Committee on the Science of Climate Change

Division on Earth and Life Studies

National Research Council



Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century. Secondary effects are suggested by computer model simulations and basic physical reasoning. These include increases in rainfall rates and increased susceptibility of semi-arid regions to drought. The impacts of these changes will be critically dependent on the magnitude of the warming and the rate with which it occurs.

The mid-range model estimate of human induced global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is based on the premise that the growth rate of climate forcing1 agents such as carbon dioxide will accelerate. The predicted warming of 3°C (5.4°F) by the end of the 21st century is consistent with the assumptions about how clouds and atmospheric relative humidity will react to global warming. This estimate is also consistent with inferences about the sensitivity2 of climate drawn from comparing the sizes of past temperature swings between ice ages and intervening warmer periods with the corresponding changes in the climate forcing. This predicted temperature increase is sensitive to assumptions concerning future concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols. Hence, national policy decisions made now and in the longer-term future will influence the extent of any damage suffered by vulnerable human populations and ecosystems later in this century. Because there is considerable uncertainty in current understanding of how the climate system varies naturally and reacts to emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols, current estimates of the magnitude of future warming should be regarded as tentative and subject to future adjustments (either upward or downward).

Reducing the wide range of uncertainty inherent in current model predictions of global climate change will require major advances in understanding and modeling of both (1) the factors that determine atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and (2) the so-called "feedbacks" that determine the sensitivity of the climate system to a prescribed increase in greenhouse gases. There also is a pressing need for a global observing system designed for monitoring climate.

The committee generally agrees with the assessment of human-caused climate change presented in the IPCC Working Group I (WGI) scientific report, but seeks here to articulate more clearly the level of confidence that can be ascribed to those assessments and the caveats that need to be attached to them. This articulation may be helpful to policy makers as they consider a variety of options for mitigation and/or adaptation. In the sections that follow, the committee provides brief responses to some of the key questions related to climate change science. More detailed responses to these questions are located in the main body of the text.

What is the range of natural variability in climate?

The range of natural climate variability is known to be quite large (in excess of several degrees Celsius) on local and regional spatial scales over periods as short as a decade. Precipitation also can vary widely. For example, there is evidence to suggest that droughts as severe as the "dust bowl" of the 1930s were much more common in the central United States during the 10th to 14th centuries than they have been in the more recent record. Mean temperature variations at local sites have exceeded 10°C (18°F) in association with the repeated glacial advances and retreats that occurred over the course of the past million years. It is more difficult to estimate the natural variability of global mean temperature because of the sparse spatial coverage of existing data and difficulties in inferring temperatures from various proxy data. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that global warming rates as large as 2°C (3.6°F) per millennium may have occurred during retreat of the glaciers following the most recent ice age.

Are concentrations of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change increasing at an accelerating rate, and are different greenhouse gases and other emissions increasing at different rates? Is human activity the cause of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change?

The emissions of some greenhouse gases are increasing, but others are decreasing. In some cases the decreases are a result of policy decisions, while in other cases the reasons for the decreases are not well understood.

Of the greenhouse gases that are directly influenced by human activity, the most important are carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Aerosols released by human activities are also capable of influencing climate. (Table 1 lists the estimated climate forcing due to the presence of each of these "climate forcing agents" in the atmosphere.)

Concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) extracted from ice cores drilled in Greenland and Antarctica have typically ranged from near 190 parts per million by volume (ppmv) during the ice ages to near 280 ppmv during the warmer "interglacial" periods like the present one that began around 10,000 years ago. Concentrations did not rise much above 280 ppmv until the Industrial Revolution. By 1958, when systematic atmospheric measurements began, they had reached 315 ppmv, and they are currently ~370 ppmv and rising at a rate of 1.5 ppmv per year (slightly higher than the rate during the early years of the 43-year record). Human activities are responsible for the increase. The primary source, fossil fuel burning, has released roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as would be required to account for the observed increase. Tropical deforestation also has contributed to carbon dioxide releases during the past few decades. The excess carbon dioxide has been taken up by the oceans and land biosphere.

Like carbon dioxide, methane (CH4) is more abundant in Earth's atmosphere now than at any time during the 400,000 year long ice core record, which dates back over a number of glacial/interglacial cycles. Concentrations increased rather smoothly by about 1% per year from 1978, until about 1990. The rate of increase slowed and became more erratic during the 1990s. About two-thirds of the current emissions of methane are released by human activities such as rice growing, the raising of cattle, coal mining, use of land-fills, and natural gas handling, all of which have increased over the past 50 years.

A small fraction of the ozone (O3) produced by natural processes in the stratosphere mixes into the lower atmosphere. This "tropospheric ozone" has been supplemented during the 20th century by additional ozone, created locally by the action of sunlight upon air polluted by exhausts from motor vehicles, emissions from fossil fuel burning power plants, and biomass burning.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is formed by many microbial reactions in soils and waters, including those acting on the increasing amounts of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. Some synthetic chemical processes that release nitrous oxide have also been identified. Its concentration has increased approximately 13% in the past 200 years.

Atmospheric concentrations of CFCs rose steadily following their first synthesis in 1928 and peaked in the early 1990s. Many other industrially useful fluorinated compounds (e.g., carbon tetrafluoride, CF4, and sulfur hexafluoride, SF6), have very long atmospheric lifetimes, which is of concern, even though their atmospheric concentrations have not yet produced large radiative forcings. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are replacing CFCs, have a greenhouse effect, but it is much less pronounced because of their shorter atmospheric lifetimes. The sensitivity and generality of modern analytical systems make it quite unlikely that any currently significant greenhouse gases remain to be discovered.

What other emissions are contributing factors to climate change (e.g., aerosols