Is There Any Upside to Global Warming?

Even Best-Case Scenario, the Cons Outweigh Any Possible Pros

Melting Horizons
Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images

The United Nations has been studying climate change and working to combat its effects since the first Earth Summit in 1992. The UN Intergovernmental panel's fifth report, published in late 2014, reiterates that global warming—more precisely called climate change—is happening and will likely not abate for centuries. The report also states with 95 percent certainty that the activity of humans has been the primary cause of increasing temperatures over the previous few decades, up from 90 percent in a previous report. We've heard the dire warnings—even if we have yet to heed them—but could there possibly be any advantages to climate change, and if so, could these upsides possibly outweigh the downsides? The short answer is no. Here's why.

Advantages of Global Warming? It's a Bit of a Stretch

The so-called advantages of climate are out there—if you're really looking but do they compensate for the disruption and destruction wrought by the disadvantages? Again, the answer is no but for die-hard fans of the global warming trend, advantages might include the following suspect scenarios:

  • The Arctic, Antarctic, Siberia, and other frozen regions of the earth might experience more plant growth and milder climates.
  • The next ice age could possibly be prevented.
  • The Northwest Passage through the formerly icy Canadian Arctic Archipelago could arguably open up to transportation.
  • Fewer deaths or injuries would occur due to arctic conditions.
  • Longer growing seasons could mean increased agricultural production in some areas.

Disadvantages: Ocean Warming, Extreme Weather

For every minutely possible advantage to climate change, there is a much more profound and compelling disadvantage. Why? Since the oceans and weather are highly interconnected and the water cycle has an impact on weather patterns (think air saturation, precipitation levels, and the like), what affects the ocean affects weather. For instance:

  • Changes in ocean circulation and the resulting warmer temperatures disrupt the world's normal weather patterns, bringing about more extreme weather and an increased frequency of severe and catastrophic storms, such as hurricanes and typhoons. The increase in severe storms leads to a more frequent occurrence of such things as "hundred-year floods," decimation of habitats and property, not to mention, loss of life—human and otherwise.  
  • Higher sea levels lead to flooding of lowlands. Islands and coastlines are engulfed by water leading to death and disease due to flooding.
  • The acidification of warming oceans leads to a loss of coral reefs. Coral reefs protect shorelines from heavy waves, storms, and floods and while they only cover about 1 percent of the ocean floor, reefs provide a habitat for 25 percent of the ocean's species. Demolished reefs lead to increased erosion and coastal property damage and the extinction of species.
  • Warming ocean waters means increased melting of glaciers and ice sheets. Smaller ice sheets form each subsequent winter, which has a devastating impact on the habitat of cold-climate animals and the Earth's reserves of freshwater. (According to the United States Geography Survey [USGS], 69 percent of the Earth's ice is locked in ice and glaciers.) 
  • Less sea ice, warmer water, and increased acidity are catastrophic for krill which forms the base of the ocean's food web and feeds whales, seals, fish, and penguins. The plight of polar bears due to the loss of Arctic ice is well documented, but at the other end of the globe, in 2017 as a result of local climate change, in a colony of 40,000 Antarctic Adélie penguins, only two chicks survived. (In 2013, in the wake of a similar event, none survived.) Emperor penguin colonies are also expected to decline due to loss of sea ice and rising temperatures.

Disadvantages: Land Desertification

As weather patterns are disrupted and droughts intensify in duration and frequency, agricultural sectors are particularly hard hit. Crops and grasslands can't thrive due to lack of water. With crops unavailable, cattle, sheep, and other livestock don't get fed and die. Marginal lands are no longer useful. Farmers who find themselves unable to work the land lose their livelihoods. In addition: 

  • Deserts become drier, leading to increased desertification, resulting in border conflicts in already water-scarce areas.
  • Decreased agricultural production leads to food shortages.
  • Starvation, malnutrition, and increased deaths result from food and crop shortages.

Disadvantages: Health, Social, and Economic Impact

In addition to climate change affecting weather patterns and food production, which in turn have a negative impact on the future of human race as well as the planet, climate change can also put the hurt on people's pocketbooks, the economy of an area on a larger scale, and health in general: 

  • Insect-borne diseases increase. For example, if insects don't die off in an area because it no longer reaches the cold temperatures it once did, diseases those insects may carry—such Lyme disease—can proliferate more easily.
  • People from poorer, drier, hotter, or low-lying countries may attempt to emigrate to wealthier or higher-elevation locales seeking better (or at least nondeadly) conditions, causing tension among the existing population.
  • As climates warm overall, people use more energy resources for cooling needs, which will lead to a rise in air pollution and deaths from increasingly hot weather conditions that cannot be mitigated.
  • Allergy and asthma rates go up due to pollution exacerbated by the earlier and longer blooming of plants.
  • Cultural or heritage sites are destroyed due to increased extremes and acid rain.

Disadvantages: Nature Out of Balance

The environment around us is affected by climate change in a multitude of ways. The component parts of any ecosystem normally must maintain a delicate balance but climate change is throwing nature is out of whack—in some places more than others. Effects include: 

  • Increase in the number of species of animals and plants heading toward extinction.
  • Loss of animal and plant habitats causes animals to move into other territories, disrupting ecosystems that are already established.
  • Because the behaviors of many plants, insects, and animals are dependent on temperature, a change in climate can cause an imbalance in the ecosystem itself. For example, say the availability of food for a particular insect no longer coincides with the time when the offspring of the natural predator for that insect is born. Uncontrolled by predation, the insect population booms, resulting in an overabundance of that pest. This, in turn, leads to increased stress on the foliage the insects eat, which ultimately results in a loss of food for larger animals in the food chain that also depend on those plants for sustenance.
  • Pests such as viruses, fungi, or parasites that usually perish at a certain low temperature no longer die off, which may lead to an increase in disease among plants, animals, and humans.  
  • Melting of permafrost leads to flooding and greatly increases the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere which only serves to exacerbate climate change. In addition, ancient viruses long held in stasis by the permafrost are allowed to escape into the environment. 
  • Rainfall increases in acidity.
  • Earlier seasonal drying of forests leads to forest fires of increased frequency, size, and intensity. Loss of plants and trees on hillsides leaves them more vulnerable to erosion and landslides and may lead to an increased probability of property damage and loss of life.