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The Science of Global Warming

The Science of Global Warming

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08/09/2010

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The science of global warming
JOHN HOUGHTON
Hadley Centre, Meteorological O
ce, Berks., UK
There is strong scientific evidence that the average temperature of the earth’s surface is rising as a result of theincreased concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere owing to human activities,especially the burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil, and gas. This global warming will lead to substantial changes of climate, many of which will impact human communities in deleterious ways. In terms of the likely global patternof climate change over the twenty-first century, in the absence of any mitigating action the global averagetemperature is likely to rise by between about 1·5 and 5·5
°
C and sea level by about half a metre (range 0·1–0·9 m).The hydrological cycle is likely to be more intense (leading in some places to more frequent and more intensefloods and droughts) and the rate of climate change is likely to be substantially greater than the earth hasexperienced over at least the last ten thousand years. It is particularly to this rapid rate of change that it will bedi
cult for many ecosystems and for humans to adapt. Action has been taken by the world’s scientists through theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess as thoroughly as possible knowledge regarding the basicscience and the impacts, including an assessment of the uncertainties. The world’s governments have also takenaction in setting up the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) at the Earth Summit in 1992 and atsubsequent meetings of the parties to that convention, especially that at Kyoto in 1997. In order to mitigate climatechange the FCCC in its article 2 has set the objective of stabilisation of the concentration of greenhouse gases inthe atmosphere at a level and on a timescale consistent with the needs both of the environment and of sustainabledevelopment. Such stabilisation will eventually demand severe cuts in global emissions, for instance of carbondioxide, to levels well below today’s by the second half of the twenty-first century. To achieve the required reductionsin the emissions of carbon dioxide, three possibilities are available, to sequester carbon dioxide resulting from theburning of fossil fuels rather than releasing it to the atmosphere, to become much more e
cient in the generationand use of energy, and to provide for energy supply from non-fossil fuel sources. This article will summarise thescience of climate change including the evidence for it and will describe the main impacts, the actions taken so far,and the further actions that are likely to be necessary to mitigate climate change.
Variations in day to day weather occur all the time; the climate of the last hundred thousand years or so,which has been dominated by the last ice age, andthey are very much part of our lives. The climate of a region is its average weather over a period that may then look at climate trends over the last century.The climate record over many thousands of yearsbe a few months, a season, or a few years. Variationsin climate are also very familiar to us. We describe can be built up by analysing the composition of theice and the air trapped in the ice obtained fromsummers as wet or dry, winters as mild, cold, orstormy, recognising that in many parts of the world di
ff 
erent depths from cores drilled from the Antarcticor the Greenland icecaps. Figure 1 records the tem-the seasons vary a great deal from year to year.Most of the variations we take for granted. Those perature at which the ice was laid down and theatmospheric carbon dioxide content over the lastwe particularly notice are the extreme situations andthe climate disasters. During recent decades, di
ff 
erent hundred and sixty thousand years from an Antarcticice core. Currently the earth’s climate is in a warmparts of the world have experienced extreme temper-atures, record floods, droughts, and windstorms. Such phase which began when the last ice age came to anend about twenty thousand years ago; the last warmextremes are an important manifestation of the largenatural variability of the climate; their impact has period was about a hundred and twenty thousandyears ago. The main triggers for the ice ages haveserved to emphasise the vulnerability of human com-munities to climate variation and extremes. This is been the small regular variations in the geometry othe earth’s orbit about the sun which a
ff 
ect thewell illustrated by the unparalleled losses experiencedby the insurance industry during the later years of the distribution of solar radiation at the earth’s surface.Of particular interest is the strong correlation between1980s and the 1990s. Although there is no strongevidence that these events are outside the range of the the atmospheric temperature and the carbon dioxidecontent. Part of this undoubtedly arises because thenatural variability of climate experienced in historictimes, their impact has served to add more relevance amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is depen-dent on factors that are strongly related to the averageto the question whether human activities (such asfossil fuel burning) are likely to lead to substantial surface temperature. But it is also true that it is notpossible to understand the range of temperatureand damaging future climate change. To obtain aperspective on climate change we shall first look at variations of the past without allowing for the influ-
INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE REVIEWS, 2001, VOL. 26, NO. 4
247
© 2001 IoM Communications LtdISSN 0308–0188
 
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2 Changes in global annual mean surface temper-ature since 1860 relative to the 1961–90 average,shown by vertical bars (thin whisker bars indi-cate the 95% confidence range) and a smoothedcurve giving the decadal average: data fromthermometers
Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, made the firstcalculation of the average rise in temperature to be
1 Observations from the Vostok ice core, showingvariation of atmospheric temperature over
expected at the earth’s surface if the atmospheric
Antarctica (it is estimated that the variation of
carbon dioxide concentration should double. His
global average temperature would be of the
estimate of 5 or 6
°
C was not far out, just a little
order of half that in the polar regions) and of
larger than current estimates that fall in the range
atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, for
1·5 to 4·5
°
C.
the last hundred and sixty thousand years: notethe current value of carbon dioxide concen-
The earth absorbs radiation from the sun, mainly
tration of about 370 ppm and the likely rise
at its surface. A balancing amount of energy is then
during the twenty-first century under various
radiated to space at longer, infrared, wavelengths.
projections of its growth
Some of the gases in the atmosphere, particularlywater vapour, carbon dioxide, and methane, andence of carbon dioxide on atmospheric temperatureclouds absorb some of the infrared radiation emittedthrough the greenhouse e
ff 
ect (
see
below). Note alsoby the surface and themselves emit radiation fromfrom Fig. 1 the very rapid rise in atmospheric carbonhigher altitudes at colder temperatures. The earth’sdioxide concentration over the past two hundredsurface is thereby kept about 30
°
C warmer than ityears or so as a result of human activities, which haswould otherwise be. This is known as the greenhousetaken the concentration of this gas well outside thee
ff 
ect because the glass in a greenhouse possessesrange of its natural variation during the last millionsimilar optical properties to the atmosphere.years or more.Increases in the concentration of the ‘greenhouseThe changes in the average air temperature neargases’ will tend to lead to further warming of thethe earth’s surface over the past century or so, assurface and the lower atmosphere; this is theestablished from the instrumental record, are shown‘enhanced greenhouse e
ff 
ect’. Its approximate magni-in Fig. 2. Over this period this temperature hastude can be simply estimated from radiation energyincreased by somewhat more than 0·5
°
C, althoughbalance calculations, but for detailed information,the increase has not been uniform. There are strongsophisticated computer models have to be used whichindications that the increase since the 1970s is linkedtake into account the influences of the atmosphericwith the growth in the atmosphere of greenhouseand oceanic circulations (
see
the section ‘Has anthro-gases such as carbon dioxide from anthropogenicpogenic climate change been observed?’).sources. The 1990s have been particularly warm inIt was in the late 1960s that scientists began toterms of this global average temperature. Not onlyrealise that the rate of increase of the amount of was 1998 the warmest year on record, but the firstatmospheric carbon dioxide, owing to the increasingeight months of 1998 were the warmest of thoserate of burning of fossil fuels, was such that significantmonths on record. Note also the year to year vari-global warming would occur. Associated with theations that are a further illustration of natural climatewarming would be substantial changes in the earth’svariability. (In Fig. 6 is shown a record constructedclimate. By the late 1980s, wide concern was beingfrom proxy data for the last millennium, showingexpressed about the likely impact of climate changethat 1998 is also likely to be the warmest year in theand it became a subject firmly on the political agenda.northern hemisphere over the last millennium.)
Intergovernmental Panel onGreenhouse effectClimate Change
That the earth’s surface is kept warm by the ‘green-house e
ff 
ect’ has been known for nearly two centuries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) was formed in 1988 jointly by two UNBut it was just one hundred years ago, in 1896, that
248
INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE REVIEWS, 2001, VOL. 26, NO. 4
 
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bodies, the World Meteorological Organization andthe UN Environment Programme, to provide assess-ments of future climate change and its likely impact.Its first report, published in 1990, provided the scien-tific basis for the Framework Convention on ClimateChange (FCCC) agreed at the Earth Summit held inRio de Janeiro in June 1992 and ratified by about ahundred and sixty nations. To assist in the conventionprocess, a comprehensive report was produced by theIPCC at the end of 1995 and a further full reportpublished in 2001. The writing and review process of these reports has involved the leading scientists in theworld in the field of climate change together withmany hundreds of other scientists from many count-ries in fact, a large proportion of the world’sscientists who are involved in this field. The pol-icymakers’ summaries of the reports have been agreedat meetings at which delegates from up to a hundredcountries have been present as well as representativesof non-governmental organisations and of the scien-tific community. Their findings therefore have thesupport both of the scientific community and of governments.The IPCC has not only assessed the basic scienceof climate change but also its likely impacts on humanactivities and the options for adaptation to thoseimpacts. It has also addressed how climate change
3
global net carbon emissions from fossil fuel
can be mitigated through the reduction of emissions
use 1850–1990 and for scenarios to 2100 (giga-
of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, for instance
tonnes per annum). The scenarios make differ-ent assumptions about economic growth, fuel
by changes in the generation and use of energy, by
availability, and developmentof new renewable
the sequestration of carbon dioxide, or by reducing
energy sources: curves A and B assume ‘busi-
the emissions of methane from a variety of sources.
ness as usual’ (i.e. no strong pressure to reduce
The IPCC has also supported the work of the FCCC
fossil fuel use for environmental reasons), A3
through its assessments of studies of the likely econ-
assumes rapid technical innovation to bring innon-fossil fuel sources, C is an ‘ecologically
omic costs of the damage due to climate change and
drivenscenario; and
atmospheric carbon
its assessments of adaptation and mitigation and of 
dioxide concentration in parts per million from
studies of the social and political implications of 
1850–1990 and for scenarios in
to 2100
action and inaction. The material in this paper thatsummarises all aspects of the issue of anthropogenicglobal climate change is substantially based on the greenhouse e
ff 
ect to date, the chlorofluorocarbons(CFCs), and ozone. Emissions of chlorofluorocar-IPCC reports, in particular on the third assessmentreport published in 2001. bons into the atmosphere have led to some destruc-tion of the ozone layer, most dramatically illustratedby the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica
Greenhouse gases
in 1985. Because ozone is also a greenhouse gas, thisozone destruction has partially compensated for theThe main greenhouse gases that are produced byhuman activities are carbon dioxide and methane. greenhouse e
ff 
ect of the chlorofluorocarbons.An important consideration is the time taken forTheir atmospheric concentrations have risen by about30% (Fig. 3) and 150% respectively since preindustrial the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases tobe removed from the atmosphere. For methane, thetimes, largely because of fossil fuel use, land usechange (for example deforestation), and agriculture. removal process is governed by chemical reactions;the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is aboutCarbon dioxide is responsible for about two thirdsof the enhanced greenhouse e
ff 
ect to date due to the ten years. On the timescales we are considering,carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is notincreases in greenhouse gases. If no action is takento mitigate emissions of carbon dioxide, the level of destroyed but redistributed among the carbon reser-voirs, in the biosphere, and in the ocean. The carbonemissions and its atmospheric concentration will con-tinue to rise throughout the next century (Fig. 3). Its reservoirs exchange carbon between themselves on awide range of timescales which vary from less than aconcentration could reach 560 ppm, double its prein-dustrial concentration, before the year 2100. year to decades (for exchange with the top layers of the ocean and the land biosphere) or to millenniaOther greenhouse gases of importance (Fig. 4) arenitrous oxide, which has contributed about 6% to the (for the deep ocean or long lived soil pools). The
INTERDISCIPLINARY SCIENCE REVIEWS, 2001, VOL. 26, NO. 4
249

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