This Is What the Earth’s Climate Will Look Like in 2050

The future under climate change can seem frighteningly vague and variable. A top climatologist explains what to expect in 2050.

Julia Slingo
OneZero
Published in
7 min readMar 31, 2020

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Image: imagedepotpro/Getty Images

TTemperatures have risen by about 1 degree Celcius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, since pre-industrial times. Arctic summer sea ice extent has declined by around 40% since records began in 1979. Sea levels have been rising by about 3/32 inches a year since the early 1990s. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. So yes: We are more confident than ever that humans have been the “dominant cause” of the rise in temperatures since the 1950s.

Although we often talk about uncertainty in future climate projections, there are some things we can be certain about. We know that Earth will continue to warm; we know that the adverse impacts of climate change are disproportionately larger as we go to higher temperatures and that the risk of irreversible and disastrous changes increases; we know that sea levels will continue to rise long after we have stabilized the Earth’s surface temperature and that melting of ice caps and glaciers will continue.

We also know that there will definitely be some level of climate change, no matter what happens with future carbon emissions, because of the existing accumulation of carbon within the atmosphere. This means that some level of adaptation will be necessary whatever we do. The scale of the potential investments, for example in flood and coastal defenses, the risks associated with failure, and the long lifetimes and lead times of such infrastructure together mean that future investments are likely to be highly sensitive to how the climate changes over the next two to three decades. We need to plan now for how we can climate-proof our lives, towns, and cities, and help to protect the natural environment, as there is virtually nothing in the climate system that seems likely to dampen the effects of our greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the more we know, the more we are faced with the uncomfortable reality that this could be even more challenging than we previously thought.

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