A Synthesis of Potential Climate Change Impacts on the U.S.

Greenhouse gas emissions—primarily from human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels— are causing changes in the global climate. Global temperatures increased approximately 1°F over the 20th century, and additional warming of 2.5-10.5°F is projected over the next century. The consequences of this warming for the United States will be significant. Natural resources and wildlife are dependent upon climate, as are the economy and human health.

Since 1998, the Pew Center has been chronicling the projected impacts of climate change on important economic sectors, human health, and natural resources. A Synthesis of Potential Climate Change Impacts on the United States by Joel B. Smith of Stratus Consulting Inc. is the eleventh in a series of reports examining the potential impacts of climate change on the U.S. environment. This report provides a synthesis of prior Pew Center reports regarding climate change impacts across a number of sectors and regions. This culmination of our Environmental Impacts series is being released with a companion report in our Economics series entitled U.S. Market Consequences of Global Climate Change, which provides an in-depth analysis of the market implications of climate change for the U.S. economy. This synthesis reveals:

  • Natural systems are more vulnerable to climate change than societal systems. Species and ecosystems have limited ability to adapt to climate change, and as a consequence, U.S. biodiversity is likely to suffer. Managed sectors such as agriculture and forestry may avoid or reduce some adverse effects of climate change, but this adaptation will not be perfect or cost-free.
  • Some U.S. regions are more vulnerable than others to climate change. The southern United States appears more vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change than the North, due in large part to its low-lying coastal areas and the sensitivity of southern agriculture and forestry to warmer and dryer conditions. In the North, these sectors may benefit from longer growing seasons, but these benefits may not be sustained at higher magnitudes of warming. Warming may also reduce winter energy costs in the North, but it will increase cooling costs and the risk of heat-related illness and death in northern cities.
  • Economic studies suggest that the market consequences of low-to-moderate warming will be approximately ±1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). However, studies also indicate that any net economic benefit of climate change peaks at relatively low levels of warming, beyond which benefits decline and damages begin to accrue.
  • The rate and magnitude of future climate change will be important. Gradual, moderate changes in climate would provide some opportunity for both natural and societal systems to adapt. In contrast, rapid or large changes in climate would increase the risk of large-scale, irreversible disruption of Earth’s environment, such as a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation or the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Finally, while this series examines the impacts of climate change on the United States, we are mindful that other parts of the world will experience more severe consequences due to their location, physical characteristics, or economic limitations that impair their ability to adapt.

The author and the Pew Center gratefully acknowledge the input of Drs. Anthony Janetos, Neil Leary, Robert Mendelsohn, Lou Pitelka, Victor Kennedy, Stephen Schneider, and Roger Sedjo on this report.