Human societies over the ages have depleted natural resources and degraded their local environments. Populations have also modified their local climates by cutting down trees or building cities. It is now apparent that human activities are perturbing the climate system at the global scale. Climate change is likely to have wide-ranging and potentially serious health consequences. Some health impacts will result from direct-acting effects (e.g., heatwave-related deaths, weather disasters); others will result from disturbances to complex ecological processes (e.g., changes in patterns of infectious disease, in freshwater supplies, and in food production).
WHAT IS CLIMATE CHANGE?
Global climate change is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere. The global concentration of these gases is increasing, mainly due to human activities, such as the combustion of fossil fuels (which release carbon dioxide) and deforestation (because forests remove carbon from the atmosphere). The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, has increased by 30 percent since preindustrial times.
Projections of future climate change are derived from global climate model or general circulation model (GCM) experiments. Climatologists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) review the results of these experiments for global and regional assessments. It is estimated that global mean surface temperature will rise by 1.5° to 3.5° C by 2100. This rate of warming is significant. Large changes in precipitation, both increases and decreases, are forecast, largely in the tropics. Climate change is very likely to affect the frequency and intensity of weather events, such as storms and floods, around the world. Climate change will also cause sea level rise due to the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of the mountain glaciers. Global mean sea level is anticipated to rise by 15 to 95 centimeters by 2100. Sea level rise will increase vulnerability to coastal flooding and storm surges. The faster the climate change, the greater will be the risk of damage to the environment. Climatic zones (and thus ecosystems and agricultural zones) could shift toward the poles by 150 to 550 kilometers by 2100. Many ecosystems may decline or fragment, and individual species may become extinct. The IPCC Second Assessment report concludes that climate change has probably already begun.
R. SARI KOVATS, The Gale Group Inc., Macmillan Reference USA, New York,