Global Warming 101 Union of Concerned Scientists
Because most global warming emissions remain in the atmosphere for decadesor centuries, the energy choices we make today greatly influence the climate ourchildren and grandchildren inherit. We have the technology to increase energyefficiency, significantly reduce these emissions from our energy and land use, andsecure a high quality of life for future generations. We must act now to avoid dangerousconsequences.Earth's surface has undergone unprecedented warming over the last century,particularly over the last two decades. Astonishingly, every single year since 1992 is inthe current list of the 20 warmest years on record.[1,2] The natural patterns of climatehave been altered. Like detectives, science sleuths seek the answer to "Whodunnit?"
are humans part of the cause? To answer this question, patterns observed bymeteorologists and oceanographers are compared with patterns developed usingsophisticated models of Earth's atmosphere and ocean. By matching the observed andmodeled patterns, scientists can now positively identify the "human fingerprints"associated with the changes. The fingerprints that humans have left on Earth's climateare turning up in a diverse range of records and can be seen in the ocean, in theatmosphere, and at the surface.In its 2001 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, "Thereis new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 yearsis attributable to human activities."  Carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning and landclearing has been accumulating in the atmosphere, where it acts like a blanket keepingEarth warm and heating up the surface, ocean, and atmosphere. As a result, currentlevels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than at any time during the last650,000 years. [4,5,6]Background: Driving the Climate ("Forcing")Climate is influenced by many factors, both natural and human.  Things thatincrease temperature, such as increases in heat-trapping emissions from cars andpower plants or an increase in the amount of radiation the sun emits, are examples of"positive" forcings or drivers. Volcanic events and some types of human-made pollution,both of which inject sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere, lower temperatureand are examples of "negative" forcings or drivers. Natural climate drivers include thesun's energy output, aerosols from volcanic activity, and changes in snow and ice cover.Human climate drivers include heat-trapping emissions from cars and power plants,aerosols from pollution, and soot particles.Much as the Air Force develops computer programs to simulate aircraft flightunder different conditions, climate scientists develop computer programs to simulateglobal climate changes under different conditions. These programs use our knowledgeof physical, chemical, and biological processes that occur within Earth's atmosphereand oceans and on its land surfaces. Mathematical models allow scientists to simulatethe behavior of complex systems such as climate and explore how these systemsrespond to natural and human factors.Fingerprint 1: The Ocean Layers WarmThe world's oceans have absorbed about 20 times as much heat as theatmosphere over the past half-century, leading to higher temperatures not only in