17. Are climate changes of a few degrees a cause for concern?

Yes. Even though an increase of a few degrees in global average temperature does not sound like much, global average temperature during the last ice age was only about 4 to 5 °C (7 to 9 °F) colder than now. Global warming of just a few degrees will be associated with widespread changes in regional and local temperature and precipitation as well as with increases in some types of extreme weather events. These and other changes (such as sea level rise and storm surge) will have serious impacts on human societies and the natural world.

Both theory and direct observations have confirmed that global warming is associated with greater warming over land than oceans, moistening of the atmosphere, shifts in regional precipitation patterns and increases in extreme weather events, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels (which increases the risk of coastal inundation and storm surge). Already, record high temperatures are on average significantly outpacing record low temperatures, wet areas are becoming wetter as dry areas are becoming drier, heavy rainstorms have become heavier, and snowpacks (an important source of freshwater for many regions) are decreasing.

These impacts are expected to increase with greater warming and will threaten food production, freshwater supplies, coastal infrastructure, and especially the welfare of the huge population currently living in low-lying areas. Even though certain regions may realise some local benefit from the warming, the long-term consequences overall will be disruptive.

Questions and answers

Read short summary answers

1. Is the climate warming?
2. How do scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?
3. CO2 is already in the atmosphere naturally, so why are emissions from human activity significant?
4. What role has the Sun played in climate change in recent decades?
5. What do changes in the vertical structure of atmospheric temperature – from the surface up to the stratosphere - tell us about the causes of recent climate change?
6. Climate is always changing. Why is climate change of concern now?
7. Is the current level of atmospheric CO2 concentration unprecedented in Earth’s history?
8. Is there a point at which adding more CO2 will not cause further warming?
9. Does the rate of warming vary from one decade to another?
10. Does the recent slowdown of warming mean that climate change is no longer happening?
11. If the world is warming, why are some winters and summers still very cold?
12. Why is Arctic sea ice reducing while Antarctic sea ice is not?
13. How does climate change affect the strength and frequency of floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes?
14. How fast is sea level rising?
15. What is ocean acidification and why does it matter?
16. How confident are scientists that Earth will warm further over the coming century?
17. Are climate changes of a few degrees a cause for concern?
18. What are scientists doing to address key uncertainties in our understanding of the climate system?
19. Are disaster scenarios about tipping points like ‘turning off the Gulf Stream’ and release of methane from the Arctic a cause for concern?
20. If emissions of greenhouse gases were stopped, would the climate return to the conditions of 200 years ago?

Your questions

In addition to the 20 key questions answered in 'Climate Change: Evidence & Causes', we asked for your questions about the science of climate change on Google Moderator.

View all questions and our responses.

Download the answers (PDF).