"Factory Smoke Blankets Clark Avenue" by Frank J. Aleksandrowicz / Public Domain

Global Warming: How Hot, Exactly, Is it Going to Get?

May 13, 2019

By Kate Marvel

Imagine spending your whole career working on a question to which you don’t want to know the answer. We know that greenhouse gas emissions can and do warm the planet, but we don’t know one very basic thing: how hot, exactly, is it going to get? The main reason for this, of course, is that human behavior is so hard to predict. How will the people of the late twenty-first century get their energy? Will they need as much as we do, or will they have reconciled themselves to fundamentally different lives?

Perhaps that decision will have been made for them by war or societal collapse. None of this is knowable. But even if we could remove all the uncertainty associated with politics, economics, technology, and demography, we still wouldn’t be sure. There are many things we don’t understand about our rapidly-warming planet.

To some extent, we know why we don’t know. I have been sternly informed by communication experts that “global warming” is a better term for what’s happening than “climate change.” I have also been told the opposite. But the two are inseparable: they feed back upon each other. Rising temperatures change the planet, and these changes can speed up or, if we are very lucky, slow down the warming we’ve caused.

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