Global Warming and What to Do About It

In the Boston Review, Kerry Emanuel on the epistemology, physics, and consequences of global warming:


My own work has shown that hurricanes are responding to warming sea surface temperatures faster than we originally expected, especially in the North Atlantic, where the total power output by tropical cyclones has increased by around 60 percent since the 1970s. The 2005 hurricane season was the most active in the 150 years of records, corresponding to record warmth of the tropical Atlantic. Hurricanes are far and away the worst natural disasters to affect the U.S. in economic terms. Katrina may cost us as much as $200 billion, and it has claimed at least 1,200 lives. Globally, tropical cyclones cause staggering loss of life and misery. Hurricane Mitch of 1998 killed over 10,000 people in Central America, and in 1970 a single storm took the lives of some 300,000 people in Bangladesh. Substantial changes in hurricane activity cannot be written off as mere climate perturbations to which we will easily adjust.

Basic theory and models show another consequential result of a few degrees of warming. The amount of water vapor in the air rises exponentially with temperature: a seven-degree increase in temperature increases water vapor by 25 percent. One might at first suppose that since the amount of water ascending into clouds increases, the amount of rain that falls out of them must increase in proportion. But condensing water vapor heats the atmosphere, and in the grand scheme of things, this must be compensated by radiative heat loss. On the other hand, simple calculations show that the amount of radiative heat loss increases only very slowly with temperature, so that the total heating by condensation must increase slowly as well. Models resolve this conundrum by making it rain harder in places that are already wet and at the same time increasing the intensity, duration, or geographical extent of droughts. Thus, the twin perils of flood and drought actually both increase substantially in a warmer world.

It is particularly sobering to contemplate such outcomes in light of the evidence that smaller, natural climate swings since the end of the last ice age debilitated and in some cases destroyed entire civilizations in such places as Mesopotamia, Central and South America, and the southwestern region of what is today the United States.

Nicholas Stern, David G. Victor and Danny Cullenward, Judy Layzer and William Moomaw, Jeffrey Logan, Joanna Lewis, and Michael B. Cummings, and Kirsten Oleson and Chandra Shekhar Sinha discuss what to do about it.