Climate Change 101

The Science and Impacts

Scientists now know for certain that the earth has been warming for the past
century. They know that human activities, mainly the burning of coal and oil,
have dramatically increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. And they
understand the science of how these gases are causing the observed warming. As a result, they
predict that the world will continue to warm in the centuries ahead, with significant impacts on
sea levels and weather patterns, and consequences for human health, ecosystems, and the economy.
Avoiding the most severe impacts, scientists say, will require substantial reductions in emissions of
the greenhouse gases that are contributing to climate change.
GLOBAL TEMPERATURES: THE EARTH

Figure 1

IS WARMING

Global Surface Temperature Trend 1850–2005

The world is getting warmer. Average global temperatures
have risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last

1.6

century, with average warming of as much as 4 degrees

1.4

2006 were the warmest such period on record.3 No U.S.

0.0

1850–1900 average

–0.2

–0.2

05

90

20

19

70
19

19

50

–0.6

30

–0.4

–0.6

10

–0.4

19

worldwide. For the United States, the first six months of

0.2

0.0

19

Pacific Ocean contributed to above-average temperatures

0.4

0.2

90

surpassed only by 1998, when El Niño conditions in the

0.6

0.4

18

reported that 2005 was the second hottest year on record,

0.8

0.6

70

1995 and 2005.2 The World Meteorological Organization has

1.0

18

records became available in 1860 all occurred between

1.2

0.8

50

in recent years. The ten warmest years since thermometer

1.4

1.0

18

According to scientists, this warming trend has accelerated

1.2
Temperature change (ºF)

Fahrenheit in some regions (see Figure 1).

1

1.6
Best estimate
95% confidence range

© Crown copyright 2006, data supplied by Met office

state was cooler than average for the six-month period; five

five decades.4 The highest level of warming was recorded

states—Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri—

at the upper levels of the oceans, evidence that the oceans

experienced record warmth.

are absorbing most of the increased heat from the earth’s

Accompanying the increased temperatures at the earth’s
surface has been a significant rise in ocean temperatures

surface (see Figure 2).5
Even if greenhouse gas concentrations were stabilized

to a depth of 700 meters. Scientists from the U.S. National

today, the heat that is already in the ocean will warm the

Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have demonstrated

atmosphere over time, bringing an additional 1 degree

that the ocean as a whole has been warming for the past

Fahrenheit of warming by the end of the twenty-first century.6

This brief is part of a series called Climate Change 101: Understanding and Responding to Global Climate Change, published by the Pew Center
on Global Climate Change and the Pew Center on the States.

” 4 Increasing the amount of greenhouse gases intensifies the greenhouse effect.8 The Arctic is likely to 22 Fahrenheit. Some of the sunlight striking the earth 1 is absorbed and converted to heat. is emissions of carbon dioxide and between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries to a period of other greenhouse gases from human activities. THE CONNECTION However.10 The Northern Hemisphere varied from a relatively warm period main culprit. Human activities that emit additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere 6 increase the amount of heat that gets absorbed before escaping to space. The surface 2 emits heat to the atmosphere. which warms the surface.000 scientists from the United States 12 and other countries. the level of warming in the United States is projected to be higher than the global average. the climate of the variability cannot account for what is happening now. according to the IPCC.000X US yearly electrical production The problem is not just changing temperatures. 2 1 6 © The National Academy of Sciences. USA Illustration of the greenhouse effect (courtesy of the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences).7 Regional increases may be greater or less than Heat content (10 J) temperature will rise by two-and-a-half to ten degrees 0-300 m (yearly) 0-700 m (yearly) 0-3000 m (yearly) 8 4 0 -4 experience the greatest warming. they say. over the next century. scientists say.The increases in global temperatures will continue in Figure 2 the decades ahead. where some of it 3 is absorbed by greenhouse gases and 4 re-emitted toward the surface. Visible sunlight passes through the atmosphere without being absorbed. which includes more than 2. These gases create a warming effect that has some 5 similarity to the warming inside a greenhouse. roughly two centuries after the Industrial Revolution began. scientists studying the rapid rise in global tem- Global temperatures have experienced natural shifts peratures during the late twentieth century say that natural throughout human history. some of the heat is not trapped by greenhouse gases and 5 escapes into space. According to the Ocean Heat Content Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For example. For example. -8 • 145 billion-trillion Joules increase • 10. primarily the Figure 3 The Greenhouse Effect Natural Greenhouse Effect Enhanced Greenhouse Effect The greenhouse effect is a natural warming process. “climate change” and “global 55 that people and ecosystems have become accustomed -12 19 changing climate—or a change in the weather patterns cooler temperatures between the seventeenth century and GREENHOUSE GASES: MAKING the middle of the nineteenth century. it is a 05 00 20 20 95 90 19 85 19 80 19 75 19 70 Levitus 2005. This side of the globe simulates conditions today. hence the name 3 “greenhouse effect. GRL32: L02604 warming” often are used interchangeably to describe the same phenomenon.  CLIMATE change 101: The Science and impacts . 19 65 19 60 19 19 to over time. average global the global average. Carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and certain other gases are always present in the atmosphere.9 In fact. thus enhancing the greenhouse effect and amplifying the warming of the earth.

0 50 0 10 0 15 0 0 20 25 0 30 35 40 0 180 0 Temperature relative to present (ºF) Antarctic Surface Temperature There is no doubt among scientists that the recent spike in Thousands of years before present IPCC TAR. there has been a clear correlation between carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures (see Figure 4). CO2 concentrations never exceeded 300 ppm (parts per million) until industrialization occurred. Among the many scientific studies providing clear evidence that an enhanced greenhouse effect is under way was a emitted back to space.S. issued in March 2006.13 Carbon dioxide concentration (ppm) Looking back even further. the satellite data and other temperature observations. carbon dioxide. throwing the earth’s energy out of balance and warming the globe. The World Meteorological Organization and many other scientific organizations have confirmed this relationship. and computer the World Meteorological Organization said average global models to study the earth’s oceans. skeptics of climate change have pointed to differences between temperature increases recorded at the earth’s surface and those recorded by satellites as a way to challenge scientific claims about climate change.12 How much of a jump have we seen in greenhouse gases? 2005 report from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space In its first Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.000 years. biological activity produces more CO2. Scientists refer to what has been happening in the earth’s atmosphere over the past century as the “enhanced greenhouse effect. Climate Change Science Program corrected errors in The greenhouse effect keeps the earth warm and habitable. Studies. which increases the warming and stimulates more CO2 production. At Issue: Measuring Satellite vs. causing global temperatures to rise (see Figure 3). scientists concluded concentrations of the three main greenhouse gases—carbon that more energy is being absorbed from the sun than is dioxide. Current concentrations now exceed that historical maximum by about 80 ppm due to human contributions. As temperatures rise. methane. Using satellites. While there are natural processes that produce these gases. while methane levels had increased by 155 percent and nitrous oxide by 380 360 Pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 340 Human-contributed atmospheric CO2 320 300 8 6 4 2 0 –2 –4 –6 –8 –10 –12 –14 –16 280 260 240 220 200 18 percent. humans are altering the process by which naturally occurring greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat before it can be released back into space. Compared to pre-industrial Figure 4 times. data from buoys. And.” By pumping man-made greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Since the average temperature between surface and atmospheric temperature trends of the earth is about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. were up by 35 percent. agriculture and industrial processes.000 years. scientists say the world is entering largely uncharted territory as atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases continue to rise. even over all those millennia. 2001 carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere Through the cycle of ice ages. concentrations of the most abundant greenhouse Global Temperature: The Last 400. During the past 400. the natural is no longer apparent on a global scale. and nitrous oxide—continued their year-after-year climb in 2004. a May 2006 report from the U.burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Surface Temperatures For many years. But the enhanced greenhouse effect means even more of the sun’s heat is trapped. they are balanced out by other Climate change 101: the science and impacts  . However. is the result of human activities. atmospheric CO2 closely tracks the surface temperature. Other human sources of these gases include deforestation. the earth’s surface would be about 60 degrees concluding that “(t)he previously reported discrepancy Fahrenheit colder on average.”11 greenhouse effect is clearly a good thing. without it.000 Years gas. Today’s carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher than anything that has occurred for more than 400.

In Bangladesh. and much of southern California. many of the predictions that scientists have made in the past about the impacts of global warming are already upon us. By the end of the century.” The decline of the Greenland Ice Sheet was the focus of a THE CHANGING CLIMATE: FROM THEORY February 2006 article in the journal Science. of the authors disagreed with the evidence showing that the Florida Coast. declining global ice cover and sea level rise. loss of sea ice. A recent review of more than 900 would inundate 17 percent of the country. Rising Sea Level Among the most serious and potentially catastrophic effects of global warming is sea level rise. the current rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases can only be explained by human activities that pump additional gases into the atmosphere at a rate of billions of tons each year. Also at risk are low-ly- journal articles on climate change revealed that not one ing areas and bays such as North Carolina’s Outer Banks. global sea level may be three feet higher than today and rising. Scientists say these effects are likely Figure 5 Summer Arctic Sea Ice Extent to worsen in the decades ahead.natural processes that consume them. and stronger hurricanes. In the United States. accelerated sea level rise. including disappearing glaciers.14 Melting Polar Ice. The statement could not climate change already is affecting the region. In addition to painting a stark picture of how global warming by world leaders. In November 2004 an international team In 2005. human greenhouse gas emissions impact the climate. caused by a combination of melting glaciers all over the world and the “thermal expansion” of the seas as oceans warm. researchers showed that the It is not just rising average global temperatures that second largest land-based ice sheet in the world is losing ice concern scientists but also their effects on weather twice as fast as scientists had estimated. even a one-meter rise Many of the predictions that scientists have made in the past about the impacts of global warming are already upon us. Therefore. if nothing is done to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases. the United States National Academy of Sciences of 300 scientists from 15 countries. including the United joined a group of 10 other science academies from around States. where 54 percent of the population lives in close proximity to the ocean.16 of climate change.17 Using new TO REALITY satellite-based measurements. the most vulnerable areas are the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic coasts. It stated: “Action taken least half the summer sea ice in the Arctic will melt by the now to reduce significantly the build-up of greenhouse end of this century. more extreme heat waves. along with a significant portion of the gases in the atmosphere will lessen the magnitude and rate Greenland Ice Sheet (see Figure 5). example. In of this ice sheet could raise global sea level by almost 20 feet fact.15 Rising sea level will have severe impacts in low-lying coastal communities throughout the world. A complete melting extremes. issued a report on the impacts of climate change the world in a statement calling for “prompt action” on in the Arctic. for  CLIMATE change 101: The Science and impacts NASA and Natural Resources Defense Council . the report have been more explicit about the connection between of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment predicted that at human activity and climate change.

and other extreme weather events have become more common in recent years and will continue on this trend. as ocean waters grow warmer. according to researchers at the National Center for the rise. scientists have confirmed that hurricanes are becoming more intense—not just in the Atlantic but in all oceans where they occur. By mid-century. Because water absorbs more solar radiation than ice. Even if no more greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere. the melting of mountain glaciers also poses a threat to global water supplies.18 The result is a net loss of polar ice that is adding billions of tons of water each year to the world’s oceans. a natural process that has been accelerated by global warming. and that both trends will continue. global sea level will rise by four other sources.19 In addition to contributing to sea level rise. and added to the atmosphere. and a Expansion of the Oceans. At Issue: Twentieth-Century Temperature Trends Scientists have noted a distinct pattern of warming during the twentieth century.20 Climate change 101: the science and impacts  . In addition to causing sea level rise. The most likely is what scientists refer to as the “thermal expansion” of reason for the cooling during the middle of the century: the oceans—put simply. Atmospheric Research. or very fine particles. a surge in sun-blocking aerosols. Another Science article in March 2006 revealed that Antarctica also is losing massive amounts of ice to the melting and slipping of glacier ice into the ocean.within a few hundred years. is because hurricanes draw their strength from the heat in ocean surface waters. Loss of Mountain Glaciers and Snow Pack. as effect on global weather patterns. they will expand. with a large warming between 1910 and 1940.22 Scientists expect that these causes are inches over the next century because of thermal expansion on the decline. climate change is causing a worldwide loss of mountain glaciers at all latitudes. human pollution. a trend that is already evident over the past 35 years. scientists say.21 Why would climate change make hurricanes stronger? The answer. Scientists have observed that glaciers are in retreat in all regions of the world. from the Himalayas to tropical South America to the western United States. Extended heat waves. global sea level will rise by four inches over the next century because of thermal expansion alone. Scientists predict that climate change will have a significant Ice cover loss is not limited to the northern hemisphere. Another cause of sea level rise large warming again starting in 1975. there will be no glaciers left in Glacier National Park by 2030. Billions of people around the world depend solely on glaciers for irrigation and drinking water. while greenhouse gas emissions are on alone. Therefore. most mountain Stronger Hurricanes. with four Category 5 storms for the first time in recorded history. more powerful storms. These changes in weather patterns will have serious—and potentially severe—impacts on human societies and the natural world. causing both more floods and more droughts. Even if no more greenhouse gases are resulting from volcanic eruptions. In addition to the loss of polar ice. If the current rate of global warming continues. hurricanes will become more powerful on average. moderate cooling from 1940 to 1975. The 2005 hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. Now. the disappearance of polar ice actually will intensify global warming. scientists say. a level that would permanently Changing Weather Patterns flood virtually all of America’s major coastal cities. as the oceans continue to warm. the poles lose ice cover. glaciers may be gone. raised questions in many Americans’ minds about the potential connections between hurricanes and climate change. more heat from the sun will be absorbed at the earth’s surface instead of being reflected back into space by the snow and ice.

a fungus. Hurricane Katrina. The reports formerly did not occur where they live. For example. has spread to higher elevations as a nation’s water resources. from hazards to coral reefs due to warmer and more acidic ocean waters to threats to polar bears because of declines in sea ice. the infirm and Climate Change.28 change on the United States. These organisms have changed their South America. At the in malaria. report on Africa provides an early glimpse of some of the ways in which scientists say climate change will affect people’s health in the decades to come.While there is no way to link one hurricane directly to climate Effects on Human Health. Africans also are suffering from the effects of reduced crop yields a Category 5 hurricane while still at and sea. Other weather impacts from climate Climate change holds the potential of inflicting severe damage on the ecosystems that support all life. agriculture in developing countries will be especially at risk. along with worsening air and water U. For instance. according to the reports.26 The U. future changes in weather patterns will the poor will be especially at risk.S. from hazards to coral reefs due to warmer and more acidic ocean waters to threats to polar bears because of declines in sea ice change include a higher incidence of drought and flooding and changes in precipitation decreased availability of water. including both Wheat. Among the reasons: precipitation will increase in high-latitude regions of the world in summer and winter. one study found that 130 species. because of extreme temperatures and heat waves) and indirectly (for example. showed the potential of quality and poor disposal of solid waste. for instance.27 affect different regions in different ways. areas most at Researchers also have established that climate change is risk. farms and forests may be more productive in some regions and less productive at others. In the short term. cholera and lower respiratory tract infections same time that Katrina was exploding from a tropical storm to in African societies. The U. Australia and Central America may experience consistent declines in winter rainfall. we should expect hurricanes like Katrina to become more and more common. in the past southern Great Plains because of the low-lying coasts 20 years dozens of species of mountain frogs in Central in the Southeast and the long-term impacts of warmer America have disappeared because of a disease that temperatures on agriculture in both regions. may virtually disappear as a crop in plants and animals.S. for an increase warm ocean waters to contribute to stronger storms. by contributing to the spread of infectious disease or threatening the availability patterns. while southern Africa. no matter where they live.25 result of human-induced climate change. will be the Southeast and driving some species to extinction. a paper also warned of the potential impacts of climate change on in the journal Nature revealed that the disease-causing long-lived infrastructure in the United States. In 2006.29   CLIMATE change 101: The Science and impacts . Climate change can affect human health directly (for example. Effects on Ecosystems. while experiencing substantial declines in Asia and over the last 30 years.N. Gulf Coast in August 2005. With global warming causing ocean temperature to rise. More Droughts and Flooding. have responded to earlier spring warming Africa. which wreaked havoc along the blamed climate change. for example. migration and other spring activities. Ecosystems around the world already are reacting to a warming world.23 As a result of these changes. A recent United Nations report change. especially the organism. the surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico were unusually warm— about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal for that time of year. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on and quality of food and water).24 timing of flowering. The Two reports released by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in 2004 looked at the likely impact of climate changes occurred regardless of regional difference and were linked directly to enhanced greenhouse warming. Climate change holds the potential of inflicting severe damage on the ecosystems that support all life. The elderly.

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