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.

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Acknowledgements

P.U.C. and A.C.M. acknowledge support from the US National Science Foundation (Project PALEOVAR; AGS-0602395). M.E. and A.J.W. are grateful for ongoing support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Cananda (NSERC) through its Discovery Grant programme. G.A.M. acknowledges support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canada Research Chairs Program. A.L. acknowledges support from the German Science Foundation (DFG) project GZ: LE 1448/6-1. S.A.M. acknowledges support from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate School. R.T.P. acknowledges support from the Kung Carl XVI Gustaf 50-Årsfond. B.D.S. was supported by the US Department of Energy under contract DE-AC52-07NA27344. T.F.S. and P.L.P. acknowledge support from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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

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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter U. Clark.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923

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