pest populations could eventually cut into this boost in agricultural and natural productivity.
Scant discussion in the report goes to warming's effect on disease, which public health specialist Paul R. Epstein addresses in his article beginning on page 50. Tropical diseases such as malaria may become uncomfortably more familiar to those of us in the currently temperate zone. Although outbreaks such as New York's brushes with West Nile virus cannot be attributed to climate change, milder winters that help pathogens or their hosts survive make these events increasingly probable.
One of the best things to be said for the report is that it emphasizes how uncertain the course of global warming and its repercussions will be. Much depends on exactly how high and how quickly the temperature rises. Global warming's doubters like to emphasize the crudeness of even the best climate models, and they are right to do so. But the preponderance of evidence points to hotter days to come, which makes it only prudent to assess what the potential costs might be.
Pessimists and optimists can both find vindication in a new report on climate change.
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