Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Volume:
6,
Pages:
360–369
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nclimate2923
Received
Accepted
Published online

Abstract

Most of the policy debate surrounding the actions needed to mitigate and adapt to anthropogenic climate change has been framed by observations of the past 150 years as well as climate and sea-level projections for the twenty-first century. The focus on this 250-year window, however, obscures some of the most profound problems associated with climate change. Here, we argue that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a period during which the overwhelming majority of human-caused carbon emissions are likely to occur, need to be placed into a long-term context that includes the past 20 millennia, when the last Ice Age ended and human civilization developed, and the next ten millennia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist. This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies — not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Past and future changes in concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and global mean temperature.
    Figure 1: Past and future changes in concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and global mean temperature.

    a, Maps showing model-simulated temperature anomalies for the Last Glacial Maximum (21,000 years ago), the mid-Holocene (6,000 years ago), and projection for 2071–2095 based on the upper-end scenario used in the IPCC Working Group I AR5 (RCP8.5)87. b, Changes in CO2 from ice cores for the past 20,000 years32, 34, 36 and for four future emission scenarios (1,280, 2,560, 3,840, and 5,120 Pg C), with changes in CO2 for each emission scenario (mean and one standard deviation) derived from four runs with two fully coupled climate–carbon-cycle Earth System Models of Intermediate Complexity (UVic and Bern3D-LPX) (see Supplementary Information). CO2 levels for RCP8.5 for 2100 (red filled square) and its extension for 2300 (red open square) are shown for comparison (values are CO2-equivalent)47. Vertical grey bars show range of CO2 increase for the four emission scenarios based on a range in equilibrium climate sensitivity (1.5–4.5 °C) derived from Bern3D-LPX model runs. Note change in y axis scale at 300 ppm. c, Global temperature (mean and one standard deviation) reconstructed from palaeoclimate archives for the past 20,000 years30, 31 and from four simulations with the UVic and Bern3D-LPX models for each of the four emission scenarios for the next 10,000 years, based on an equilibrium climate sensitivity of 3.5 °C (see Supplementary Information). Temperature anomalies are relative to the 1980–2004 mean. Vertical grey bars show range of temperature increase for the four emission scenarios (1,280, 2,560, 3,840, and 5,120 Pg C) based on a range in equilibrium climate sensitivity (1.5–4.5 °C) from Bern3D-LPX model runs. Temperature projections (mean values) for RCP8.5 for 2081–2100 (red filled square) and its extension for 2281–2300 (red open square) are shown for comparison25. d,e, The rates of change in CO2 (d) and temperature (e), using a 500-year smoothing window.

  2. Past and future changes in global mean sea level.
    Figure 2: Past and future changes in global mean sea level.

    a, Long-term global mean sea-level change for the past 20,000 years (black line) based on palaeo sea level records (black dots with depth uncertainties shown by blue vertical lines)60 and projections for the next 10,000 years for four emission scenarios (1,280, 2,560, 3,840, and 5,120 Pg C). Time series for future projections (mean and one standard deviation) are based on thermosteric contributions from the UVic and Bern3D-LPX models, from modelled land-ice changes driven by UVic model runs with an equilibrium climate sensitivity of 3.5 °C, and from Bern3D-LPX model runs in which the total land-ice contribution was estimated from the relation between the UVic and land-ice model results (see Supplementary Information). Vertical grey bars show range of long-term sea-level rise for each emission scenario derived from a range in equilibrium climate sensitivity (1.5–4.5 °C) from Bern3D-LPX model runs. Images show reconstructions of the Greenland (top) and Antarctic (bottom) ice sheets for today (left) and for the 5,120 Pg C emission scenario (right). b, The rates of change in global mean sea level (using a 500-year smoothing window).

  3. Maps of projected relative sea-level change at 10,000 years after 2000 AD.
    Figure 3: Maps of projected relative sea-level change at 10,000 years after 2000 AD.

    a, The contribution to relative sea-level change associated with mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets based on the 1,280 Pg C emission scenario and output from UVic ESCM version 2.8. The results include changes to Earth's shape, gravity and rotation associated with the transfer of mass from the ice sheets to the oceans57, 58. b, The contribution to relative sea-level change due to the ongoing deformation of Earth (and consequent gravitational and rotational changes) in response to the most recent deglaciation (see Supplementary Information). c, The sum of the results in a and b. The global mean contributions from ocean warming and melting of glaciers are not included (they sum to less than 1 m for the 1,280 Pg C emission scenario).

  4. Relation between future cumulative emissions and committed sea-level rise.
    Figure 4: Relation between future cumulative emissions and committed sea-level rise.

    a, Relation between future cumulative carbon emissions and long-term sea-level rise after 10,000 years. Symbols represent results from UVic (circles: blue for version 2.8, black for version 2.9) and Bern3D-LPX (diamonds) models for an equilibrium climate sensitivity of 3.5 °C. The Bern3D-LPX values include land ice contributions estimated from the relation between UVic temperature and modelled land ice (see Supplementary Information). Vertical grey bars show the spread in committed sea level for a range in equilibrium climate sensitivity from 1.5 to 4.5 °C. b, Committed sea-level rise after 10,000 years that would result from emitting carbon for 100 years at annual rates from the past (1990 and 2010) and projected for the near future (2019; ref. 27). Ranges on the rates are 5.7 to 6.3 Pg C yr−1 for 1990, 8.8 to 9.8 Pg C yr−1 for 2010, and 10.8 to 12.4 Pg C yr−1 for 2019.

  5. Populated areas affected by sea-level rise.
    Figure 5: Populated areas affected by sea-level rise.

    Shown is the percentage of the population-weighted area for each nation or megacity (urban agglomeration with population 10 million or greater) below the projected long-term local mean sea level from emitting 1,280 Pg C. Population-weighted area describes the area of a country that falls below the projected long-term local mean sea level, weighted by its population. A 10% value thus indicates that 10% of the population of that country lives within the area that will be submerged. Sea-level rise is based on land-ice modelling forced by temperatures from version 2.8 of the UVic model and includes regional effects (see Fig. 3 and Supplementary Information). Unaffected megacities (value 0%) are not shown, and exposure north of 60° N or south of 56° S latitude is not included.

  6. Projected submerged areas in heavily populated areas affected by sea-level rise.
    Figure 6: Projected submerged areas in heavily populated areas affected by sea-level rise.

    The maps show areas of submergence for countries with at least 50 million people living on land affected by long-term sea-level projection based on the 1,280 Pg C emission scenario. Sea-level rise is based on land-ice modelling forced by temperatures from version 2.8 of the UVic model and includes regional sea-level effects (see Fig. 3 and Supplementary Information). For each country, the cities with the most people on affected land (purple areas) are also shown (yellow circles), plus select others (Shanghai and Hong Kong, China; Mumbai, India; Osaka, Japan; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), all with total populations 10 million or greater in the urban agglomeration, and with at least half of the total population on affected land. We note that there are many more cities with lesser but still substantial populations not shown on the maps that would similarly be inundated.

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA

    • Peter U. Clark &
    • Alan C. Mix
  2. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02467, USA

    • Jeremy D. Shakun
  3. Department of Geoscience, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA

    • Shaun A. Marcott
  4. School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia V8W 3P6, Canada

    • Michael Eby &
    • Andrew J. Weaver
  5. Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada

    • Michael Eby
  6. Climate Central, Princeton, New Jersey 08542, USA

    • Scott Kulp &
    • Benjamin H. Strauss
  7. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam 14412, Germany

    • Anders Levermann &
    • Ricarda Winkelmann
  8. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, New York, New York 10964, USA

    • Anders Levermann
  9. Institute of Physics, Potsdam University, 14476 Potsdam, Germany

    • Anders Levermann
  10. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada

    • Glenn A. Milne
  11. Climate and Environmental Physics, University of Bern, Sidlerstrasse 5, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland

    • Patrik L. Pfister,
    • Thomas F. Stocker &
    • Gian-Kasper Plattner
  12. Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California 94550, USA

    • Benjamin D. Santer
  13. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Daniel P. Schrag
  14. Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Susan Solomon
  15. Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research, Zahringerstrasse 25, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland

    • Thomas F. Stocker
  16. Department of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA

    • David Archer
  17. CEREGE, Aix-Marseille University – CNRS– IRD – College de France, Technopole de l'Arbois, BP 80, 13545 Aix-en-Provence Cedex 4, France

    • Edouard Bard
  18. AAAS Science and Technology Fellow, Washington DC 20001, USA

    • Aaron Goldner
  19. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia

    • Kurt Lambeck
  20. Laboratoire de Géologie de l'École Normale Supérieure, UMR 8538 du CNRS, 75231 Paris, France

    • Kurt Lambeck
  21. Department of Physics, Oxford University, Oxford OX1 3PU, UK

    • Raymond T. Pierrehumbert

Contributions

P.U.C., S.A.M., A.C.M., and J.D.S. conceived the study. P.U.C. and M.E. designed and led the study, and with A.L., S.A.M., B.D.S., D.P.S., T.F.S., A.J.W., and R.W. wrote the first draft of the paper. M.E. and P.L.P. contributed the carbon cycle and climate modelling, A.L. and R.W. contributed the glacier and ice-sheet modelling, G.A.M. contributed the relative sea-level modelling, and S.K. and B.H.S. contributed the sea-level impact analyses. All authors contributed to the analysis and finalization of the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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    Data used in Figs 1, 2 and 4, as well as Supplementary Figs 1 and 3.

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