Records of past climates contained in ice cores, ocean sediments, and other archives show that large, abrupt, widespread climate changes have occurred repeatedly in the past. These changes were especially prominent during the cooling into and warming out of the last ice age, but persisted into the modern warm interval. Changes have especially affected water availability in warm regions and temperature in cold regions, but have affected almost all climatic variables across much or all of the Earth. Impacts of climate changes are smaller if the changes are slower or more-expected. The rapidity of abrupt climate changes, together with the difficulty of predicting such changes, means that impacts on the health of humans, economies and ecosystems will be larger if abrupt climate changes occur. Most projections of future climate include only gradual changes, whereas paleoclimatic data plus models indicate that abrupt changes remain possible; thus, policy is being made based on a view of the future that may be optimistic.