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Plain English Guide No.

A Plain English Guide to Climate


Change
BY KENNETH GREEN, D.ENV.
Plain English Guide No. 3

Table of Contents

WHY A PLAIN ENGLISH GUIDE?....................................................................................... 1

CLIMATE-CHANGE THEORY ............................................................................................. 3


A. In a Greenhouse........................................................................................................................................ 3
B. From Greenhouse to Globe....................................................................................................................... 4
C. Human Action and Climate Change.......................................................................................................... 4

WARMING AND COOLING FORCES ................................................................................ 6


A. Carbon Dioxide ......................................................................................................................................... 6
B. Methane .................................................................................................................................................... 9
C. Nitrous Oxide ......................................................................................................................................... 10
D. Halocarbons ........................................................................................................................................... 11
E. Aerosols ................................................................................................................................................... 13
F. Water Vapor ............................................................................................................................................ 15
G. Solar Activity ........................................................................................................................................... 16
H. Ozone ..................................................................................................................................................... 17
I. Section Summary .................................................................................................................................... 17

OBSERVED CLIMATE CHANGES...................................................................................... 19


A. Temperature Trends ............................................................................................................................... 20
B. Rainfall Trends ........................................................................................................................................ 22
C. Sea-level Trends...................................................................................................................................... 22
D. Surface-water Trends.............................................................................................................................. 23
E. Snow Trends ............................................................................................................................................ 23
F. Ice-mass Trends ...................................................................................................................................... 23
G. Weather Intensity and Variability Trends ............................................................................................... 24
H. Section Summary.................................................................................................................................... 24

THE IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE............................................................................. 26


UNCERTAINTY AND FUTURE RESEARCH NEEDS ........................................................... 28
A. The Natural Variability of Climate ......................................................................................................... 28
B. The Role of Solar Activity ........................................................................................................................ 29
C. The Impact of Clouds and Water Vapor ................................................................................................. 29

CONCLUSION ................................................................................................................. 31

ABOUT THE AUTHOR..................................................................................................... 32

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS .................................................................................................. 32

OTHER RPPI STUDIES ..................................................................................................... 32


EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 1

Plain English Guide No. 3

Exploring the Science of Climate


Change
BY KENNETH GREEN, D.ENV.

Why a Plain English Guide?

G
lobal Climate Change is one of the most complex science-derived issues to wind up at the center of
political discourse. In the landmark Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC), the section dealing with the science of climate change is over 500 pages
long by itself, containing 75 pages of references.1 Documentation from outside the IPCC is considerably
more voluminous.

The terrific complexity of the issue of climate change and its potential environmental and societal
consequences poses a challenge for the decision-making apparatus in democratic societies. It is unrealistic to
expect the public, policymakers, or the media to read and understand the full body of climate-change
literature. Instead, they must rely on publications put out by pressure groups with a position for or against
climate change, or on the verbal summation of a small number of high-profile experts. But 30-second sound
bites do not leave much room for qualifications, and, just as the devil is in the details, the quality of science
is in the qualifications. The first thing to be lost in science-policy discussion is a clear representation of the
complexity of the issue that accurately depicts both the certainties and the uncertainties involved.

The importance of having accurate portrayals of the nature, magnitude, certainty, and imminence of
environmental hazards is hard to overstate. As a society, we have a limited amount of resources with which
to address a broad array of hazards, whether we address them through environmental improvement programs
such as air quality controls, or whether we address them through other public-health improvement efforts.
Wasting resources by ranking problems poorly costs lives and diminishes quality of life.

1
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change
(Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Because neither the executive summary nor the individual
chapter summaries do justice to the full detail of the report, the information in this guide will be drawn from the body of
the text whenever possible.
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This guide translates the major lines of evidence regarding global climate change from the arcane language
of science into the mainstream language of English, so that the weighing of evidence can be put back into a
public debate that too often weighs only the sound bites of pundits, politicians, industry representatives, and
celebrity scientists.

This guide is not intended to provide a comprehensive treatment of every facet of global climate change
science. Rather, this guide is offered to provide a basic foundation in the policy-relevant elements of climate
science in order to enhance the quality of public-policy debate.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 3

Part 2

Climate-change Theory

T
o some, climate change simply refers to physical changes in climate. The rise and fall of ice ages,
triggered by changes in the Earth’s orbital dynamics would be one such change. Trends in global
average temperature would be another, and there are still many others areas of study, such as storm
frequency and relative humidity that all fall into the category of “climate change.”

In the way most people use the term today, however, climate change refers to the body of theory that
explains how certain gases—regardless of origin—influence the climate. Still others focus on the human
aspect of the question and consider climate change only in regard to the way that human activities and
atmospheric impacts influence the climate.

Humans have studied the climate for thousands of years, building devices of great ingenuity such as
Stonehenge to help them predict the changing of the seasons. A better understanding of climate can provide
knowledge crucial to agriculture and help humans survive catastrophic weather events. But in recent years,
the focus of climate research has centered on the potential for human activity to affect the climate.

The theory of human-caused, or “anthropogenic,” climate change may be simple to state, but it is a deceptive
simplicity.2 Unlike Einstein’s “E=MC2,” the theory of anthropogenic climate change is not a single,
mathematical theory. The theory of anthropogenic climate change is actually a cluster of interlocking
theories, some well defined, others less well defined.

A. In a Greenhouse

At the heart of the theory of climate change (both of human origin and non-human) is a well-established
theory called the greenhouse effect. This theory, first quantified by a mathematician named Joseph Fourier in
1824, is based on well defined and tested laws of thermodynamics and has been repeatedly validated by not
only laboratory experiments, but by millions of greenhouse owners.3

The greenhouse effect is relatively simple. When energy from the sun reaches the surface of the Earth, some
of its energy is absorbed by the surface (or objects on the surface), some is reflected back toward space

2
Anthropogenic means “created by humans.” Though anthropogenic is an unfamiliar term to many, it’s far less
cumbersome than human-caused, or “of human origin” and avoids the sexist connotations of “manmade.”
3
Joseph Fourier, “Remarques Générales sur la Température du Globe Terrêstre et des Espaces Planétaires,” Annals de
Chimie et de Physique, vol. 27 (1824), pp. 136-167.
4 RPPI

unchanged, and some is first absorbed and subsequently re-emitted in the form of heat. Over a bare patch of
ground, with a clear sky overhead, there would be no net increase in the temperature over time because the
heat absorbed during the day would be re-radiated toward space overnight, and air masses, warmed by the
re-emission would be free to shed that energy by rising, and mixing with the rest of the atmosphere.

But if there is a greenhouse located over that patch of ground, the dynamic changes. The sunlight enters as
usual, and some of it is reflected back out as usual. But part of the incoming solar energy that was absorbed
by things inside the greenhouse and subsequently re-emitted as heat does not pass back out through the glass,
warming the greenhouse up. If there are water-bearing plants or materials inside the greenhouse, water vapor
concentration will increase as it warms. And since water vapor is also capable of trapping heat, the
greenhouse warms still further. Air masses, warmed by the incoming energy are prevented from rising or
mixing with the rest of the atmosphere, keeping the heat in the greenhouse. Eventually, the system reaches
temperature equilibrium.

B. From Greenhouse to Globe

Scientists have known for a long time that the greenhouse effect applies not only to greenhouses but also to
the Earth as a whole, with certain gases playing part of the role of the glass in the example above.4 When
applied to the whole planet, this relationship between gases in the atmosphere and the temperature of the
atmosphere produces “global warming.” Global warming is a natural aspect of Earth’s environment, crucial
for the maintenance of life on Earth. In fact, without Earth’s natural greenhouse effect, and the global
warming that goes with it, the Earth would be a much colder planet.5 The greenhouse effect has also been
seen to maintain warmer planetary atmospheres on Mars and Venus.6 The Earth’s greenhouse effect warms
the surface from an average of -18° C (0° F) to about 15° C (59° F).

C. Human Action and Climate Change

Against the backdrop of an Earth warmed by its own greenhouse effect, other forces operate that can alter
the retention of heat by the atmosphere. Some of these forces are of human origin, some are produced solely
by nature, and some are produced by feedback reactions or secondary interactions of one atmospheric
component with another.

Theories about anthropogenic climate change, the target of much political discourse today, focus on the role
that human action has in changing the climate and the consequences of that change. Further, much
discussion of anthropogenic climate change is generally limited to the potentially negative impacts that might
occur.

4
The primary greenhouse gases are water vapor (H2O), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (NO), and
Halocarbons.
5
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change; Stanley E. Manahan, Environmental Chemistry, Fourth
Edition (Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1996), p. 57.
6
Fortunately, the greenhouse extremes on Venus and Mars will not occur on the Earth. The air on Venus and Mars is
more than 95 percent carbon dioxide. Venus has about 175,000 times as much carbon dioxide per unit area as on Earth,
and Mars has 31 times as much.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 5

While greenhouse-effect theory is a relatively uncontroversial issue in the scientific sense, the theory of
global, anthropogenic climate change is at a much younger stage of development. Very few articles
appearing in science journals contradict either the overall theory or details of the greenhouse effect, or recent
indications of a warming climate. However, the same cannot be said for the question of causation. Indeed,
studies jockey back and forth about potential causes of climate change nearly every month on the pages of
leading science journals including America’s premier science journal, Science. Even the last landmark
report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leaves open the question of
causation.7 The chapter of the IPCC report examining the role of mankind’s contribution to climate change
begins with a summary that says:
Although these global mean results suggest that there is some anthropogenic component in the observed
temperature record, they cannot be considered as compelling evidence of a clear cause-and-effect link
between anthropogenic forcing and changes in the Earth’s surface temperature. It is difficult to achieve
attribution of all or part of a climate change to a specific cause or causes using global mean changes
only. The difficulties arise due to uncertainties in natural internal variability and in the histories and
magnitudes of natural and human-induced climate forcings, so that many possible forcing combinations
could yield the same curve of observed global mean temperature change.8

At the end of the chapter, the situation is summarized, thus:

Finally, we come to the difficult question of when the detection and attribution of human-induced
climate change is likely to occur. The answer to this question must be subjective, particularly in the light
of the large signal and noise uncertainties discussed in this chapter. Some scientists maintain that these
uncertainties currently preclude any answer to the question posed above. Other scientists would and
have claimed, on the basis of the statistical results presented [elsewhere], that confident detection of a
significant anthropogenic climate change has already occurred.9

Nonetheless, the chapter on the detection and attribution of climate change concludes that:

The body of statistical evidence. . . when examined in the context of our physical understanding of the
climate system, now points toward a discernible human influence on global climate. Our ability to
quantify the magnitude of this effect is currently limited by uncertainties in key factors, including the
magnitude and patterns of longer-term natural variability and the time-evolving pattern of forcing by
(and response to) greenhouse gases and aerosols.10

7
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is preparing a new set of reports, which will not be published until
sometime late in 2000, or perhaps 2001. While such reports are not without detractors and controversy, they constitute
an important touchstone against which virtually all new climate findings are weighed. Until the new reports are
released, the 1995 IPCC reports constitute the last published documents that summarized the state of knowledge about
climate change in a systematic, peer-reviewed manner. As such, the 1995 reports will be a primary reference source in
this Guide.
8
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change; p. 411.
9
Ibid., p. 439.
10
Ibid.
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Part 3

Warming and Cooling Forces

H
uman activities (as well as non-human biological, chemical, or geological processes) release a
variety of chemicals into the atmosphere, some of which, according to climate-change theory,
could exert a warming effect, and others which, according to the same theory, could exert a
cooling effect. In climate-change literature, these are referred to as “climate forcings.” Some forcings can
trigger still other forcings, of either a warming or cooling variety. These induced forcings are generally
referred to as feedbacks.

A. Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide, considered a warming gas, comprises about 0.036 percent of the atmosphere by volume. As
Figure 1 shows, carbon dioxide levels have increased as a component of the atmosphere by nearly 30 percent
from the late 18th century to the present and are now at 365 parts per million by volume and rising.11 Before
industrialization, carbon dioxide levels fluctuated near 280 parts per million, though dips as low as 200 parts
per million or surges into the mid-300 parts per million have been observed through analysis of air bubbles
trapped in polar ice cores.12

Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, and back into carbon cycle by both human and non-human
processes. Human activities such as fuel burning, cement production, and land-use patterns change the
carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere, as do changes in ocean currents, volcanic eruptions,
changes in atmospheric humidity, and so on. Table 1 shows the major flows of carbon in the environment.13
Because of the long lifetime, carbon emitted but not absorbed in a given year builds up over time.

11
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p. 311.
12
Friederike Wagner, Sjoerd J.P. Bohncke, David L. Dilcher, et al., “Century-scale Shifts in Early Holocene Atmospheric
CO2 Concentration,” Science vol. 284 (June 18, 1999), pp. 1971-1972. See also Barbara J. Finlayson-Pitts and James
N. Pitts, Jr., Chemistry of the Upper and Lower Atmosphere (New York, NY: Academic Press, 1999), p. 776.
13
Deep ocean reservoirs are not included, for example, though they can exchange carbon with the atmosphere over long
periods of time.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 7

Figure 1: Historical Trends in Carbon Dioxide Concentration

380
360

CO 2 Co n cen tratio n (p p m )
340
320
300
280
260
240
220
200
1849 1874 1899 1924 1949 1974 1999

Year

Source data: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, http://www.giss.nasa.gov/data/si99/ghgases/

Table 1: Annual Flows of Carbon in the Atmosphere


Range (Gtons1/yr) Percent of Total2
Natural Sources
ƒ Oceans 90–92 57–58
ƒ Land biota 60–61 36–39
Natural Source Total 150–153 93–97
Human Sources
ƒ Burning fossil fuels 5.0–6.0 3.4–3.8
ƒ Deforestation 0.6–2.6 0.01–0.02
Human Source Total 5.6–8.6 3.5–5.4
Total 157–160 100%
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, (Cambridge, MA:
Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 77.
Notes:
1) A Gton, or gigaton, is a billion metric tons. A Gton/yr is one gigaton of carbon moved from one pool to another over the course of
one year. 2) Out of 158 Gtons. 3) Land biota includes emissions from all plant life on the Earth as well as soils and detritus.

Since highly accurate, direct measurement of carbon dioxide levels only began in the late 1950s, most of our
understanding of carbon dioxide’s historical patterns of fluctuation comes from indirect measurements, such
as the analysis of gas bubbles trapped in Antarctic glaciers. Though such indirect measurements carry greater
uncertainty than direct measurements of carbon dioxide levels, they have contributed to rapid growth in our
understanding of the Earth’s carbon cycle in recent years. Still, significant gaps in our understanding
remain, specifically involving questions of time lag, the impact of world vegetation on atmospheric carbon
dioxide levels, other processes that might lock carbon dioxide away from the atmosphere, and the role of
carbon dioxide as a causal agent of climate change.14

14
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, pp. 75–87.
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Sequestration

The carbon cycle dominates our understanding of climate change, whether man-made or of non-
human origin. As Table 1 demonstrates, the portion of the total flux of carbon moving through the
atmosphere stemming from direct human activity is small in any given year—less than 5 percent of the
total flux. But human actions besides fuel use (such as land-use changes) can also have a significant
impact on the total carbon flux because of human impacts on the storage of carbon in vegetation and soil.
While Table 1 shows the flux between exchangeable pools of carbon, those which can immediately
influence the atmospheric concentration of CO2, a thorough understanding of the carbon cycle requires a
consideration of the pools from which those flows emanate. The figure below shows not only the
approximate carbon fluxes from one medium to another, but also shows the total capacity of the various
components of the carbon cycle.

As this figure shows, the vast majority of the world’s organic carbon is stored in the intermediate and
deep ocean, which holds over 38 trillion metric tons of carbon. The next largest repository of carbon is the
world’s soils, vegetation, and plant detritus, which hold over 2,100 billion metric tons of carbon.
Understanding sequestration is important not only for understanding the sources of atmospheric
carbon dioxide, but for understanding remediation proposals that seek to re-balance the atmospheric
carbon dioxide level by intentionally altering the sequestration of carbon. As the figure shows, a 10
percent annual increase in the total reservoir of carbon dioxide in soils, vegetation, and plant detritus alone
could sequester more carbon than is emitted annually by fuel use and cement production.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 9

B. Methane

Methane is a greenhouse gas between 5.4 and 56 times more powerful a warming agent as carbon dioxide.15
Methane has a lifetime in the atmosphere of about 12 years.16 As an atmospheric component, methane is
considered a trace gas, comprising approximately 0.00017 percent of the atmosphere by volume. As Figure 2
shows, methane levels in the atmosphere have increased nearly 150 percent since the beginning of the 19th
century, with current levels being the highest ever recorded, though the pattern of methane emissions is
highly irregular and has recently leveled off for reasons that are unclear.17

Figure 2: Historical Trends in Methane Concentration

2000
1800
M e tha ne C once ntra tion (ppb)

1600
1400
1200
1000
800
600
400
200
0
1849 1874 1899 1924 1949 1974 1999

Source data: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, http://www.giss.nasa.gov/data/si99/ghgases/

Studies of methane concentrations in the distant past show that methane concentrations fluctuated
significantly, from as little as 0.4 parts per million during the last ice age, to as much as 0.7 parts per million
during the industrial period.18

Methane comes from a variety of sources, some of human origin, some of non-human origin. Table 2 shows
the sources of methane found in the atmosphere.

15
The determination of relative warming strength depends on the time-span that one is examining, because the different
gases have different lifespans as well as different heat-trapping abilities. In a 20-year timeframe, a molecule of methane
would have 56 times the impact of a carbon dioxide molecule, but since carbon dioxide has a longer lifespan, this ratio
declines over time. In a 500 year framework, a molecule of methane is only 6.5 times as strong a warming gas as a
molecule of carbon dioxide is estimated to be.
16
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p. 121.
17
Ibid., p. 87.
18
T. Blunier, J. Chappellaz, J. Schwander, et al., “Variations in atmospheric methane concentration during the Holocene Epoch,”
Nature, vol. 374 (March 2, 1995), pp. 47-48; Edward J. Brook, Todd Sowers, and Joe Orchardo, “Rapid Variations in
Atmospheric Methane Concentration During the Past 110,000 years,” Science, vol. 273 (August 23, 1996), pp. 1087-1090.
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Table 2: Sources of Methane Found in the Atmosphere


Range (Tg/year) Percent of total
Human Sources
ƒ Gas leakage and oil production 85-105 13.5 - 16.7
ƒ Coal mining 25-45 4.0 - 7.1
ƒ Rice fields 20-150 3.2 - 23.8
ƒ Ruminants 65-100 10.3-15.9
ƒ Animal wastes 20-40 3.2 – 6.3
ƒ Sanitary Landfills 20-60 3.2 – 9.5
Human Source Total 370 ± 40 59
Natural Source Total 260 ± 30 41
Source: Adapted from R.T. Watson, L.G. Meira Filho, E. Sanhueza, and A. Janetos, “Greenhouse Gases: Sources and Sinks,”
Climate Change 1992, eds. J.T. Houghton, B.A. Callander, and S.K. Varney (Cambridge, MA: University Press, 1992), p. 35.
Notes:
1) A Tg, or teragram, is one billion kilograms. 2) Calculations of percent contribution by author, using data from table 14.1, in
Barbara J. Finlayson-Pitts and James N. Pitts, Jr., Chemistry of the Upper and Lower Atmosphere (NY: Academic Press,
1999), p. 777.

Since highly accurate, direct measurement of carbon dioxide levels only began in the
late 1950s, most of our understanding of carbon dioxide’s historical patterns of
fluctuation comes from indirect measurements, such as the analysis of gas bubbles
trapped in Antarctic glaciers.

C. Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide is a long-lived warming gas with a relative warming strength of 170 to 210 times that of
carbon dioxide, depending on the time scale one considers.19 Nitrous oxide persists in the atmosphere for
about 120 years.20 Nitrous oxide is, like methane, considered a trace gas in the atmosphere, but at
considerably lower levels, around 0.3 parts per million of the atmosphere by volume. As Figure 3 shows,
nitrous oxide concentrations have increased in recent years.21 Prior to the industrial period, concentrations of
nitrous oxide fluctuated at around an average of 279 parts per billion by volume, though fluctuations as low
as 200 parts per billion by volume were seen in the distant past.22

19
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p. 88.
20
Ibid., p. 121.
21
Ibid., p. 88.
22
J. Flückiger, A. Dallenbach, T. Blunier, et al., “Variations in Atmospheric N2O Concentration During Abrupt Climatic
Changes, Science, vol. 285 (July 9, 1999), pp. 227-229.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 11

Figure 3: Historical Trends in Nitrogen Oxide Concentration by Year

320

Nitrogen Dioxide Concentration (ppb)


315
310
305
300
295
290
285
280
275
270
1849 1874 1899 1924 1949 1974 1999

Source data: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, http://www.giss.nasa.gov/data/si99/ghgases/

Nitrous oxide comes from a variety of


Table 3: Sources of Nitrogen Oxide Found in the
sources, some of human origin, some of Atmosphere
non-human origin. Table 3 shows the
Range (in Mtons)
sources of nitrogen oxide found in the
Natural Sources
atmosphere. ƒ Oceans 1.4–2.6
ƒ Tropical Soils Uncertain
ƒ Wet forests 2.2–3.7
D. Halocarbons ƒ Dry savannas 0.5–2.0
ƒ Temperate soils Uncertain
ƒ Forests 0.5–2.0
Halocarbons are compounds of human ƒ Grasslands Uncertain
origin used as cooling agents and Natural Source Total 4.6–10.3
propellants in a broad range of Anthropogenic Sources
applications. There are many different ƒ Cultivated soils 0.3–3.0
ƒ Biomass burning 0.03–1.0
species of halocarbon, some of which
ƒ Combustion 0.1–0.3
have been banned because of concerns ƒ Mobile sources 0.2–0.6
about their adverse impacts upon the ƒ Acid production 0.5–0.9
stratospheric ozone layer. One such Anthropogenic Source Total 0.13–5.8
banned halocarbon that many would be IPCC Total 5.2–16.1
familiar with is Freon, used in household Source: Table adapted from R.T. Watson, L.G. Meira Filho, E. Sanhueza, and
air conditioners and refrigerators. A. Janetos, Greenhouse Gases: Sources and Sinks, Climate Change 1992,
Halocarbons are thought to be very J.T. Houghton, B.A. Callander, and S.K. Varney, eds. (Cambridge, MA:
University Press, 1992), pp. 37–38.
powerful warming gases. Some species
Notes:
are over 10,000 times more capable of
1) An Mton, or megaton, is a million metric tons. 2) The IPCC total was
trapping heat than is carbon dioxide. deduced using both the magnitude of the sinks and the rate of
Halocarbons can also be very long-lived, accumulation in the atmosphere. 3) Percentage contributions are not
persisting for many hundreds of years in given because the large uncertainty ranges in most values, and total
uncertainty in others would make such values relatively meaningless.
12 RPPI

the atmosphere after release. One group, called the perfluorocarbons, are virtually “immortal,” persisting for
up to 50,000 years in the case of perfluoromethane.23 Offsetting their greater heat-trapping ability is the fact
that halocarbons are found at much lower concentrations than the other greenhouse gases. Whereas carbon
dioxide is measured in parts per million, and methane in parts per billion, halocarbons are measured in parts
per trillion. Figure 4 shows the concentration of the major halocarbon species over the last century.

Figure 4: Historical Trends in CFC Concentration by Year


600
CFC-11 CFC-12 Other CFC
500
CFC Concentrations (ppt)

400

300

200

100

0
1919 1939 1959 1979 1999

Source data: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, http://www.giss.nasa.gov/data/si99/ghgases/

Halocarbons can exert a variety of impacts on the climate, depending on the chemical species and where it is
found. As discussed previously, greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere by absorbing heat radiated from the
surface or lower altitudes. Halocarbons are no different, and function as warming gases at lower altitudes. In
the upper atmosphere, however, halocarbons are broken apart by ultraviolet radiation, and the fragments no
longer function as warming gases. Rather, the fragments can exert a cooling impact through their interaction
with high altitude ozone. If the halocarbon is one that liberates chlorine on being broken up, the chlorine
acts as a catalyst that causes ozone destruction. Since ozone is itself a global warming gas, the removal of
the ozone exerts a cooling impact on the climate. Ozone destruction particularly cools the upper atmosphere,
but also cools all layers below it by allowing more heat to escape into space.

On a net basis, our current understanding is that the ozone-depleting halocarbons (the production of which
has been banned by the Montreal Protocol) exert a cooling effect.24 Replacement chemicals for the ozone-
depleting halocarbons are considered pure warming gases but with a considerably lower warming potential
than the chemicals they replaced.25 Because of the incredible complexities of ozone chemistry in the
atmosphere and uncertainties regarding the warming or cooling potential of remaining ozone-depleting

23
IPCC, Climate Change 1995, The Science of Climate Change, p. 121.
24
Ibid., pp. 90–93, 119–123.
25
Ibid.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 13

halocarbons and replacement compounds, the ultimate impact of halocarbons on climate change is highly
uncertain.26

E. Aerosols
Aerosols are not gases but are liquid or solid particles small enough to stay suspended in the air. Both human
and non-human processes generate aerosols. Different aerosol types have different impacts upon the climate.
Some aerosol particles tend to reflect light or cause clouds to brighten, exerting a cooling effect on the
atmosphere. Other aerosol particles tend to absorb light and can exert a warming effect. Aerosols do not
remain in the atmosphere for long periods of time, tending to be “rained out” regularly. Table 4 shows the
types and flux rates for aerosol particulates in the atmosphere.

Table 4: Aerosol Particulate Types and Flow Rates in the Atmosphere


Flux (in Mtons/yr) Percent of Total
Natural Sources
Primary
ƒ Soil dust 1,500 44
ƒ Sea salt 1,300 38
ƒ Volcanic dust 33 1.0
ƒ Biological debris 50 1.5
ƒ Secondary
ƒ Sulphates from natural precursors 102 3.0
ƒ Organic matter from biogenic VOC 55 1.6
ƒ Nitrates from NOx 22 0.6
Total from Natural Sources 3,062 89.7
Anthropogenic Sources
Primary
ƒ Industrial dust 100 2.9
ƒ Soot (elemental carbon) from fossil fuels 8 2.3
ƒ Soot from biomass burning 5 0.2
ƒ Secondary
ƒ Sulphates from SO2 140 4.1
ƒ Biomass burning 80 2.3
ƒ Nitrates from NOx 36 1.1
Total from Anthropogenic Sources 369 12.9
Combined Total 3,431 103
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change (Cambridge, MA:
Cambridge University Press, 1996), Table 2.6, p. 104.
Notes:
1) An Mton, or megaton, is one million metric tons.
2) Percentage calculations by author. Subtotal percentages differ from line-item percentages due to rounding.

26
Ibid., p. 122.
14 RPPI

Most aerosols of human origin exert a cooling effect on the climate. On a global basis, models suggest, this
cooling effect offsets about 20 percent (and possibly more) of the predicted warming from the combined
greenhouse warming gases, but the cooling is not uniform: the offsetting impact varies geographically
depending on local aerosol concentrations.27

Figure 5 shows the fluctuation in aerosol concentrations over time, in the Northern and Southern
Hemispheres, measured by the ability of the atmosphere to absorb and scatter light in certain wavelengths,
also known as “optical depth.”

The omission of aerosol considerations in earlier climate models led to considerable over-
prediction of projected global warming and predicted regional impacts, though newer
models have done much to internalize the cooling effect of aerosols.

Figure 5: Particulate Concentration, Mean and Hemispheric (in units of optical depth)
Annual Mean Optical Depth
.14
.12 Global Mean
Northern Hemisphere
.10 Southern Hemisphere
.08
.06
.04
.02
0
1850 1900 1950 2000
Graphic source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, http://www.giss.nasa.gov/data/strataer/

The omission of aerosol considerations in earlier climate models led to considerable over-prediction of
projected global warming and predicted regional impacts, though newer models have done much to
internalize the cooling effect of aerosols.28 Aerosols act as cooling agents through several mechanisms,
however, some of which are only poorly understood. Besides directly scattering incoming sunlight, most
particulate matter also increases the reflectivity, formation, and lifetime of clouds, affecting the reflection of
incoming solar radiation back to space.29

27
Ibid, p. 118. Total greenhouse gas forcing estimate is 2.45 Wm-2, total direct aerosol forcing is –0.5 Wm-2. If one
includes indirect effects of particulates, the aerosol forcing reaches –1.3, or about 53 percent of the total greenhouse gas
forcing.
28
Ibid., p. 297.
29
Ibid., p. 103.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 15

F. Water Vapor

Water vapor is the most abundant of the greenhouse gases and the dominant contributor to the natural
greenhouse effect.30 About 0.4 percent of all the molecules in the air are water vapor, about 10 times the
abundance of carbon dioxide.31 Glaciers and ice caps contain about 1,900 times as much water as the total
atmosphere does, while ground and surface waters hold about 660 times as much water as the total atmosphere
does. The oceans hold over 100,000 times as much water as the entire Earth’s atmosphere, at any given time.32

Besides the total amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, climate studies must also consider its distribution
at different altitudes and locations because small changes in water vapor can have significant local effects on
climate. Almost all water vapor enters the atmosphere by evaporation and about 90 percent of the Earth’s
water vapor is in the half of the atmosphere closest to the Earth’s surface.33 The water-holding ability of the
air roughly doubles for every 10°C in temperature, so the water vapor content near the surface can range
from slightly above 8 percent in very moist cases in the Persian Gulf to under 0.00002 (0.2 parts per million)
percent at the world record coldest temperature in Antarctica. At typical United States temperatures, 1 to 2
percent of the air molecules near the surface are water vapor. Typical stratospheric water vapor
concentrations (at altitudes from 15 to 30 kilometers) are around two to three parts per million based on
limited observations.34 About 73 percent of the Earth’s water vapor is over the “tropical half” of the Earth,
between 30 N and 30 S.35

Water vapor plays multiple roles in influencing climate, functioning as either a climate-warming force or a
climate-cooling force. When it enters the atmosphere via evaporation, water vapor cools the surface from
which it evaporates and is a cooling force. Another way that water vapor can cool the climate when it takes
the form of clouds that reflect incoming solar energy away from the Earth.36 Low-level clouds are thicker
and tend to cool the Earth by reflecting energy away. Thin cirrus clouds, by contrast, let incoming energy
pass through, but hinder re-radiated energy from passing back into space. Water vapor can also warm the
climate because it traps heat even more effectively than carbon dioxide.

A basic physics-based view of the response of water vapor to warming from other greenhouse gases suggests
that more water will evaporate from a warmer ocean, and warmer air can hold more water vapor. But basic
climate processes, because of their mass and momentum, are not expected to change much so the relative
humidity will stay nearly the same. If this scenario is true, water held in the atmosphere will increase by
about 7 percent for each Centigrade degree of warming. The increased moisture content could trap more

30
Ibid., p. 161.
31
Calculated from Kevin E. Trenberth and Christian J. Guillemot, “The Total Mass of the Atmosphere,” Journal of
Geophysical Research, vol. 99, no. D11 (November 20, 1994), pp. 23,079-23,088.
32
Calculated from José Peixoto and Abraham H. Oort, Physics of Climate (New York: American Institute of Physics),
1992, p. 272.
33
Calculated from Rebecca J. Ross and William P. Elliot, “Tropospheric Precipitable Water: A Radiosonde-based
Climatology,” NOAA Technical Memorandum ERL ARL-219 (Washington D.C.: National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, 1996), pp. 83-85.
34
S. J. Oltmans and D. J. Hofmann, “Increase in Lower-Stratospheric Water Vapour At a Mid-Latitude Northern
Hemisphere Site from 1981 to 1994,” Nature, vol. 374, no. 6518 (March 9, 1995), pp. 146-149.
35
Calculated from Trenberth and Guillemot, “The Total Mass of the Atmosphere.”
36
William P. Elliott, “On Detecting Long-Term Changes in Atmospheric Moisture, Climatic Change, vol. 31 (1995), pp.
349-367.
16 RPPI

heat, amplifying the warming from other greenhouse gases as a positive feedback. An alternative theory, by
Richard Lindzen, postulates that the added evaporation due to climate warming would still occur, but greater
storm energy levels would force the added moisture back out of the air more quickly, possibly canceling out
the potential amplifying effect on warming.37

Most climate models predict that a warming of the Earth’s atmosphere would be accompanied by an
increased level of water vapor in the lower atmosphere, but determining whether this has happened in
response to recent climate warming is difficult.38 Data on water vapor concentrations are limited, and the
data suffer from a range of limitations including changes in instrument type, limited geographic coverage,
limited time span, and so on.39 Data from satellites may offer some relief for these problems, but such data
have only been gathered since the late 1970s.40

Some researchers have observed what appear to be slight increases in water vapor in various layers of the
atmosphere, ranging up to 13 percent.41 Others have analyzed satellite data and seen what appears to be a
drying of the atmosphere, rather than increased moisture levels.42

G. Solar Activity

Rather than burning with a steady output, the sun burns hotter and cooler over time. Several cycles of
increased or decreased solar output have been identified, including cycles at intervals of 11 years, 22 years,
and 88 years.43

Highly accurate satellite measurements of solar output have only been taken since the early 1980s. Scientists
attempt to derive longer trend patterns from indirect data sources such as ice cores and tree rings. For example,
cosmic rays, which fluctuate with the sun’s activity, also strike constituents of the atmosphere, creating
radioactive versions of certain elements. Beryllium, in particular, is ionized to 10Be by cosmic rays. The 10Be then
gets incorporated into trees as they grow and is trapped in bubbles in ice masses, as is carbon dioxide.44

37
Richard S. Linzen, “The Importance and Nature of the Water Vapor Budget in Nature and Models,” in Climate
Sensitivity to Radiative Perturbations: Physical Mechanisms and their Validation, NATO ASI Series I: Global
Environmental Change, vol. 34, ed. H. Le Treut (Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag, 1995), pp. 51-66.
38
William P. Elliott, “On Detecting Long-Term Changes in Atmospheric Moisture,” Climatic Change, vol. 31 (1995), pp.
349-367; David Rind, “Just Add Water Vapor,” Science, vol. 281 (August 21, 1998), p. 1152.
39
William P. Elliott, “On Detecting Long-Term Changes in Atmospheric Moisture,” Climatic Change, vol. 31 (1995), pp.
349-367.
40
Ibid.
41
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p. 162.
42
David Rind, “Just Add Water Vapor,” p. 1152; Steven R. Schroeder and James P. McGuirk, “Widespread Tropical
Atmosphere Drying from 1979 to 1995,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 25, no. 9 (May 1, 1999), pp. 1301-1304.
43
Judith Lean and David Rind, “Climate Forcing by Changing Solar Radiation,” Journal of Climate, vol. 11 (December 1998),
pp. 3069-3094; Richard Kerr, “A New Dawn for Sun-Climate Links,” Science, vol. 271 (March 8, 1996), pp. 1360-1361.
44
Judith Lean and David Rind, “Climate Forcing by Changing Solar Radiation,” Journal of Climate, vol. 11 (December
1998), pp. 3069-3094.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 17

Using such data, scientists have produced plausible “reconstructions” of historical solar output levels. From
1600 C.E. to the present, such reconstructions suggest that the sun has clearly been running hotter, increasing
the level of solar output, which constitutes the main natural driver for the Earth’s climate system’s
temperature.45

Studies suggest that increased solar output may have been responsible for half of the 0.55 °C increase in
temperature from 1900 through 1970, and for one-third of the warming seen since 1970.46

H. Ozone

Ozone is a highly reactive molecule composed of three atoms of oxygen. Ozone concentrations vary by
geographical location and by altitude. Ozone is a greenhouse warming gas, but in areas of ozone depletion,
ozone exerts a climatic cooling simply because its concentration is decreasing.

At lower, tropospheric altitudes, ozone exerts a warming force upon the atmosphere. Tropospheric levels of
ozone in the Northern Hemisphere may have doubled since the 1800s. Ozone concentrations in the Southern
Hemisphere are uncertain, while at the poles, tropospheric ozone concentrations seem to have fallen since the
mid 1980s. At higher, or stratospheric altitudes, decreasing ozone concentrations exert a cooling force upon
the atmosphere. Ozone concentrations in the stratosphere have been declining over most of the globe,
though no trend is apparent in the tropics. Much of the decline in stratospheric ozone concentrations has
been attributed to the destructive action of the chlorofluorocarbons discussed previously.

Studies suggest that increased solar output may have been responsible for half of the
0.55 °C increase in temperature from 1900 through 1970, and for one-third of the
warming seen since 1970.

I. Section Summary

Human action can affect six out of seven of the major climate factors discussed above—carbon dioxide,
methane, nitrogen oxides, ozone, CFCs, and water vapor. Yet human action is not the only factor involved in
determining the atmospheric concentrations of these factors.

As Figure 6 shows, there is still substantial uncertainty regarding the actual climate forcing power of the
climate factors described above.

45
Ibid.
46
Ibid.
18 RPPI

Figure 6: Estimated Radiative Forcings Between 1850 and the Present (Climate Forcings)

Source: James E. Hansen, et al., “Climate Forcings in the Industrial Era,” Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, vol. 95 (October 1998), pp. 12753-12758.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 19

Part 4

Observed Climate Changes

P
art of the concern about global climate change stems from the human tendency to seek meaning in
events which may or may not be more than simply random events. A particularly cold winter, a
particularly hot summer, an especially rainy season, or especially severe droughts will all send people
off on a search for the greater meaning of the phenomenon. Is it a pattern, or a one-time event? Must we
build a dike or has the danger passed? Since the summer of 1988, virtually all unusual weather events seem
to trigger questions about global climate change.

Our ability really to know what the climate is doing is limited by a short observational record and by the
uncertainties involved in trying to figure out what climate was like in the past or might be like in the future,
for comparison with recent climate changes. While the Earth’s climate has been evolving and changing for
over four billion years, recordings of the temperature only cover about 150 years, less than 0.000004 percent
of the entire pattern of evolving climate. In fact, temperature records are spotty before the 1950s and only
cover a tiny portion of the globe, mostly over land. Temperature readings taken from weather balloons
became widespread in the 1960s, although observations are sparse over the oceans. Global satellite
temperature readings are nearly continuous since the late 1970s. Modern, reliable measurements of
greenhouse gases are an even newer source of data, beginning with carbon dioxide measurements at the
South Pole in 1957, at Mauna Loa in 1958, and later for methane, nitrous oxide, and halo.47

Aside from temperature readings, other climate trends proposed as secondary effects of global warming carry
information about the state of the climate. Changes in absolute humidity, rainfall levels, snowfall levels, the
extent of snowfall, the depth of snowfall, changes in ice caps, ice sheets, sea ice, and the intensity or
variability of storms have all been proposed as secondary effects of global warming. But because the history
of recording such climate trends is extremely short, most evidence regarding non-temperature-related
changes in Earth’s climate and atmospheric composition prior to the recent history of direct measurements is
gathered from indirect sources such as air bubbles trapped in polar ice or the study of fossils. This evidence,
while interesting as a potential “reality check” for global human-caused climate change models, is
considered far less reliable than direct observational data.48

These limitations in evidence make it difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions regarding what changes
have actually occurred recently in comparison to past climate conditions. More importantly, these limitations
make it difficult to determine whether those changes are beyond the range of previous climate trends, are

47
IPCC, Climate Change 1995, The Science of Climate Change, p. 78.
48
Discussion of the relative reliability of such data with regard to evaluating current change is from K. Hasselmann,
“Climate Change Enhanced: Are We Seeing Global Warming?,” Perspectives, Science, vol. 276 (May 9. 1997), p. 915.
20 RPPI

happening at a faster rate than previous climate trends, or are being sustained for longer than previous
climate trends. These are all critical questions when evaluating whether humanity is causing changes to
Earth’s normal climate patterns.49

Nevertheless, we do have evidence at hand regarding recent changes in both atmospheric composition and
global climate trends that suggest that humanity has at least changed the Earth’s atmospheric composition in
regard to greenhouse gases and other pollutants. These changes may, or may not, be contributing to recently
observed changes in global warmth. A quick review of the climate changes suggested by the available
evidence follows.

While the Earth’s climate has been evolving and changing for over four billion years,
recordings of the temperature only cover about 150 years, less than 0.000004 percent of
the entire pattern of evolving climate.

A. Temperature Trends

Besides readings of Earth’s surface temperatures taken with standard glass thermometers, direct readings of
atmospheric temperatures have been taken with satellites and weather balloons. In addition to the direct
measurements of the Earth’s recent temperatures, proxy measurements of temperatures from farther in the
past can be derived from bore-hole temperature measurements, from historical and physical evidence
regarding the extent and mass of land and sea ice, and from the bleaching of coral reefs.50

This proxy information is in relatively good agreement regarding what seems to be happening to global
temperatures, at least in the recent periods of change spanning the last few hundred years, though there are
discrepancies between some of the data sets. According to the IPCC, temperatures recorded at ground-based
measuring stations reveal a mean warming trend ranging from 0.3 °C to 0.6 °C since about 1850, with 0.2 to
0.3 °C of this warming occurring since the middle 1970s. The warming is not uniform, either in time or
distribution. More of the change occurs over land than over water. More of the warming happens at night,
resulting in warmer nighttime temperatures, rather than hotter daytime temperatures. More of the warming is
noticeable as a moderation of wintertime low temperatures, rather than as an increase in summertime high
temperatures. Temperatures taken from weather balloons (also called radiosondes) and satellites span a much
shorter period of time, and there is controversy over what they indicate and how much weight should be
given to such a short data set. Some analysts contend that the satellite and balloon recordings show much
less warming in the lower atmosphere than at the surface (about 0.06 °C/decade in the lower troposphere and
0.20 °C/decade at the surface from 1979-1998). Others contend that the discrepancy is partly artificial due to
more complete satellite than radiosonde data coverage, and partly real but transient since the radiosonde data
in the tropics back to 1960 shows greater warming aloft than at the surface until the late 1970s. So this

49
Ibid.
50
Bleaching of coral reefs marks a variety of environmental disturbances, from high-heat episodes, to high-pollution
episodes such as the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 21

longer record shows little discrepancy between long-term surface and lower tropospheric warming.51 Others
contend that the discrepancy is only an artifact caused by a limited data set, and the recent, unrelated increase
in the strength of the El Niño Southern Oscillation.52 Recently, a report by the National Research Council of
the National Academy of Sciences sought to reconcile the surface temperature readings with those of the
satellites.53 The NRC concluded that while disparities remain, the satellite temperature record does not
suggest that the surface temperature record is in error. Rather, the discrepancy suggests that the upper parts
of the atmosphere are not warming as quickly as the low-altitude atmosphere, possibly due to the cooling
effects of volcanic eruptions or ozone depletion in the stratosphere.54

But even here, taking the simplest of physical measurements, uncertainties are present. Temperature readings
(satellite or ground station) were not taken specifically for the sake of evaluating the climate patterns of the
entire Earth. Consequently, the readings were taken from a variety of locations, cover only selected parts of
the atmosphere, and are not necessarily well-placed to be most informative about the climate as a whole.55
Further, measurement techniques and stations varied over the course of the temperature record, with
extensive data adjustments needed to make the different sets of data compatible with each other.56 Satellites
and balloons measure a different part of the atmosphere than ground stations do. This makes the
comparability of such records questionable. Further, the shortness of the satellite data record, punctuated as it
has been by impacts of volcanic eruptions and the El Niño Southern Oscillation, complicates the evaluation
of temperature data.

Some people interpret the observed changes of temperature as evidence to support the theory that human
action has caused changes in the global climate.57 Others find the evidence regarding observed changes in
temperature insufficient to allow a sound conclusion regarding the validity of that theory because of the
historical volatility of climate variations.58 While the last 10,000 years have been abnormally placid as far as
climate fluctuations go, evidence of prior climate changes show an Earth that is anything but placid,
climatically.59 Some 11,500 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, there is evidence that temperatures rose
sharply in certain regions, and perhaps globally, over quite short periods of time. In Greenland, temperatures
increased by as much as 7 °C over only a few decades, while sea-surface temperatures in the Norwegian Sea
warmed by as much as 5 °C in less than 40 years.60 There is also evidence of about 20 rapid temperature
fluctuations during the last glaciation period in the central Greenland records. Rapid warmings of between 5

51
Benjamin Santer, et al., “Intepreting Differential Temperature Trends at the Surface and in the Lower Troposphere,”
Science, vol. 287, no. 5456 (February 18, 2000), pp. 1242-1245; Dian Gaffen, et al., “Multidecadal Changes in the
Vertical Temperature Structure of the Tropical Troposphere,” Science, vol. 287 (February 18, 2000), pp. 1242-1245.
52
R.W. Spencer and J.R. Christy, “Precision and Radiosonde Validation of Satellite Gridpoint Temperature Anomalies,
Part II: A Tropospheric Retrieval and Trends During 1979-90,” Journal of Climate, vol. 5 (1992), pp. 858–866.
53
National Research Council, “Reconciling Observations of Global Temperature Change” (Washington D.C.: National
Academy Press, 2000).
54
Ibid, p. 2
55
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p. 181.
56
Michael L. Parsons, Global Warming, the Truth Behind the Myth (New York: Insight Books, Plenum Press, 1995), ch.
5.
57
Richard A. Kerr, “Studies Say—Tentatively—That Greenhouse Warming is Here,” Research News, Science, volume
268 (June 1995), p. 1567.
58
Parsons, Global Warming, Ch. 5.
59
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p. 179.
60
Ibid., p. 178.
22 RPPI

°C and 7 °C were followed by slow returns to glacial conditions at intervals of 500 to 2,000 years.61 Earth’s
orbital dynamics were somewhat different prior to the last 10,000 years however, which may limit the
relevancy of such changes to modern trends. Still, in interpreting current climate changes, the broadest view
of past climate changes lends important perspective.

B. Rainfall Trends

Changes in precipitation trends are, potentially, a form of indirect evidence reflecting whether the Earth is
currently experiencing climate change. As the IPCC report observes, “an enhanced greenhouse effect may
lead to changes in the hydrologic cycle, such as increased evaporation, drought, and precipitation.”62 But the
section of the report on precipitation changes as an indirect measure warns “our ability to determine the
current state of the global hydrologic cycle, let alone changes in it, is hampered by inadequate spatial
coverage, incomplete records, poor data quality, and short record lengths.”63

According to the IPCC, the global trend in rainfall has shown a slight increase (about 1 percent) during the
20th century, though the distribution of this change is not uniform either geographically or over time. Rainfall
has increased over land in high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, most notably in the fall. Rainfall has
decreased since the 1960s over the subtropics and tropics from Africa to Indonesia. In addition, some
evidence suggests increased rainfall over the Pacific Ocean (near the equator and the dateline) in recent
decades, while rainfall farther from the equator has declined slightly.64

C. Sea-level Trends

Changes in sea level and the extent of ice sheets, sea ice, and polar ice caps are still another form of indirect
evidence reflecting whether the Earth is currently undergoing climate change. Climate-change theory would
suggest that rising global temperatures would cause sea levels to rise due to a combination of the thermal
expansion of water and melting of glaciers, ice sheets, ice caps, and sea ice.

Indeed, recent studies of sea levels indicate a rise of 18 cm over the last 100 years, though there is
considerable uncertainty attached to that figure: estimates range from 10–25 cm. And, though the rate of
warming has been accelerating, there is little evidence that the rate of sea-level rise has sped up accordingly,
as theory would suggest.65 But thermal expansion of water is only one contributor to sea-level changes.
Glaciers, ice sheets, and land-water storage all play a role—a highly uncertain role. Based on limited data, it
is estimated that glacier and ice cap melting may have accounted for two to five centimeters of the observed
sea level rise, but the range of uncertainty is high.66

61
Ibid.
62
Ibid., pp. 151–152.
63
Ibid.
64
Ibid., pp. 152–154.
65
Ibid., p. 368.
66
Ibid., p. 381.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 23

D. Surface-water Trends

Global warming would also be expected to influence surface waters such as lakes and streams, through
changes induced in the hydrologic cycle. But the last published report of the IPCC reports no clear evidence
of widespread change in annual stream flows and peak discharges of rivers in the world.67 While lake and
inland sea levels have fluctuated, the IPCC also points out that local effects make it difficult to use lake
levels to monitor climate variations.

E. Snow Trends

Snowfall, snow depth, and snow coverage (or extent) would also be affected by global warmning, but studies
examining changes in such aspects of the climate are quite mixed. Consistent with the indications of slight
warming of the global climate, snow cover has declined in recent years, with a higher percentage of
precipitation in cold areas coming down as rain, rather than snow. But while the annual mean extent of snow
cover over the Northern Hemisphere has declined by about 10 percent over the past 21 years of study,
snowfall levels have actually increased by about 20 percent over northern Canada and by about 11 percent
over Alaska. Snowfall over China decreased during the 1950s, but increased during the 1960s and 1970s.
Snowfall over the 45 to 55 degree latitude belt has declined slightly.68 Average snow depth, which responds
both to atmospheric temperature and to the ratio of rainfall to snowfall, shows equally mixed changes. Snow-
depth measurements of the former Soviet Union over the 20th century show decreased snow depth of about
14 percent during the winter, mostly in the European portion of the ex-Union, while snow depth in the Asian
sectors of the former Soviet Union has increased since the 1960s.

F. Ice-mass Trends

Ice masses include glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, and sea ice. With regard to glaciers and ice caps, the state of
knowledge is quite limited. Many of the world’s glaciers have clearly retreated over the last 100 years.
However, as the IPCC acknowledges, “…continuous, long term measurements of the mass balances of
glaciers and ice caps are very limited.” 69

Data on ice-sheet changes are actually contradictory: there is not enough evidence to know whether the
Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking or growing. They may even be doing both, growing on top
and shrinking at the margins.70

Finally, regarding sea ice (floating masses such as icebergs), the last published IPCC report observes that,
“neither hemisphere has exhibited significant trends in sea ice extent since 1973 when satellite measurements
began.”71

67
Ibid., p. 158.
68
Ibid., p. 157.
69
Ibid, p. 380.
70
Ibid.
71
Ibid., p. 150.
24 RPPI

G. Weather Intensity and Variability Trends

Finally, increases in the intensity or variability of weather are considered another form of indirect evidence
reflecting whether the Earth is currently undergoing climate change.

Predictions of increased incidences of extreme temperatures, tornadoes, thunderstorms, dust storms, and fire
weather have been drawn from some climate-change models. But evidence has not, so far, borne out these
predictions on a global scale. The IPCC concludes that: “…overall, there is no evidence that extreme weather
events, or climate variability, has increased, in a global sense, through the 20th century, although data and
analyses are poor and not comprehensive. On regional scales, there is clear evidence of changes in some
extremes and climate variability indicators. Some of these changes have been toward greater variability;
some have been toward lower variability.”72

There is not enough evidence to know whether the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are
shrinking or growing.

H. Section Summary

As Figure 7 indicates, evidence regarding changes in Earth’s climate in the 20th century is mixed and
encompasses a range of uncertainties.

While the IPCC report holds that there is a discernible human influence on climate, this conclusion does not
rest primarily on the evidence of actual changes in the Earth’s climate, as shown in this figure. On that note,
the IPCC says: “Despite this consistency [in the pattern of change], it should be clear from the earlier parts of
this chapter that current data and systems are inadequate for the complete description of climate change.”73
Rather, the conclusion that humanity is exerting a “discernible influence” on climate is based on
mathematical modeling exercises and “reality checked” with what hard evidence exists.74 The IPCC sums up
the question of attributing observed climate changes to human action, thus: “Although these global mean
results suggest that there is some anthropogenic component in the observed temperature record, they cannot
be considered as compelling evidence of a clear cause-and-effect link between anthropogenic forcing and
changes in the Earth’s surface temperature.”75

72
Ibid., p. 173.
73
Ibid, p. 411.
74
This is not a particularly huge logical leap, since virtually all organisms impact their ecosystem, with humankind as no
exception.
75
Ibid.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 25

Figure 7: Observed Climate Changes through 1994

Asterisk indicates confidence level (i.e., assessment): *** high, ** medium, * low

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change (Cambridge, MA:
Cambridge University Press, 1996), Figure 3.22, p. 180.
26 RPPI

Part 5

The Impacts of Climate Change

G
lobal warming and the potential climate changes that might accompany such warming are estimated
through the use of complex computer models that simulate (with greater or lesser complexity and
success) the way that the Earth’s climate might change in response to the level of greenhouse gases
in the air. Most climate-change commentary acknowledges that the potential temperature changes predicted
by global warming theory do not pose a direct threat to human life. Mortality might rise from hotter
summers, but this might be balanced by mortality reductions from warmer winters.76 Rather, the major
concerns about climate change focus on the second- and third-hand impacts that would theoretically
accompany global warming.

Climate-change theory suggests that warming of the overall environment could lead to a variety of changes
in the patterns of Earth’s climate as the natural cycles of air currents, ocean currents, evaporation, plant
growth, and so on, change in response to the increased energy levels in the total system. The most commonly
predicted primary impacts of global warming are increased activity in the hydrologic, or water cycle of the
Earth, and the possible rise of oceans due to thermal expansion and some melting of sea ice, ice sheets, or
polar icecaps. More dynamic activity in the water cycle could lead to increased rainfall in some areas, or,
through increased evaporation rates, could cause more severe droughts in other areas. Rising sea levels could
inundate some coastal areas (or low-lying islands), and through salt-water intrusion, could cause harm to
various freshwater estuaries, deltas, or groundwater supplies.

Some have also predicted a series of third-hand impacts that might occur if the climate warms and becomes
more dynamic.77 Wildlife populations would be affected (positively and negatively), as would some
vegetative growth patterns. The “home-range” of various animal and insect populations might shift, exposing
people to diseases that were previously uncommon to their area, and so on.78

One need not wade far into the IPCC’s 880-page volume on the potential impacts of climate change,
however, before encountering an admission that uncertainty dominates any discussion of such potential
impacts.79

76
IPCC, Impacts, Adaptations and Mitigation of Climate Change: Scientific-Technical Analyses (Cambridge, MA:
Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.12.
77
Ibid.
78
Richard Stone, “If the Mercury Soars, so May Health Hazards,” News and Comment, Science, vol. 267 (February 17,
1995), p. 957; Rita R. Colwell, “Global Climate and Infectious Disease: The Cholera Paradigm,” Association Affairs,
Science, vol, 174 (December 20, 1996), p. 2025; and Gary Taubes, “Apocalypse Not,” News and Comment, Science,
vol. 278 (November 7, 1997), p. 1004.
79
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: Impacts, Adaptations and Mitigation of Climate Change, p. 24.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 27

Impacts are difficult to quantify, and existing studies are limited in scope. While our knowledge has
increased significantly during the last decade and qualitative estimates can be developed, quantitative
projections of the impacts of climate change on any particular system at any particular location are
difficult because regional scale climate change projections are uncertain; our current understanding of
many critical processes is limited; and systems are subject to multiple climatic and non-climatic
stresses, the interactions of which are not always linear or additive. Most impact studies have assessed
how systems would respond to climate changes resulting from an arbitrary doubling of equivalent
atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Furthermore, very few studies have considered greenhouse
gas concentrations; fewer still have examined the consequences of increases beyond a doubling of
equivalent atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, or assessed the implications of multiple stress
factors.

Uncertainties of this scale indicate the need for a sustained research program aimed at
clarifying our understanding of Earth’s climate, and how human activities might or might
not translate into negative environmental impacts.

The IPCC report goes on to point out that this extreme uncertainty is likely to persist for some time since
unambiguous detection of human-caused climate change hinges on resolving many difficult problems.80
Detection will be difficult and unexpected changes cannot be ruled out. Unambiguous detection of
climate-induced changes in most ecological and social systems will prove extremely difficult in the
coming decades. This is because of the complexity of these systems, their many non-linear feedbacks,
and their sensitivity to a large number of climatic and non-climatic factors, all of which are expected to
continue to change simultaneously. The development of a base-line projecting future conditions without
climate change is crucial, for it is this baseline against which all projected impacts are measured. The
more that future climate extends beyond the boundaries of empirical knowledge (i.e., the documented
impacts of climate variation in the past), the more likely that actual outcomes will include surprises and
unanticipated rapid changes.

Uncertainties of this scale do not imply, as some analysts have asserted, that there is no reason to fear
negative change, nor does it imply that we must fear drastic impacts. Rather, uncertainties of this scale
indicate the need for a sustained research program aimed at clarifying our understanding of Earth’s climate,
and how human activities might or might not translate into negative environmental impacts.

80
Ibid.
28 RPPI

Part 6

Uncertainty and Future Research


Needs

W
hile recent studies of climate have contributed a great deal to our understanding of climate
dynamics, there is still much to learn. The process of searching for evidence of human-caused
climate change, in fact, is both a search for new discoveries about how climate works and a
continuing refinement of our understanding of existing underlying theories.

Many areas of uncertainty remain. Current climate-change models have acknowledged weaknesses in their
handling of changes in the sun’s output, volcanic aerosols, oceanic processes, and land processes that can
influence climate change.

Some of those uncertainties are large enough to become the tail which wags the dog of climate change. Three
of the major remaining uncertainties are discussed below.

A. The Natural Variability of Climate

Despite the extensive discussion of climate modeling and knowledge of past climate cycles, only the last
1,000 years of climate variation are included in the two state-of-the-art climate models referred to by the
IPCC.81 As discussed earlier, however, the framework in which one views climate variability makes a
significant difference in the conclusions drawn regarding either the comparative magnitude or rate of climate
changes, or the interpretation of those changes. The last published IPCC report summarizes the situation
succinctly:
Large and rapid climatic changes occurred during the last ice age and during the transition towards the
present Holocene period. Some of these changes may have occurred on time-scales of a few decades, at
least in the North Atlantic where they are best documented. They affected atmospheric and oceanic
circulation and temperature, and the hydrologic cycle. There are suggestions that similar rapid changes
may have also occurred during the last interglacial period (the Eemian), but this requires confirmation.
The recent (20th century) warming needs to be considered in the light of evidence that rapid climatic
changes can occur naturally in the climate. However, temperatures have been far less variable during
the last 10,000 years (i.e., during the Holocene).

81
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p. 416.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 29

Without knowing which perspective is more reflective of Earth’s climate as a whole—the last 10,000 years,
or a longer period of time—it is difficult to put recent warming trends into perspective. It also remains
difficult to relate those trends to potential impacts on the climate and on the Earth’s flora and fauna.

B. The Role of Solar Activity

At the front end of the climate cycle is the single largest source of energy entering the system, namely, the
sun. And while great attention has been paid to most other aspects of climate, until recently, less attention
has been paid to the sun’s role in the heating or cooling of the Earth. Several recent studies have highlighted
this uncertainty, showing that solar variability may play a far larger role in the Earth’s climate than it was
previously given credit for by the IPCC.82 If the sun has been heating up in recent times, some researchers
have claimed, the increased solar radiation could be responsible for up to half of the observed climate
warming of the past century.83

Harvard astrophysicist Sallie L. Baliunas, for example attributes up to 71 percent of the observed climate
warming of the past century to increased solar irradiance.84 Other researchers such as noted climatologist
Tom Wigley, however, rank the influence of solar activity on climate warming much lower, at “somewhere
between 10 percent and 30 percent of the past warming.”85 But as with satellite measurements of Earth’s
temperature, the short time line of satellite measurements of solar irradiance introduces significant
uncertainty into the picture. Most researchers believe that at least another decade of solar radiation
measurement and modeling of irradiance impacts on climate will be needed to clearly define the influence of
solar input on the global climate.86

C. The Impact of Clouds and Water Vapor

Between the emission of greenhouse gases and changes in the climate are a range of climate and biological
cycles that can influence the end-result. Such outcome-modifier effects are called “feedbacks” or “indirect
effects” in the climate-change literature.

One such feedback is the influence of clouds and water vapor. As the climate warms, more water vapor
enters the atmosphere, but how much? And, which parts of the atmosphere, high or low? And how does the
increased humidity affect cloud formation? While the relationship between clouds, water vapor, and global
climate is complicated in and of itself, the situation is further complicated by the fact that aerosols exert a
poorly understood influence on clouds. Earlier computer models, which omitted the recently recognized
cooling effect of aerosols, overestimated the global warming that we would have expected to see by now,

82
Richard C. Willson, “Total Solar Irradiance Trend During Solar Cycles 21 and 22,” Reports, Science, volume 277
(September 26, 1997), pp. 1963-1965; and IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p. 117.
83
Richard A. Kerr, “A New Dawn for Sun-Climate Links?,” Research News, Science, vol. 271 (March 8, 1996), pp. 803-
804.
84
William J. Broad, “Another Possible Climate Culprit: The Sun,” New York Times, September 1997.
85
Richard A. Kerr, “A New Dawn for Sun-Climate Links?,” Research News, Science, vol. 271 (March 8, 1996), pp. 803-
804.
86
Richard A. Kerr, “Did Satellites Spot a Brightening Sun?,” News, Science, Vol. 277 (September 26, 1997), pp. 1923-
1924.
30 RPPI

based only on the levels of greenhouse gases that have been emitted. As discussed earlier, aerosols
themselves may have offset 20 percent of the expected impact of present day warming gases, though this
effect is expected to diminish in the future due to other pollution controls on sulfur aerosols. In addition,
though some direct cooling impacts of aerosols are now being taken into account by climate models, aerosol
impact on clouds remains a poorly defined effect with broad implications, given a range of additional
cooling potential of up to 61 percent of the expected warming impact from the warming greenhouse gases.87

As the IPCC report acknowledges: “The single largest uncertainty in determining the climate sensitivity to
either natural or anthropogenic changes are clouds and their effects on radiation and their role in the
hydrological cycle. . . . At the present time, weaknesses in the parameterization of cloud formation and
dissipation are probably the main impediment to improvements in the simulation of cloud effects on
climate.”88

87
Potential aerosol impacts on clouds are given a value range from 0-1.5 Wm-2, compared to the total warming potential
of the well-mixed greenhouse gases of 2.45 Wm-2. IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p.
118.
88
IPCC, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, p. 346.
EXPLORING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE 31

Part 7

Conclusion

T
he theory of human-caused climate change is extremely complex, a mixture of the certain and the
uncertain, the obvious and the subtle, the evidenciary and the theoretical. The complex nature of
climate-change theory poses a challenge in the public policy arena, where decisionmakers must
grapple with a question that even experts have difficulty in understanding, and where nuanced handling of
uncertainty is not only rare, but may be actually discouraged by the demands of the policymaking process.

A considerable body of evidence suggests that the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere has been
warming over the course of the 20th century. But important questions remain, such as “why has it been
warming,” “what impacts will warming produce,” and “what should we do about it”? On these questions,
conclusions are far more tentative. Evidence suggests that the warming seen in the first half of the 20th
century was non-human in origin—most probably a result of increased solar radiation. The balance of
evidence suggests that a significant portion of the warming that has been seen in the latter half of the 20th
century is due to human activity. Specifically, the emission of heat-trapping gases known as greenhouse
gases and changes in land-use patterns seem to have caused additional heat retention by the atmosphere.

But questions remain regarding other possible causes of the observed atmospheric warming, and tremendous
uncertainties limit the ability of scientists to predict the second- and third-hand impacts of that warming, as
well as the steps that can be taken to forestall or ameliorate the negative consequences that may arise.
32 RPPI

About the Author

D
r. Kenneth Green is Director of the Environmental Program at Reason Public Policy Institute. Dr.
Green has published several previous peer-reviewed policy studies on climate change including: A
Plain English Guide to the Science of Climate Change; Climate Change Policy Options and
Impacts; Evaluating the Kyoto Approach to Climate Change; and A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Questions People
Ask About the Science of Climate Change. Dr. Green recently completed writing an encyclopedia chapter on
climate change for the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Energy, and has completed expert reviews for the three
volumes of the forthcoming IPCC Third Assessment Report, and the National Assessment report of the
United States Global Climate Research Project. Green received his doctorate in environmental science and
engineering (D.Env.) from UCLA in 1994.

Acknowledgements

T
he author wishes to thank the numerous reviewers who have contributed to the accuracy and clarity of
this revision to 1997’s Plain English Guide to the Science of Climate Change, as well as those who
helped me with the original version. The author is particularly indebted to Steven Schroeder, for his
help with sections on water vapor sequestration. This Guide also depends heavily on the publications of the
United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose 1995 three-volume “Second Assessment
Report” is still the common “touch stone” reference for discussions of climate change.

Other RPPI Studies


Kenneth Green, Richard McCann, Steve Moss, and Roy Cordato, Climate Change Policy Options and
Impacts, Policy Study No. 252 (Los Angeles: Reason Public Policy Institute, February 1999).

Kenneth Green, A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Questions People Ask About the Science of Climate Change (Los
Angeles: Reason Public Policy Institute, October 1998).

Kenneth Green, A Plain English Guide to the Science of Climate Change, Policy Study No. 237 (Los
Angeles: Reason Public Policy Institute, December 1997).

Richard McCann and Steven Moss, Nuts and Bolts: The Implications of Choosing Greenhouse-Gas Emission
Reduction Strategies, Policy Study No. 171 (Los Angeles: Reason Public Policy Institute, November 1993).

Steven Moss and Richard McCann, Global Warming, Policy Study No. 167 (Los Angeles: Reason Public
Policy Institute, September 1993).