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On the (im-)possibilities of defining dangerous thresholds of climate change

Texas society is exceeding diverse and complex. This article presents important arguments intended to stimulate discussion on how to define human-climate thresholds. The question posed is: should we establish and measure climate thresholds for society, or focus on individual human thresholds to climate? While this may present a false dichotomy, the article assists researcher in thinking more clearly about strategic priorities for defining and communicating climate change impacts to the public and policy makers.

Human climate thresholds are a function of a host of factors, for example, some affecting the body and depending on one’s health status and age; others are determined by ideology and culture. They are often subjective and therefore cannot be approached in as straightforward a manner as physiological thresholds.  Therefore generalized surrogates must be used, such as mental maps, surveys or statistical relationships. The result of these approaches is more akin to a societal climate threshold.

This paper concludes that there is no universal dose-response relationship between any one climate variable and a particular individual or societal outcome. Generalizing such a complex relationship involving so many difficult to quantify variables, is practically impossible other than by using analogies from past and present behaviors. This means that attempts to develop generalized universal climate thresholds or a single universal level of dangerous climate change as desired by some policy makers is too simplistic.  In Texas we can take advantage of the regional complexity of our climate and society to ask why one region copes better with a certain climatic situation than another. In doing these assessments we will undoubtedly consider both our past and present experiences with both individual and societal thresholds to climate variability and change. For purposes of public communication a mix of narratives about individual experiences with climate extremes blended with survey and statistical relationships at the city or regional scale should advance understanding of how to best characterize threats posed by climate change.


CCSP, 2008: Analyses of the effects of global change on human health and welfare and human systems.
CCSP, 2008: Analyses of the effects of global change on human health and welfare and human systems. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. [Gamble, J.L. (ed.), K.L. Ebi, F.G. Sussman, T.J. Wilbanks, (Authors)]. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.
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