The Heat Is Online

NAS Report -- June, 2001

National Academy of Sciences: June 6, 2001

Climate Change Science: an analysis of key questions


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 are 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 forcing agents such as carbon dioxide will accelerate. The predicted warming of 3oC (5.4oF) 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 sensitivity 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 (WG I) 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 10oC (18oF) 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 2oC (3.6oF) 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, CO, black carbon soot), and what is their relative contribution to climate change?

Besides greenhouse gases, human activity also contributes to the atmospheric burden of aerosols, which include both sulfate particles and black carbon (soot). Both are unevenly distributed, owing to their short lifetimes in the atmosphere. Sulfate particles scatter solar radiation back to space, thereby offsetting the greenhouse effect to some degree. Recent "clean coal technologies" and use of low sulfur fuels have resulted in decreasing sulfate concentrations, especially in North America, reducing this offset. Black carbon aerosols are end-products of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass burning (forest fires and land clearing). They impact radiation budgets both directly and indirectly; they are believed to contribute to global warming, although their relative importance is difficult to quantify at this point.

How long does it take to reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change? Do different greenhouse gases and other emissions have different draw down periods?

Table 1: Removal times and climate forcing values for specified atmospheric gases and aerosols.

Forcing Agent Approximate Removal Times Climate Forcing (W/m2)

Up to the year 2000

Greenhouse Gases

Carbon Dioxide >100 years 1.3 to 1.5

Methane 10 years 0.5 to 0.7

Tropospheric Ozone 10-100 days 0.25 to 0.75

Nitrous Oxide 100 years 0.1 to 0.2

Perfluorocarbon Compounds >1000 years 0.01

(Including SF6)

Fine Aerosols

Sulfate 10 days -0.3 to -1.0

Black Carbon 10 days 0.1 to 0.8

Is climate change occurring? If so, how?

Weather station records and ship-based observations indicate that global mean surface air temperature warmed between about 0.4 and 0.8oC (0.7 and 1.5oF) during the 20th century. Although the magnitude of warming varies locally, the warming trend is spatially widespread and is consistent with an array of other evidence detailed in this report. The ocean, which represents the largest reservoir of heat in the climate system, has warmed by about 0.05ºC (0.09oF) averaged over the layer extending from the surface down to 10,000 feet, since the 1950s.

The observed warming has not proceeded at a uniform rate. Virtually all the 20th century warming in global surface air temperature occurred between the early 1900s and the 1940s and during the past few decades. The troposphere warmed much more during the 1970s than during the two subsequent decades, whereas Earth’s surface warmed more during the past two decades than during the 1970s. The causes of these irregularities and the disparities in the timing are not completely understood. One striking change of the past 35 years is the cooling of the stratosphere at altitudes of ~13 miles, which has tended to be concentrated in the wintertime polar cap region.

Are greenhouse gases causing climate change?

The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue. The stated degree of confidence in the IPCC assessment is higher today than it was ten, or even five years ago, but uncertainty remains because of (1) the level of natural variability inherent in the climate system on time scales of decades to centuries, (2) the questionable ability of models to accurately simulate natural variability on those long time scales, and (3) the degree of confidence that can be placed on reconstructions of global mean temperature over the past millennium based on proxy evidence. Despite the uncertainties, there is general agreement that the observed warming is real and particularly strong within the past twenty years. Whether it is consistent with the change that would be expected in response to human activities is dependent upon what assumptions one makes about the time history of atmospheric concentrations of the various forcing agents, particularly aerosols.

By how much will temperatures change over the next 100 years and where?

Climate change simulations for the period of 1990 to 2100 based on the IPCC emissions scenarios yield a globally-averaged surface temperature increase by the end of the century of 1.4 to 5.8oC (2.5 to 10.4oF) relative to 1990. The wide range of uncertainty in these estimates reflects both the different assumptions about future concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols in the various scenarios considered by the IPCC and the differing climate sensitivities of the various climate models used in the simulations. The range of climate sensitivities implied by these predictions is generally consistent with previously reported values.

The predicted warming is larger over higher latitudes than over low latitudes, especially during winter and spring, and larger over land than over sea. Rainfall rates and the frequency of heavy precipitation events are predicted to increase, particularly over the higher latitudes. Higher evaporation rates would accelerate the drying of soils following rain events, resulting in lower relative humidities and higher daytime temperatures, especially during the warm season. The likelihood that this effect could prove important is greatest in semi-arid regions, such as the U.S. Great Plains. These predictions in the IPCC report are consistent with current understanding of the processes that control local climate.

In addition to the IPCC scenarios for future increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, the committee considered a scenario based on an energy policy designed to keep climate change moderate in the next 50 years. This scenario takes into account not only the growth of carbon emissions, but also the changing concentrations of other greenhouse gases and aerosols.

Sufficient time has elapsed now to enable comparisons between observed trends in the concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases with the trends predicted in previous IPCC reports. The increase of global fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions in the past decade has averaged 0.6% per year, which is somewhat below the range of IPCC scenarios, and the same is true for atmospheric methane concentrations. It is not known whether these slowdowns in growth rate will persist.

How much of the expected climate change is the consequence of climate feedback processes (e.g., water vapor, clouds, snow packs)?

The contribution of feedbacks to the climate change depends upon "climate sensitivity," as described in the report. If a central estimate of climate sensitivity is used, about 40% of the predicted warming is due to the direct effects of greenhouse gases and aerosols. The other 60% is caused by feedbacks. Water vapor feedback (the additional greenhouse effect accruing from increasing concentrations of atmospheric water vapor as the atmosphere warms) is the most important feedback in the models. Unless the relative humidity in the tropical middle and upper troposphere drops, this effect is expected to increase the temperature response to increases in human induced greenhouse gas concentrations by a factor of 1.6. The ice albedo feedback (the reduction in the fraction of incoming solar radiation reflected back to space as snow and ice cover recede) also is believed to be important. Together, these two feedbacks amplify the simulated climate response to the greenhouse gas forcing by a factor of 2.5. In addition, changes in cloud cover, in the relative amounts of high versus low clouds, and in the mean and vertical distribution of relative humidity could either enhance or reduce the amplitude of the warming. Much of the difference in predictions of global warming by various climate models is attributable to the fact that each model represents these processes in its own particular way. These uncertainties will remain until a more fundamental understanding of the processes that control atmospheric relative humidity and clouds is achieved.

What will be the consequences of global warming (e.g., extreme weather, health effects) of increases of various magnitude?


In the near term, agriculture and forestry are likely to benefit from carbon dioxide fertilization and an increased water efficiency of some plants at higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The optimal climate for crops may change, requiring significant regional adaptations. Some models project an increased tendency toward drought over semi-arid regions, such as the U.S. Great Plains. Hydrological impacts could be significant over the western United States, where much of the water supply is dependent on the amount of snow pack and the timing of the spring runoff. Increased rainfall rates could impact pollution run-off and flood control. With higher sea level, coastal regions could be subject to increased wind and flood damage even if tropical storms do not change in intensity. A significant warming also could have far reaching implications for ecosystems. The costs and risks involved are difficult to quantify at this point and are, in any case, beyond the scope of this brief report.

Health outcomes in response to climate change are the subject of intense debate. Climate is one of a number of factors influencing the incidence of infectious disease. Cold-related stress would decline in a warmer climate, while heat stress and smog induced respiratory illnesses in major urban areas would increase, if no adaptation occurred. Over much of the United States, adverse health outcomes would likely be mitigated by a strong public health system, relatively high levels of public awareness, and a high standard of living.

Global warming could well have serious adverse societal and ecological impacts by the end of this century, especially if globally-averaged temperature increases approach the upper end of the IPCC projections. Even in the more conservative scenarios, the models project temperatures and sea-levels that continue to increase well beyond the end of this century, suggesting that assessments that examine only the next 100 years may well underestimate the magnitude of the eventual impacts.

Has science determined whether there is a "safe" level of concentration of greenhouse gases?

The question of whether there exists a "safe" level of concentration of greenhouse gases cannot be answered directly because it would require a value judgment of what constitutes an acceptable risk to human welfare and ecosystems in various parts of the world, as well as a more quantitative assessment of the risks and costs associated with the various impacts of global warming. In general, however, risk increases with increases in both the rate and the magnitude of climate change.

What are the substantive differences between the IPCC Reports and the Summaries?

The committee finds that the full IPCC Working Group I (WG I) report is an admirable summary of research activities in climate science, and the full report is adequately summarized in the Technical Summary. The full WG I report and its Technical Summary are not specifically directed at policy. The Summary for Policymakers reflects less emphasis on communicating the basis for uncertainty and a stronger emphasis on areas of major concern associated with human-induced climate change. This change in emphasis appears to be the result of a summary process in which scientists work with policy makers on the document. Written responses from U.S. coordinating and lead scientific authors to the committee indicate, however, that (a) no changes were made without the consent of the convening lead authors (this group represents a fraction of the lead and contributing authors) and (b) most changes that did occur lacked significant impact.

It is critical that the IPCC process remain truly representative of the scientific community. The committee’s concerns focus primarily on whether the process is likely to become less representative in the future because of the growing voluntary time commitment required to participate as a lead or coordinating author and the potential that the scientific process will be viewed as being too heavily influenced by governments which have specific postures with regard to treaties, emission controls and other policy instruments. The United States should promote actions that improve the IPCC process while also ensuring that its strengths are maintained.

What are the specific areas of science that need to be studied further, in order of priority, to advance our understanding of climate change?

Making progress in reducing the large uncertainties in projections of future climate will require addressing a number of fundamental scientific questions relating to the buildup of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere and the behavior of the climate system. Issues that need to be addressed include, a) the future usage of fossil fuels, b) the future emissions of methane, c) the fraction of the future fossil-fuel carbon that will remain in the atmosphere and provide radiative forcing versus exchange with the oceans or net exchange with the land biosphere, d) the feedbacks in the climate system that determine both the magnitude of the change and the rate of energy uptake by the oceans, which together determine the magnitude and time history of the temperature increases for a given radiative forcing, e) details of the regional and local climate change consequent to an overall level of global climate change, f) the nature and causes of the natural variability of climate and its interactions with forced changes, and g) the direct and indirect effects of the changing distributions of aerosols. Maintaining a vigorous, ongoing program of basic research, funded and managed independently of the climate assessment activity, will be crucial for narrowing these uncertainties.

In addition, the research enterprise dealing with environmental change and the interactions of human society with the environment must be enhanced. This includes support of a) interdisciplinary research that couples physical, chemical, biological and human systems, b) an improved capability of integrating scientific knowledge, including its uncertainty, into effective decision support systems, and c) an ability to conduct research at the regional or sectoral level that promotes analysis of the response of human and natural systems to multiple stresses.

An effective strategy for advancing the understanding of climate change also will require (1) a global observing system in support of long term climate monitoring and prediction, (2) concentration on large-scale modeling through increased, dedicated supercomputing and human resources, and (3) efforts to ensure that climate research is supported and managed to assure innovation, effectiveness and efficiency.


Climate, Climate Forcings, Climate Sensitivity, and

Transient Climate Change


Climate is the average state of the atmosphere and the underlying land or water, on time scales of seasons and longer. Climate is typically described by the statistics of a set of atmospheric and surface variables, such as temperature, precipitation, wind, humidity, cloudiness, soil moisture, sea surface temperature, and the concentration and thickness of sea-ice. The statistics may be in terms of the long-term average, as well as other measures such as daily minimum temperature, length of the growing season, or frequency of floods. Although climate and climate change are usually presented in global mean terms, there may be large local and regional departures from these global means. These can either mitigate or exaggerate the impact of climate change in different parts of the world.

A number of factors contribute to climate and climate change, and it is useful to define the terms climate forcings, climate sensitivity, and transient climate change for discussion below.

Climate Forcings

A climate forcing can be defined as an imposed perturbation of the Earth’s energy balance. Energy flows in from the sun, much of it in the visible wavelengths, and back out again as long-wave infrared (heat) radiation. An increase in the luminosity of the sun, for example, is a positive forcing that tends to make the Earth warmer. A very large volcanic eruption, on the other hand, can increase the aerosols (fine particles) in the lower stratosphere (altitudes of 10-15 miles) that reflect sunlight to space and thus reduce the solar energy delivered to the Earth’s surface. These examples are natural forcings. Human-made forcings result from, for example, the gases and aerosols produced by fossil fuel burning, and alterations of the Earth’s surface from various changes in land use, such as the conversion of forests into agricultural land. Those gases that absorb infrared radiation, i.e. the "greenhouse" gases, tend to prevent this heat radiation from escaping to space, leading eventually to a warming of the Earth’s surface. The observations of human-induced forcings underlie the current concerns about climate change.

The common unit of measure for climatic forcing agents is the energy perturbation that they introduce into the climate system, measured in the units of watts per square meter (W/m2). The consequences from such forcings are often then expressed as the change in average global temperature, and the conversion factor from forcing to temperature change is the sensitivity of Earth’s climate system. Although some forcings—volcanic plumes, for example—are not global in nature and temperature change may also not be uniform, comparisons of the strengths of individual forcings, over comparable areas, are useful for estimating the relative importance of the various processes that may cause climate change.

Climate Sensitivity

The sensitivity of the climate system to a forcing is commonly expressed in terms of the global mean temperature change that would be expected after a time sufficiently long for both the atmosphere and ocean to come to equilibrium with the change in climate forcing. If there were no climate feedbacks, the response of Earth’s mean temperature to a forcing of 4 W/m2 (the forcing for a doubled atmospheric CO2) would be an increase of about 1.2 ˚C (about 2.2 ˚F). However, the total climate change is affected not only by the immediate direct forcing, but also by climate "feedbacks" that come into play in response to the forcing. For example, a climate forcing that causes warming may melt some of the sea ice. This is a positive feedback, because the darker ocean absorbs more sunlight than the sea ice it replaced. The responses of atmospheric water vapor amount and clouds probably generate the most important global climate feedbacks. The nature and magnitude of these hydrological feedbacks give rise to the largest source of uncertainty about climate sensitivity, and they are an area of continuing research.

As just mentioned, a doubling of the concentration of carbon dioxide (from the pre-Industrial value of 280 parts per million) in the global atmosphere causes a forcing of 4 W/m2. The central value of the climate sensitivity to this change is a global average temperature increase of 3˚C (5.4oF), but with a range from 1.5˚C to 4.5˚C (2.7 to 8.1oF) (based on climate-system models see section 4). The central value of 3˚C is an amplification by a factor of 2.5 over the direct effect of 1.2˚C (2.2oF). Well-documented climate changes during the history of Earth, especially the changes between the last major ice age (20,000 years ago) and the current warm period, imply that the climate sensitivity is near the 3˚C value. However, the true climate sensitivity remains uncertain, in part because it is difficult to model the effect of cloud feedback. In particular, the magnitude and even the sign of the feedback can differ according to the composition, thickness and altitude of the clouds, and some studies have suggested a lesser climate sensitivity. On the other hand, evidence from paleoclimate variations indicates that climate sensitivity could be higher than the above range, although perhaps only on longer time scales.

Transient Climate Change

Climate fluctuates in the absence of any change in forcing, just as weather fluctuates from day to day. Climate also responds in a systematic way to climate forcings, but the response can be slow because the ocean requires time to warm (or cool) in response to the forcing. The response time depends upon the rapidity with which the ocean circulation transmits changes in surface temperature into the deep ocean. If the climate sensitivity is as high as the 3˚C mid-range, then a few decades are required for just half of the full climate response to be realized, and at least several centuries for the full response.

Such a long climate response time complicates the climate change issue for policy-makers because it means that a discovered undesirable climate change is likely to require many decades to halt or reverse.

Increases in the temperature of the ocean that are initiated in the next few decades will continue to raise sea level by ocean thermal expansion over the next several centuries. Although society might conclude that it is practical to live with substantial climate change in the coming decades, it is also important to consider further consequences that may occur in later centuries. The climate sensitivity and the dynamics of large ice sheets become increasingly relevant on such longer time scales.

It is also possible that climate could undergo a sudden large change in response to accumulated climate forcing. The paleoclimate record contains examples of sudden large climate changes, at least on regional scales. Understanding these rapid changes is a current research challenge that is relevant to the analysis of possible anthropogenic climate effects.


Natural Climatic Variations

What is the range of natural variability in climate?

Climate is continually varying on time scales ranging from seasons to the lifetime of Earth. Natural climate changes can take place on short time scales as a result of the rapid alterations to forcings (as described in section 1). For example, the injection of large quantities of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which changes to sulfuric acid droplets, and fine particulate material into the stratosphere (the region between 10 and 30 miles altitude where the temperature rises with increasing altitude) by major volcanic eruptions like that of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 can cause intervals of cooler than average global temperatures. Climate variability also can be generated by processes operating within the climate system—the periodic rapid warming trend in the eastern Pacific Ocean known as El Niño being perhaps the best known example. Each of these different processes produces climate variability with its own characteristic spatial and seasonal signature. For example, El Niño typically brings heavy rainstorms to coastal Ecuador, Peru and California and droughts to Indonesia and Northeast Brazil.

Over long time scales, outside the time period in which humans could have a substantive effect on global climate (e.g., prior to the Industrial Revolution), proxy data (information derived from the content of tree rings, cores from marine sediments, pollens, etc.) have been used to estimate the range of natural climate variability. An important recent addition to the collection of proxy evidence is ice cores obtained by international teams of scientists drilling through miles of ice in Antarctica and at the opposite end of the world in Greenland The results can be used to make inferences about climate and atmospheric composition extending back as long as 400,000 years. These and other proxy data indicate that the range of natural climate variability is in excess of several degrees C on local and regional space scales over periods as short as a decade. Precipitation has also varied 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.

Temperature variations at local sites have exceeded 10oC (18oF) 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 large areas of the world are not sampled and because of the large uncertainties inherent in temperatures inferred from proxy evidence. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that global warming rates as large as 2oC (3.6oF) per millennium may have occurred during the retreat of the glaciers following the most recent ice age.


Human Caused Forcings

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?

What other emissions are contributing factors to climate change (e.g., aerosols, CO, black carbon soot) and what is their relative contribution to climate change?

How long does it take to reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change?

Do different greenhouse gases and other emissions have different draw down periods?

Are greenhouse gases causing climate change?

Greenhouse Gases

The most important greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), water vapor (H2O), ozone (O3), and the chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s including CFC-12 (CCl2F2) and CFC-11 (CCl3F)). In addition to reflecting sunlight, clouds are also a major greenhouse substance. Water vapor and cloud droplets are in fact the dominant atmospheric absorbers, and how these substances respond to climate forcings is a principal determinant of climate sensitivity, as discussed in Section 1. The CO2, CH4, N2O and H2O are both produced and utilized in many biological processes, although the major source of gaseous water is evaporation from the oceans. Ozone is created in the atmosphere by reactions initiated by sunlight. The CFC’s are synthetic compounds developed and released into the atmosphere by humankind. In addition, SF6 and perfluorocarbon gases such as CF4 are very potent and nearly inert greenhouse gases with atmospheric lifetimes much longer than 1000 years.

The natural atmosphere contained many greenhouse gases whose atmospheric concentrations were determined by the sum of the ongoing geophysical, biological and chemical reactions that produce and destroy them. The specific effects of humankind’s activities before the industrial era were immersed in all of the natural dynamics, and became noticeable only in the immediate vicinity, as with the smoke from small fires. The theoretical realization that human activities could have a global discernible effect on the atmosphere came during the 19th century, and the first conclusive measurements of atmospheric change were made during the last half of the 20th century. The first greenhouse gas demonstrated to be increasing in atmospheric concentration is carbon dioxide, formed as a major end product in the extraction of energy from the burning of the fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas, as well as in the burning of biomass.

The common characteristics of greenhouse gases are (1) an ability to absorb terrestrial infrared radiation, and (2) a presence in Earth’s atmosphere. The most important greenhouse gases listed above all contain three or more atoms per molecule. Literally thousands of gases have been identified as being present in the atmosphere at some place and at some time, and all but a few have the ability to absorb terrestrial infrared radiation. However, the great majority of these chemical compounds, both natural and anthropogenic, are removed in hours, days, or weeks, and do not accumulate in significant concentrations. Some can have an indirect greenhouse effect, as with carbon monoxide (CO). If the average survival time for a gas in the atmosphere is a year or longer, then the winds have time to spread it throughout the lower atmosphere, and its absorption of terrestrial infrared radiation occurs at all latitudes and longitudes. All the listed greenhouse gases except ozone are released to the atmosphere at the Earth’s surface and are spread globally throughout the lower atmosphere.

The lifetime of CH4 in the atmosphere is 10-12 years. Nitrous oxide and the CFCs have century-long lifetimes before they are destroyed in the stratosphere. Atmospheric CO2 is not destroyed chemically, and its removal from the atmosphere takes place through multiple processes that transiently store the carbon in the land and ocean reservoirs, and ultimately as mineral deposits. A major removal process depends on the transfer of the carbon content of near-surface waters to the deep ocean, which has a century time scale, but final removal stretches out over hundreds of thousands of years. Reductions in the atmospheric concentrations of these gases following possible lowered emission rates in the future will stretch out over decades for methane, and centuries and longer for carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

Methane, nitrous oxide and ozone all have natural sources, but they can also be introduced into the atmosphere by the activities of humankind. These supplementary sources have contributed to the increasing concentrations of these gases during the 20th century.

Carbon Dioxide

While all of the major greenhouse gases have both natural and anthropogenic atmospheric sources, the nature of these processes varies widely among them. Carbon dioxide is naturally absorbed and released by the terrestrial biosphere as well as by the oceans. Carbon dioxide is also formed by the burning of wood, coal, oil, and natural gas, and these activities have increased steadily during the last two centuries since the industrial revolution. That the burning of fossil fuels is a major cause of the CO2 increase is evidenced by the concomitant decreases in the relative abundance of both the stable and radioactive carbon isotopes and the decrease in atmospheric oxygen. Continuous high-precision measurements have been made of its atmospheric concentrations only since 1958, and by the year 2000 the concentrations had increased 17% from 315 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to 370 ppmv. While the year-to-year increase varies, the average annual increase of 1.5 ppmv/year over the past two decades is slightly greater than during the 1960s and 1970s. A marked seasonal oscillation of carbon dioxide concentration exists, especially in the northern hemisphere because of the extensive draw-down of carbon dioxide every spring and summer as the green plants convert carbon dioxide into plant material, and the return in the rest of the year as decomposition exceeds photosynthesis. The seasonal effects are quite different north and south of the equator, with the variation much greater in the northern hemisphere where most of Earth’s land surface and its vegetation and soils are found.

The atmospheric CO2 increase over the past few decades is less than the input from human activities, because a fraction of the added CO2 is removed by oceanic and terrestrial processes. Until recently, the partitioning of the carbon sink between the land and sea has been highly uncertain, but recent high-precision measurements of the atmospheric O2:N2 ratio have provided a crucial constraint: fossil fuel burning and terrestrial uptake processes have different O2:CO2 ratios, whereas the ocean CO2 sink has no significant impact on atmospheric O2. The atmospheric CO2 increase for the 1990’s was about half the CO2 emission from fossil fuel combustion, with the oceans and land both serving as important repositories of the excess carbon, i.e., as carbon sinks.

Land gains and loses carbon by various processes: some natural-like photosynthesis and decomposition, some connected to land use and land management practices, and some responding to the increases of carbon dioxide or other nutrients necessary for plant growth. These gains or losses dominate the net land exchange of carbon dioxide with the atmosphere, but some riverine loss to oceans is also significant. Most quantifiable, as by forest and soil inventories, are the above- and below-ground carbon losses from land clearing and the gains in storage in trees from forest recovery and management. Changes in the frequency of forest fires, such as from fire suppression policies and agricultural practices for soil conservation, may modify the carbon stored by land. Climate variations, through their effects on plant growth and decomposition of soil detritus, also have large effects on terrestrial carbon fluxes and storage on a year-to-year basis. Land modifications, mainly in the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere, may have been a net source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over much of the last century. However, quantitative estimates have only been possible over the last two decades, when forest clearing had shifted to the tropics. In the 1980s land became a small net sink for carbon, that is, the various processes storing carbon globally exceeded the loss due to tropical deforestation, which by itself was estimated to add 10% to 40% as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as burning of fossil fuels. In the 1990s the net storage on land became much larger, nearly as large as the ocean uptake. How land contributes, by location and processes, to exchanges of carbon with the atmosphere is still highly uncertain, as is the possibility that the substantial net removal will continue to occur very far into the future.


Methane is the major component of natural gas and it is also formed and released to the atmosphere by many biologic processes in low oxygen environments, such as those occurring in swamps, near the roots of rice plants, and the stomachs of cows. Such human activities as rice growing, the raising of cattle, coal mining, use of land-fills, and natural-gas handling have increased over the last 50 years, and direct and inadvertent emissions from these activities have been partially responsible for the increase in atmospheric methane. Its atmospheric concentration has been measured globally and continuously for only 2 decades, and the majority of the methane molecules are of recent biologic origin. The concentrations of methane increased rather smoothly from 1.52 ppmv in 1978 by about 1% per year until about 1990. The rate of increase slowed down to less than that rate during the 1990s, and also became more erratic; current values are around 1.77 ppmv. About two-thirds of the current emissions of methane are released by human activities. There is no definitive scientific basis for choosing among several possible explanations for these variations in the rates of change of global methane concentrations, making it very difficult to predict its future atmospheric concentrations.

Both carbon dioxide and methane were trapped long ago in air bubbles preserved in Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. These ice sheets are surviving relics of the series of ice ages that Earth experienced over the past 400,000 years. Concentrations of carbon dioxide extracted for ice cores have typically ranged between 190 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. The methane concentrations have also varied during this 400,000 year period, with lowest values of 0.30 ppmv in the coldest times of the ice ages and 0.70 ppmv in the warmest, until a steady rise began about 200 years ago toward the present concentrations. Both carbon dioxide and methane are more abundant in Earth’s atmosphere now than at any time during the past 400,000 years.

Other Greenhouse Gases

Nitrous oxide is formed by many microbial reactions in soils and waters, including those processes acting on the increasing amounts of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. Some synthetic chemical processes that release nitrous oxide have also been identified. Its concentration remained about 0.27 ppmv for at least 1000 years until 2 centuries ago, when the rise to the current 0.31 ppmv began.

Ozone is created mainly by the action of solar ultraviolet radiation on molecular oxygen in the upper atmosphere, and most of it remains in the stratosphere. However, a fraction of such ozone descends naturally into the lower atmosphere where additional chemical processes can both form and destroy it. This "tropospheric ozone" has been supplemented during the 20th century by additional ozone—an important component of photochemical smog—created by the action of sunlight upon pollutant molecules containing carbon and nitrogen. The most important of the latter include compounds plants such as ethylene (C2H4), carbon monoxide (CO), and nitric oxide released in he exhaust of fossil-fuel-powered motor vehicles and power plants, and during combustion of biomass. The lifetime of ozone is short enough that the molecules do not mix throughout the lower atmosphere, but instead are found in broad plumes downwind from the cities of origin, which merge into regional effects, and into a latitude band of relatively high ozone extending from 30°N to 50°N that encircles the Earth during Northern Hemisphere spring and summer. The presence of shorter-lived molecules, such as ozone, in the troposphere depends upon a steady supply of newly formed molecules, such as those created daily by traffic in the large cities of the world. The widespread practice of clearing forests and agricultural wastes ("biomass burning"), especially noticeable in the tropics and the Southern Hemisphere, contributes to tropospheric ozone.

The chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are different from the gases considered above in that they have no significant natural source but were synthesized for their technological utility. Essentially all of the major uses of the CFCs—as refrigerants, aerosol propellants, plastic foaming agents, cleaning solvents, and so on—result in their release, chemically unaltered, into the atmosphere. The atmospheric concentrations of the CFCs rose, slowly at first, from zero before first synthesis in 1928, and then more rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s with the development of a widening range of technological applications. The concentrations were rising in the 1980s at a rate of about 18 parts per trillion by volume (pptv) per year for CFC-12, 9 pptv/year for CFC-11, and 6 pptv/year for CFC-113 (CCl2FCClF2). Because these molecules were identified as agents causing the destruction of stratospheric ozone, their production was banned in the industrial countries as of January 1996 under the terms of the 1992 revision of the Montreal Protocol, and further emissions have almost stopped. The atmospheric concentrations of CFC-11 and CFC-113 are now slowly decreasing, and that of CFC-12 has been essentially level for the past several years. However, because of the century-long lifetimes of these CFC molecules, appreciable atmospheric concentrations of each will survive well into the 22nd century.

Many other fluorinated compounds (such as carbon tetrafluoride, CF4, and sulfur hexafluoride, SF6), also have technological utility, and significant greenhouse gas capabilities. Their very long atmospheric lifetimes are a source of concern even though their atmospheric concentrations have not yet produced large radiative forcings. Members of the class of compounds called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) also have a greenhouse effect from the fluorine, but the hydrogen in the molecule allows reaction in the troposphere, reducing both its atmospheric lifetime and the possible greenhouse effect. The atmospheric concentrations of all these gases, which to date are only very minor greenhouse contributors, need to be continuously monitored to ensure that no major sources have developed. The sensitivity and generality of modern analytic systems make it unlikely that any additional greenhouse gas will be discovered that is already a significant contributor to the current total greenhouse effect.


Sulfate and carbon-bearing compounds associated with particulates (i.e. carbonaceous aerosols) are two classes of aerosols that impact radiative balances, and therefore influence climate.

Black Carbon (soot)

The study of the role of black carbon in the atmosphere is relatively new. As a result it is characterized poorly as to its composition, emission source strengths, and influence on radiation. Black carbon is an end product of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass, the latter resulting from both natural and human-influenced processes. Most of the black carbon is associated with fine particles (radius <0.2mm) that have global residence times of about one week. These lifetimes are considerably shorter than those of most greenhouse gases, and thus the spatial distribution of black carbon aerosol is highly variable, with the greatest concentrations near the production regions. Because of the scientific uncertainties associated with the sources and composition of carbonaceous aerosols, projections of future impacts on climate are difficult. However, the increased burning of fossil fuels and the increased burning of biomass for land clearing may result in increased black carbon concentration globally.


The precursor to sulfate is sulfur dioxide gas, which has two primary natural sources: emissions from marine biota and volcanic emissions. During periods of low volcanic activity, the primary source of sulfur dioxide in regions downwind from continents is the combustion of sulfur-rich coals; less is contributed by other fossil fuels. In oceanic regions far removed from continental regions, the biologic source should dominate. However, model analyses, accounting for the ubiquitous presence of ships, indicate that even in these remote regions combustion is a major source of the sulfur dioxide. Some of the sulfur dioxide attaches to sea-salt aerosol where it is oxidized to sulfate. The sea-salt has a residence time in the atmosphere on the order of hours to days, and it is transported in the lower troposphere. Most sulfate aerosol is associated with small aerosols (radius <1mm) and is transported in the upper troposphere with an atmospheric lifetime on the order of one week. Recent "clean coal technologies" and the use of low sulfur fossil fuels have resulted in decreasing sulfate concentrations, especially in North America and regions downwind. Future atmospheric concentrations of sulfate aerosols will be determined by the extent of non-clean coal burning techniques, especially in developing nations.

Climate Forcings in the Industrial Era

Figure 1 summarizes climate forcings that have been introduced during the period of industrial development, between 1750 and 2000, as estimated by the IPCC. Some of these forcings, mainly greenhouse gases, are known quite accurately, while others are poorly measured. A range of uncertainty has been estimated for each forcing, represented by an uncertainty bar or "whisker". However, these estimates are partly subjective and it is possible that the true forcing falls outside the indicated range in some cases.

Greenhouse Gases

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is probably the most important climate forcing agent today, causing an increased forcing of about 1.4 W/m2. CO2 climate forcing is likely to become more dominant in the future as fossil fuel use continues. If fossil fuels continue to be used at the current rate, the added CO2 forcing in 50 years will be about 1 W/m2. If fossil fuel use increases by 1-1.5% per year for 50 years, the added CO2 forcing instead will be about 2 W/m2. These estimates account for the non-linearity caused by partial saturation in some greenhouse gas infrared absorption bands, yet they are only approximate because of uncertainty about how efficiently the ocean and terrestrial biosphere will sequester atmospheric CO2. The estimates also presume that during the next 50 years humans will not, on a large scale, capture and sequester the CO2 released during fossil-fuel burning.

Other greenhouse gases together cause a climate forcing approximately equal to that of CO2. Any increase in CH4 also indirectly causes further climate forcing by increasing stratospheric H2O (about 7% of the CH4 is oxidized in the upper atmosphere), as well as by increasing tropospheric O3 through reactions involving OH and nitrogen oxides. The total climate forcing by CH4 is at least a third as large as the CO2 forcing, and it could be half as large as the CO2 forcing when the indirect effects are included.

Methane is an example of a forcing whose growth could be slowed or even stopped entirely or reversed. The common scenarios for future climate change assume that methane will continue to increase. If instead its amount were to remain constant or decrease, the net climate forcing could be significantly reduced. The growth rate of atmospheric methane has slowed by more than half in the past 2 decades for reasons that are not well understood. With a better understanding of the sources and sinks of methane, it may be possible to encourage practices (for example, reduced leakage during fossil-fuel mining and transport, capture of land-fill emissions, and more efficient agricultural practices) that lead to a decrease in atmospheric methane and significantly reduce future climate change. The atmospheric lifetime of methane is of the order of a decade therefore, unlike CO2, emission changes will be reflected in changed forcing rather quickly.

Tropospheric ozone (ozone in the lower 5-10 miles of the atmosphere) has been estimated to cause a climate forcing of about 0.4 W/m2. Some of this is linked to methane increases as discussed above, and attribution of the ozone forcing between chemical factors such as methane, carbon monoxide, and other factors is a challenging problem. One recent s