For current and future climatological effects of human influences, see global warming. For the study of past climate change, see paleoclimatology. For temperatures on the longest time scales, see geologic temperature record.
Climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns when that change lasts for an extended period of time (i.e., decades to millions of years). Climate change may refer to a change in average weather conditions, or in the time variation of weather within the context of longer-term average conditions. Climate change is caused by factors such as biotic processes, variations in solar radiation received by Earth, plate tectonics, and volcanic eruptions. Certain human activities have been identified as primary causes of ongoing climate change, often referred to as global warming.
Scientists actively work to understand past and future climate by using observations and theoretical models. A climate record—extending deep into the Earth's past—has been assembled, and continues to be built up, based on geological evidence from borehole temperature profiles, cores removed from deep accumulations of ice, floral and faunal records, glacial and periglacial processes, stable-isotope and other analyses of sediment layers, and records of past sea levels. More recent data are provided by the instrumental record. General circulation models, based on the physical sciences, are often used in theoretical approaches to match past climate data, make future projections, and link causes and effects in climate change.
The most general definition of climate change is a change in the statistical properties (principally its mean and spread) of the climate system when considered over long periods of time, regardless of cause. Accordingly, fluctuations over periods shorter than a few decades, such as El Niño, do not represent climate change.
The term "climate change" is often used to refer specifically to anthropogenic climate change (also known as global warming). Anthropogenic climate change is caused by human activity, as opposed to changes in climate that may have resulted as part of Earth's natural processes. In this sense, especially in the context of environmental policy, the term climate change has become synonymous with anthropogenicglobal warming. Within scientific journals, global warming refers to surface temperature increases while climate change includes global warming and everything else that increasing greenhouse gas levels affect.
A related term, "climatic change", was proposed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1966 to encompass all forms of climatic variability on time-scales longer than 10 years, but regardless of cause. During the 1970s, the term climate change replaced climatic change to focus on anthropogenic causes, as it became clear that human activities had a potential to drastically alter the climate. Climate change was incorporated in the title of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Climate change is now used as both a technical description of the process, as well as a noun used to describe the problem.
See also: Attribution of recent climate change
On the broadest scale, the rate at which energy is received from the Sun and the rate at which it is lost to space determine the equilibrium temperature and climate of Earth. This energy is distributed around the globe by winds, ocean currents, and other mechanisms to affect the climates of different regions.
Factors that can shape climate are called climate forcings or "forcing mechanisms". These include processes such as variations in solar radiation, variations in the Earth's orbit, variations in the albedo or reflectivity of the continents, atmosphere, and oceans, mountain-building and continental drift and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. There are a variety of climate change feedbacks that can either amplify or diminish the initial forcing. Some parts of the climate system, such as the oceans and ice caps, respond more slowly in reaction to climate forcings, while others respond more quickly. There are also key threshold factors which when exceeded can produce rapid change.
Forcing mechanisms can be either "internal" or "external". Internal forcing mechanisms are natural processes within the climate system itself (e.g., the thermohaline circulation). External forcing mechanisms can be either natural (e.g., changes in solar output, the earth's orbit, volcano eruptions) or anthropogenic (e.g. increased emissions of greenhouse gases and dust).
Whether the initial forcing mechanism is internal or external, the response of the climate system might be fast (e.g., a sudden cooling due to airborne volcanic ash reflecting sunlight), slow (e.g. thermal expansion of warming ocean water), or a combination (e.g., sudden loss of albedo in the Arctic Ocean as sea ice melts, followed by more gradual thermal expansion of the water). Therefore, the climate system can respond abruptly, but the full response to forcing mechanisms might not be fully developed for centuries or even longer.
Internal forcing mechanisms
Scientists generally define the five components of earth's climate system to include atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere (restricted to the surface soils, rocks, and sediments), and biosphere. Natural changes in the climate system ("internal forcings") result in internal "climate variability". Examples include the type and distribution of species, and changes in ocean-atmosphere circulations.
Main article: Thermohaline circulation
See also: Climate inertia
The ocean and atmosphere can work together to spontaneously generate internal climate variability that can persist for years to decades at a time. Examples of this type of variability include the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Pacific decadal oscillation, and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. These variations can affect global average surface temperature by redistributing heat between the deep ocean and the atmopshere and/or by altering the cloud/water vapor/sea ice distribution which can affect the total energy budget of the earth.
The oceanic aspects of these circulations can generate variability on centennial timescales due to the ocean having hundreds of times more mass than in the atmosphere, and thus very high thermal inertia. For example, alterations to ocean processes such as thermohaline circulation play a key role in redistributing heat in the world's oceans. Due to the long timescales of this circulation, ocean temperature at depth is still adjusting to effects of the Little Ice Age which occurred between the 1600 and 1800s.
Life affects climate through its role in the carbon and water cycles and through such mechanisms as albedo, evapotranspiration, cloud formation, and weathering. Examples of how life may have affected past climate include:
External forcing mechanisms
Main article: Milankovitch cycles
Slight variations in Earth's motion lead to changes in the seasonal distribution of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface and how it is distributed across the globe. There is very little change to the area-averaged annually averaged sunshine; but there can be strong changes in the geographical and seasonal distribution. The three types of kinematic change are variations in Earth's eccentricity, changes in the tilt angle of Earth's axis of rotation, and precession of Earth's axis. Combined together, these produce Milankovitch cycles which have an impact on climate and are notable for their correlation to glacial and interglacial periods, their correlation with the advance and retreat of the Sahara, and for their appearance in the stratigraphic record.
The IPCC notes that Milankovitch cycles drove the ice age cycles, CO2 followed temperature change "with a lag of some hundreds of years", and that as a feedback amplified temperature change. The depths of the ocean have a lag time in changing temperature (thermal inertia on such scale). Upon seawater temperature change, the solubility of CO2 in the oceans changed, as well as other factors impacting air-sea CO2 exchange.
Main article: Solar variation
Further information: Cosmic ray § Postulated role in climate change
The Sun is the predominant source of energy input to the Earth. Other sources include geothermal energy from the Earth's core, tidal energy from the Moon and heat from the decay of radioactive compounds. Both long- and short-term variations in solar intensity are known to affect global climate.
Three to four billion years ago, the Sun emitted only 75% as much power as it does today. If the atmospheric composition had been the same as today, liquid water should not have existed on Earth. However, there is evidence for the presence of water on the early Earth, in the Hadean and Archean eons, leading to what is known as the faint young Sun paradox. Hypothesized solutions to this paradox include a vastly different atmosphere, with much higher concentrations of greenhouse gases than currently exist. Over the following approximately 4 billion years, the energy output of the Sun increased and atmospheric composition changed. The Great Oxygenation Event – oxygenation of the atmosphere around 2.4 billion years ago – was the most notable alteration. Over the next five billion years from the present, the Sun's ultimate death as it becomes a red giant and then a white dwarf will have large effects on climate, with the red giant phase possibly ending any life on Earth that survives until that time.
Solar output varies on shorter time scales, including the 11-year solar cycle and longer-term modulations. Solar intensity variations, possibly as a result of the Wolf, Spörer, and the Maunder Minima, are considered to have been influential in triggering the Little Ice Age. This event extended from 1550 to 1850 A.D. and was marked by relative cooling and greater glacier extent than the centuries before and afterward. Solar variation may also have impacted some of the warming observed from 1900 to 1950. The cyclical nature of the Sun's energy output is not yet fully understood; it differs from the very slow change that is happening within the Sun as it ages and evolves.
Some studies point toward solar radiation increases from cyclical sunspot activity affecting global warming, and climate may be influenced by the sum of all effects (solar variation, anthropogenic radiative forcings, etc.).
A 2010 study suggests "that the effects of solar variability on temperature throughout the atmosphere may be contrary to current expectations."
In an Aug 2011 Press Release,CERN announced the publication in the Nature journal the initial results from its CLOUD experiment. The results indicate that ionisation from cosmic rays significantly enhances aerosol formation in the presence of sulfuric acid and water, but in the lower atmosphere where ammonia is also required, this is insufficient to account for aerosol formation and additional trace vapours must be involved. The next step is to find more about these trace vapours, including whether they are of natural or human origin.
The eruptions considered to be large enough to affect the Earth's climate on a scale of more than 1 year are the ones that inject over 100,000 tons of SO2 into the stratosphere. This is due to the optical properties of SO2 and sulfate aerosols, which strongly absorb or scatter solar radiation, creating a global layer of sulfuric acid haze. On average, such eruptions occur several times per century, and cause cooling (by partially blocking the transmission of solar radiation to the Earth's surface) for a period of a few years.
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century, affected the climate substantially, subsequently global temperatures decreased by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) for up to three years. Thus, the cooling over large parts of the Earth reduced surface temperatures in 1991–93, the equivalent to a reduction in net radiation of 4 watts per square meter. The Mount Tambora eruption in 1815 caused the Year Without a Summer. Much larger eruptions, known as large igneous provinces, occur only a few times every fifty – one hundred million years – through flood basalt, and caused in Earth past global warming and mass extinctions.
Small eruptions, with injections of less than 0.1 Mt of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, impact the atmosphere only subtly, as temperature changes are comparable with natural variability. However, because smaller eruptions occur at a much higher frequency, they too have a significant impact on Earth's atmosphere.
Seismic monitoring maps current and future trends in volcanic activities, and tries to develop early warning systems. In climate modelling the aim is to study the physical mechanisms and feedbacks of volcanic forcing.
Volcanoes are also part of the extended carbon cycle. Over very long (geological) time periods, they release carbon dioxide from the Earth's crust and mantle, counteracting the uptake by sedimentary rocks and other geological carbon dioxide sinks. The US Geological Survey estimates are that volcanic emissions are at a much lower level than the effects of current human activities, which generate 100–300 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes. A review of published studies indicates that annual volcanic emissions of carbon dioxide, including amounts released from mid-ocean ridges, volcanic arcs, and hot spot volcanoes, are only the equivalent of 3 to 5 days of human-caused output. The annual amount put out by human activities may be greater than the amount released by supererruptions, the most recent of which was the Toba eruption in Indonesia 74,000 years ago.
Although volcanoes are technically part of the lithosphere, which itself is part of the climate system, the IPCC explicitly defines volcanism as an external forcing agent.
Main article: Plate tectonics
Over the course of millions of years, the motion of tectonic plates reconfigures global land and ocean areas and generates topography. This can affect both global and local patterns of climate and atmosphere-ocean circulation.
The position of the continents determines the geometry of the oceans and therefore influences patterns of ocean circulation. The locations of the seas are important in controlling the transfer of heat and moisture across the globe, and therefore, in determining global climate. A recent example of tectonic control on ocean circulation is the formation of the Isthmus of Panama about 5 million years ago, which shut off direct mixing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This strongly affected the ocean dynamics of what is now the Gulf Stream and may have led to Northern Hemisphere ice cover. During the Carboniferous period, about 300 to 360 million years ago, plate tectonics may have triggered large-scale storage of carbon and increased glaciation. Geologic evidence points to a "megamonsoonal" circulation pattern during the time of the supercontinentPangaea, and climate modeling suggests that the existence of the supercontinent was conducive to the establishment of monsoons.
The size of continents is also important. Because of the stabilizing effect of the oceans on temperature, yearly temperature variations are generally lower in coastal areas than they are inland. A larger supercontinent will therefore have more area in which climate is strongly seasonal than will several smaller continents or islands.
Main article: Global warming
In the context of climate variation, anthropogenic factors are human activities which affect the climate. The scientific consensus on climate change is "that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities," and it "is largely irreversible."
"Science has made enormous inroads in understanding climate change and its causes, and is beginning to help develop a strong understanding of current and potential impacts that will affect people today and in coming decades. This understanding is crucial because it allows decision makers to place climate change in the context of other large challenges facing the nation and the world. There are still some uncertainties, and there always will be in understanding a complex system like Earth's climate. Nevertheless, there is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities. While much remains to be learned, the core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious scientific debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations."
— United States National Research Council, Advancing the Science of Climate Change
Of most concern in these anthropogenic factors is the increase in CO2 levels. This is due to emissions from fossil fuel combustion, followed by aerosols (particulate matter in the atmosphere), and the CO2 released by cement manufacture. Other factors, including land use, ozone depletion, animal husbandry (ruminant animals such as cattle produce methane, as do termites), and deforestation, are also of concern in the roles they play – both separately and in conjunction with other factors – in affecting climate, microclimate, and measures of climate variables.
The Earth receives an influx of ionized particles known as cosmic rays from a variety of external sources, including the Sun. A hypothesis holds that an increase in the cosmic ray flux would increase the ionization in the atmosphere, leading to greater cloud cover. This, in turn, would tend to cool the surface. The non-solar cosmic ray flux may vary as a result of a nearby supernova event, the solar system passing through a dense interstellar cloud, or the oscillatory movement of the Sun's position with respect to the galactic plane. The latter can increase the flux of high-energy cosmic rays coming from the Virgo cluster.
Evidence exists that the Chicxulub impact some 66 million years ago had severely affected the Earth's climate. Large quantities of sulfate aerosols were kicked up into the atmosphere, decreasing global temperatures by up to 26 °C and producing sub-freezing temperatures for a period of 3−16 years. The recovery time for this event took more than 30 years.
Evidence for climatic change is taken from a variety of sources that can be used to reconstruct past climates. Reasonably complete global records of surface temperature are available beginning from the mid-late 19th century. For earlier periods, most of the evidence is indirect—climatic changes are inferred from changes in proxies, indicators that reflect climate, such as vegetation, ice cores,dendrochronology, sea level change, and glacial geology.
Temperature measurements and proxies
The instrumental temperature record from surface stations was supplemented by radiosonde balloons, extensive atmospheric monitoring by the mid-20th century, and, from the 1970s on, with global satellite data as well. Taking the record as a whole, most of the 20th century had been unprecedentedly warm, while the 19th and 17th centuries were quite cool. The 18O/16O ratio in calcite and ice core samples used to deduce ocean temperature in the distant past is an example of a temperature proxy method, as are other climate metrics noted in subsequent categories.
Historical and archaeological evidence
Main article: Historical impacts of climate change
Climate change in the recent past may be detected by corresponding changes in settlement and agricultural patterns.Archaeological evidence, oral history and historical documents can offer insights into past changes in the climate. Climate change effects have been linked to the rise  and also the collapse of various civilizations.
Glaciers are considered among the most sensitive indicators of climate change. Their size is determined by a mass balance between snow input and melt output. As temperatures warm, glaciers retreat unless snow precipitation increases to make up for the additional melt; the converse is also true.
Glaciers grow and shrink due both to natural variability and external forcings. Variability in temperature, precipitation, and englacial and subglacial hydrology can strongly determine the evolution of a glacier in a particular season. Therefore, one must average over a decadal or longer time-scale and/or over many individual glaciers to smooth out the local short-term variability and obtain a glacier history that is related to climate.
A world glacier inventory has been compiled since the 1970s, initially based mainly on aerial photographs and maps but now relying more on satellites. This compilation tracks more than 100,000 glaciers covering a total area of approximately 240,000 km2, and preliminary estimates indicate that the remaining ice cover is around 445,000 km2. The World Glacier Monitoring Service collects data annually on glacier retreat and glacier mass balance. From this data, glaciers worldwide have been found to be shrinking significantly, with strong glacier retreats in the 1940s, stable or growing conditions during the 1920s and 1970s, and again retreating from the mid-1980s to the present.
The most significant climate processes since the middle to late Pliocene (approximately 3 million years ago) are the glacial and interglacial cycles. The present interglacial period (the Holocene) has lasted about 11,700 years. Shaped by orbital variations, responses such as the rise and fall of continental ice sheets and significant sea-level changes helped create the climate. Other changes, including Heinrich events, Dansgaard–Oeschger events and the Younger Dryas, however, illustrate how glacial variations may also influence climate without the orbital forcing.
Glaciers leave behind moraines that contain a wealth of material—including organic matter, quartz, and potassium that may be dated—recording the periods in which a glacier advanced and retreated. Similarly, by tephrochronological techniques, the lack of glacier cover can be identified by the presence of soil or volcanic tephra horizons whose date of deposit may also be ascertained.
Data from NASA's Grace satellites show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica (upper chart) and Greenland (lower) have been losing mass since 2002. Both ice sheets have seen an acceleration of ice mass loss since 2009.
Arctic sea ice loss
Main articles: Arctic sea ice decline and Climate change in the Arctic
The decline in Arctic sea ice, both in extent and thickness, over the last several decades is further evidence for rapid climate change. Sea ice is frozen seawater that floats on the ocean surface. It covers millions of square kilometers in the polar regions, varying with the seasons. In the Arctic, some sea ice remains year after year, whereas almost all Southern Ocean or Antarctic sea ice melts away and reforms annually. Satellite observations show that Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.2 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. The 2007 Arctic summer sea ice retreat was unprecedented. Decades of shrinking and thinning in a warm climate has put the Arctic sea ice in a precarious position, it is now vulnerable to atmospheric anomalies. "Both extent and volume anomaly fluctuate little from January to July and then decrease steeply in August and September". This decrease is because of lessened ice production as a result of the unusually high SAT. During the Arctic summer, a slower rate of sea ice production is the same as a faster rate of sea ice melting.
A change in the type, distribution and coverage of vegetation may occur given a change in the climate. Some changes in climate may result in increased precipitation and warmth, resulting in improved plant growth and the subsequent sequestration of airborne CO2. A gradual increase in warmth in a region will lead to earlier flowering and fruiting times, driving a change in the timing of life cycles of dependent organisms. Conversely, cold will cause plant bio-cycles to lag. Larger, faster or more radical changes, however, may result in vegetation stress, rapid plant loss and desertification in certain circumstances. An example of this occurred during the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse (CRC), an extinction event 300 million years ago. At this time vast rainforests covered the equatorial region of Europe and America. Climate change devastated these tropical rainforests, abruptly fragmenting the habitat into isolated 'islands' and causing the extinction of many plant and animal species.
Forest genetic resources
Even though this is a field with many uncertainties, it is expected that over the next 50 years climate changes will have an effect on the diversity of forest genetic resources and thereby on the distribution of forest tree species and the composition of forests. Diversity of forest genetic resources enables the potential for a species (or a population) to adapt to climatic changes and related future challenges such as temperature changes, drought, pests, diseases and forest fire. However, species are not naturally capable to adapt in the pace of which the climate is changing and the increasing temperatures will most likely facilitate the spread of pests and diseases, creating an additional threat to forest trees and their populations. To inhibit these problems human interventions, such as transfer of forest reproductive material, may be needed.
Palynology is the study of contemporary and fossil palynomorphs, including pollen. Palynology is used to infer the geographical distribution of plant species, which vary under different climate conditions. Different groups of plants have pollen with distinctive shapes and surface textures, and since the outer surface of pollen is composed of a very resilient material, they resist decay. Changes in the type of pollen found in different layers of sediment in lakes, bogs, or river deltas indicate changes in plant communities. These changes are often a sign of a changing climate. As an example, palynological studies have been used to track changing vegetation patterns throughout the Quaternary glaciations and especially since the last glacial maximum.
Cloud cover and precipitation
See also: Cloud and Precipitation
Past precipitation can be estimated in the modern era with the global network of precipitation gauges. Surface coverage over oceans and remote areas is relatively sparse, but, reducing reliance on interpolation, satellite clouds and precipitation data has been available since the 1970s. Quantification of climatological variation of precipitation in prior centuries and epochs is less complete but approximated using proxies such as marine sediments, ice cores, cave stalagmites, and tree rings. In July 2016 scientists published evidence of increased cloud cover over polar regions, as predicted by climate models.
Climatological temperatures substantially affect cloud cover and precipitation. For instance, during the Last Glacial Maximum of 18,000 years ago, thermal-driven evaporation from the oceans onto continental landmasses was low, causing large areas of extreme desert, including polar deserts (cold but with low rates of cloud cover and precipitation). In contrast, the world's climate was cloudier and wetter than today near the start of the warm Atlantic Period of 8000 years ago.
Estimated global land precipitation increased by approximately 2% over the course of the 20th century, though the calculated trend varies if different time endpoints are chosen, complicated by ENSO and other oscillations, including greater global land cloud cover precipitation in the 1950s and 1970s than the later 1980s and 1990s despite the positive trend over the century overall. Similar slight overall increase in global river runoff and in average soil moisture has been perceived.
Dendroclimatology is the analysis of tree ring growth patterns to determine past climate variations. Wide and thick rings indicate a fertile, well-watered growing period, while thin, narrow rings indicate a period of lower rainfall and less-than-ideal growing conditions.
Analysis of ice in a core drilled from an ice sheet such as the Antarctic ice sheet, can be used to show a link between temperature and global sea level variations. The air trapped in bubbles in the ice can also reveal the CO2 variations of the atmosphere from the distant past, well before modern environmental influences. The study of these ice cores has been a significant indicator of the changes in CO2 over many millennia, and continues to provide valuable information about the differences between ancient and modern atmospheric conditions.
Remains of beetles are common in freshwater and land sediments. Different species of beetles tend to be found under different climatic conditions. Given the extensive lineage of beetles whose genetic makeup has not altered significantly over the millennia, knowledge of the present climatic range of the different species, and the age of the sediments in which remains are found, past climatic conditions may be inferred. The studies of the impact in vertebrates are few mainly from developing countries, where there are the fewest studies; between 1970 and 2012, vertebrates declined by 58 percent, with freshwater, marine, and terrestrial populations declining by 81, 36, and 35 percent, respectively.
Similarly, the historical abundance of various fish species has been found to have a substantial relationship with observed climatic conditions. Changes in the primary productivity of autotrophs in the oceans can affect marine food webs.
Sea level change
Main articles: Sea level and Sea level rise
Global sea level change for much of the last century has generally been estimated using tide gauge measurements collated over long periods of time to give a long-term average. More recently, altimeter measurements — in combination with accurately determined satellite orbits — have provided an improved measurement of global sea level change. To measure sea levels prior to instrumental measurements, scientists have dated coral reefs that grow near the surface of the ocean, coastal sediments, marine terraces, ooids in limestones, and nearshore archaeological remains. The predominant dating methods used are uranium series and radiocarbon, with cosmogenic radionuclides being sometimes used to date terraces that have experienced relative sea level fall. In the early Pliocene, global temperatures were 1–2˚C warmer than the present temperature, yet sea level was 15–25 meters higher than today.
According to recent studies, global-mean sea level rose by 195 mm during the period from 1870 to 2004 (John A. Church et al. , Geophysical Research Letters, 2006). Since 2004, satellite-based records indicate that there has been a further 43 mm of global-mean sea levels rise, as of July 2017 (Unknown Author, https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/sea-level/ , 2017).
Climate of recent glaciations
Climate of the past
- ^America's Climate Choices: Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change; National Research Council (2010). Advancing the Science of Climate Change. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. ISBN 0-309-14588-0. Archived from the original on 29 May 2014.
- ^Solomon, S.; Qin, D.; Manning, M.; Chen, Z.; Marquis, M.; Averyt, K. B.; Tignor, M.; Miller, H. L., eds. (2007). "Understanding and Attributing Climate Change". Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
- ^"Glossary – Climate Change". Education Center – Arctic Climatology and Meteorology. NSIDC National Snow and Ice Data Center. ; Glossary, in IPCC TAR WG1 2001.
- ^"The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change". 21 March 1994.
Milankovitch cycles from 800,000 years ago in the past to 800,000 years in the future.
Variations in CO2, temperature and dust from the Vostok ice core over the last 450,000 years
These key ideas relate to the causes and effects of human-induced climate change.
The potential for human activities to increase the temperature of the Earth through greenhouse gas emissions has been described and calculated for over a century. Volumes of scientific research across multiple scientific disciplines agree that humans are warming the climate, and the 2013 IPCC Forth Assessment Report states, "Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system." (From the IPCC AR5, FAQ brochure)
There is overwhelming evidence that human activities, especially burning fossil fuels, are leading to increased levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which in turn amplify the natural greenhouse effect, causing the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere, ocean, and land surface to increase. That greenhouse gases "trap" infrared heat is well established through laboratory experiments going back to the mid 1850s when Sir John Tyndall first measured the effect.
The well-documented trend of increasing of CO2 in the atmosphere is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and massive land cover changes. The "smoking gun" that shows clearly that human activities are responsible for recent increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is provided by carbon isotopes (carbon atoms of different atomic weight). These isotopes allow scientists to "fingerprint" the source of the carbon dioxide molecules, which reveal that the increased CO2 in the atmosphere is caused by fossil fuel burning (see references).
Due to the basic physics of heat-trapping gases and an exponential rise in population and energy consumption, humans have become a force of nature. Clearly, this is a topic with enormous political, socio-economic and emotional dimensions, but the scientific results show clearly that:
The human causes of climate change are some of the most important concepts to teach
- Human activities, particularly the combustion of fossil fuels, are altering the climate system.
- Human-driven changes in land use and land cover such as deforestation, urbanization, and shifts in vegetation patterns also alter the climate, resulting in changes to the reflectivity of the Earth surface (albedo), emissions from burning forests, urban heat island effects and changes in the natural water cycle.
- Because the primary cause of recent global climate change is human, the solutions are also within the human domain.
- Because we understand the causes of climate change, that paves the way for effective solutions to be developed and deployed. (Learn more about teaching about solutions.)
Helping students understand these ideas
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Educators are encouraged to introduce this topic with generous scaffolding that establishes the foundations of the process of science, the underlying principles of climate science, and a reliance on the robust scientific research that supports this conclusion. Several strategies are presented on this page about Teaching Controversial Environmental Issues which emphasizes the affective and emotional aspects of student learning.
It may be tempting to have a debate about this topic, but that may not be the most effective way to characterize it. A debate suggests that there are two credible, opposing viewpoints, when in fact the scientific community is virtually unanimous about the human causes of climate change. Secondly, debating a topic can reinforce misconceptions and cause unnecessary controversy in the classroom. That said, careful discussion of diverse viewpoints is absolutely essential. Role playing can be one way to represent broad perspectives, while maintaining scientific accuracy.
Bringing these ideas into your classroom
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- When possible, use data-driven explanations.
- Avoid assigning blame or judgement. As atmospheric scientist Scott Denning puts it, CO2 traps heat "because of its molecular structure, not because capitalism is evil. It's just bad luck!" (Scott Denning Research Group, ppt for Engaging Hostile Audiences)
- Weave solutions into the discussion every step of the way. This prevents feelings of hopelessness and also shows the scientific and technical responses that are needed to curb the worst effects of climate change.
- Foster a classroom environment where all perspectives are welcome. Invite students to voice their doubts, fears, or uncertainties. (Learn more about creating a validating classroom environment.)
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2014 National Climate Assessment Report summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future. The report can be explored by region and uses clear, simple messages to streamline the findings.
2013 IPCC Summary for Policymakers steps through the causes, effects, and impacts of climate change. See also the FAQ brochure (pdf) which is less technical.
And older, but still accurate IPCC document from 2007 also addresses this question: How do Human Activities Contribute to Climate Change and How do They Compare with Natural Influences?How do we know that recent CO2 increases are due to human activities? - a scientific summary from RealClimate.org
The human fingerprint in coral - This page from the Skeptical Science website provides clear answers to common questions and misunderstandings about climate change.
Solar Variability & Global Climate Change - This summary from the Standford Solar Center describes the relationship between sunspots, solar irradiance and climate change
New statistical analysis confirms human role in climate change - A summary of physics research that uses a simple, statistical approach to understand causes of climate change.
Causes of Climate Change - This NASA web page describes the greenhouse effect, the role of human activity and the evidence that changes in solar irradiance are not related to recent temperature increases.
Global Warming's Six Americas - This ongoing project tracks Americans' opinions and beliefs about climate change. This approach identifies six unique audiences within the American public that each responds to the issue in their own distinct way. This is a great way to learn about the possible audiences among your student population.
Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, P. Doran, M. Zimmerman. EOS, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 2009, vol. 90, no. 3, p. 22, 200. This article compares the consensus views of scientists and the general public on climate change.