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Causes of Climate Change

Climate change is a long-term shift in weather conditions identified by

changes in temperature, precipitation, winds, and other indicators. Climate
change can involve both changes in average conditions and changes in
variability, including, for example, extreme events.
The earth's climate is naturally variable on all time scales. However, its longterm state and average temperature are regulated by the balance between
incoming and outgoing energy, which determines the Earths energy
balance. (Learn more about the Earths climate system here). Any factor that
causes a sustained change to the amount of incoming energy or the amount
of outgoing energy can lead to climate change. As these factors are external
to the climate system, they are referred to as climate forcers, invoking the
idea that they force or push the climate towards a new long-term state
either warmer or cooler depending on the cause of change. Different factors
operate on different time scales, and not all of those factors that have been
responsible for changes in earths climate in the distant past are relevant to
contemporary climate change. Factors that cause climate change can be
divided into two categories - those related to natural processes and those
related to human activity. In addition to natural causes of climate change,
changes internal to the climate system, such as variations in ocean currents
or atmospheric circulation, can also influence the climate for short periods of
time. This natural internal climate variability is superimposed on the longterm forced climate change.
Natural Causes
Human Causes
Short lived and long lived climate forcers

Natural Causes
The Earths climate can be affected by natural factors that are external
to the climate system, such as changes in volcanic activity, solar
output, and the Earth's orbit around the Sun. Of these, the two factors
relevant on timescales of contemporary climate change are changes in
volcanic activity and changes in solar radiation. In terms of the Earths
energy balance, these factors primarily influence the amount of incoming
energy. Volcanic eruptions are episodic and have relatively short-term effects
on climate. Changes in solar irradiance have contributed to climate trends
over the past century but since the Industrial Revolution, the effect of

additions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere has been about ten times
that of changes in the Suns output.

Human Causes
Climate change can also be caused by human activities, such as the
burning of fossil fuels and the conversion of land for forestry and
agriculture. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, these human
influences on the climate system have increased substantially. In addition to
other environmental impacts, these activities change the land surface and
emit various substances to the atmosphere. These in turn can influence both
the amount of incoming energy and the amount of outgoing energy and can
have both warming and cooling effects on the climate. The dominant
product of fossil fuel combustion is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The
overall effect of human activities since the Industrial Revolution has been a
warming effect, driven primarily by emissions of carbon dioxide and
enhanced by emissions of other greenhouse gases.
The build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has led to an
enhancement of the natural greenhouse effect. It is this human-induced
enhancement of the greenhouse effect that is of concern because ongoing
emissions of greenhouse gases have the potential to warm the planet to
levels that have never been experienced in the history of human civilization.
Such climate change could have far-reaching and/or unpredictable
environmental, social, and economic consequences.

Short-lived and long-lived climate forcers

Carbon dioxide is the main cause of human-induced climate change.
It has been emitted in vast quantities from the burning of fossil fuels and it is
a very long-lived gas, which means it continues to affect the climate system
during its long residence time in the atmosphere. However, fossil fuel
combustion, industrial processes, agriculture, and forestry-related activities
emit other substances that also act as climate forcers. Some, such as nitrous
oxide, are long-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, and so contribute
to long-term climate change. Other substances have shorter atmospheric
lifetimes because they are removed fairly quickly from the atmosphere.
Therefore, their effect on the climate system is similarly short-lived.
Together, these short-lived climate forcers are responsible for a significant

amount of current climate forcing from anthropogenic substances. Some

short-lived climate forcers have a climate warming effect (positive climate
forcers) while others have a cooling effect (negative climate forcers).
If atmospheric levels of short-lived climate forcers are continually
replenished by ongoing emissions, these continue to exert a climate forcing.
However, reducing emissions will quite quickly lead to reduced atmospheric
levels of such substances. A number of short-lived climate forcers have
climate warming effects and together are the most important contributors to
the human enhancement of the greenhouse effect after carbon dioxide. This
includes methane and tropospheric ozone both greenhouse gases and
black carbon, a small solid particle formed from the incomplete combustion
of carbon-based fuels (coal, oil and wood for example).
Other short-lived climate forcers have climate cooling effects, most
notably sulphate aerosols. Fossil fuel combustion emits sulphur dioxide into
the atmosphere (in addition to carbon dioxide) which then combines with
water vapour to form tiny droplets (aerosols) which reflect sunlight. Sulphate
aerosols remain in the atmosphere for only a few days (washing out in what
is referred to as acid rain), and so do not have the same long-term effect as
greenhouse gases. The cooling from sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere
has, however, offset some of the warming from other substances. That is, the
warming we have experienced to date would have been even larger had it
not been for elevated levels of sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere.
Greenhouse gases
Land use change
There are many influences over the Earths climate, which can be
distinguished into natural and anthropogenic (human-induced) factors.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, scientists have been observing a
change in the climate that cannot be attributed to any of the natural
influences of the past only. This change in the climate, also known as global
warming, has occurred faster than any other climate change recorded by
humans and so is of great interest and importance to the human population.
The following sections look at the main causes of anthropogenic (human
caused) climate change (for the natural influences on climate change,
Greenhouse gases
The Earth has a natural greenhouse effect where certain gases (known as
greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere allow the sunlight to enter but absorb
the heat radiation. Because these gases absorb the heat, they keep the

average surface temperature on Earth around 14C. Without the natural

greenhouse effect, the Earths average surface temperature would be around
Since the industrial revolution, human activity has increased the amount of
greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (shown in the graph to the right). The
increased amount of gases which absorb heat, has directly lead to more heat
being retained in the atmosphere and thus an increase in global average
surface temperatures. This change in temperature is known as global
warming. The increase in temperature is also leading to other effects on the
climate system. Together these affects are known as anthropogenic (human
caused) climate change.

The main greenhouse gases include:

Water vapour. The most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG), however
because it spends just a short time in the atmosphere, and humans have a
very impact on the amount of water in the atmosphere, it is not considered
the most important GHG.
Carbon dioxide (CO2). Is actually only a small part of the atmosphere, but
one of the most important GHGs. CO2 is released naturally into the
atmosphere through volcanic eruptions and animal respiration but it is also
released through human activities such as deforestation and the burning of
fossil fuels for energy. CO2 also spends a long time in the atmosphere
increasing its impact. Since the industrial revolution, humans have increased
atmospheric CO2 concentration by 30%.
Methane. The second most important GHG, is produced both naturally and
through human activities. The most significant sources of Methane come
from the decomposition of organic matter e.g. in landfills and in agriculture.
Another large source is from the digestion of ruminants (cows, goats etc).
Methane is a stronger GHG than CO2 because it can absorb more heat,
however it is much less abundant in the atmosphere.
Nitrous oxide. A very powerful greenhouse gas which is heavily produced
in the agriculture sector, specifically in the production and use of organic
fertilizers. It is also produced when burning fossil fuels.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These man-made compounds were produced
for industrial use, mainly in refrigerants and air conditioners. They are now
regulated under the Montreal Protocol due to their adverse affect on the
Ozone Layer.
Since the beginning of the 20th century industrial activity grew 40-fold, and
the emissions of greenhouse gases grew 10-fold.

The amount of CO2 in the air increased from some 280 parts per million by
volume (ppmv) at the beginning of the century to 389 ppmv at the end of
2010. The amount of CO2 varies throughout the year as the result of the
annual cycles of photosynthesis and oxidation, illustrated in the graph.
Similarly, methane (CH4) rose from a preindustrial atmospheric
concentration of around 700 parts per billion by volume (ppbv) to about
1,789 ppbv by 2007.
The overall warming from 1850 to the end of the 20th century was
equivalent to about 2.5 W/m; CO2 contributed around 60 per cent of this
figure and CH4 about 25 per cent, with N2O and halocarbons providing the
remainder. This has resulted in Earths average temperature increasing from
15.5C to 16.2C in the last 100 years. The warming effect that would result
from a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels is estimated to be 4 W/m.

Aerosols in the Atmosphere

Atmospheric aerosols are able to alter climate in two important ways:
1. They scatter and absorb solar and infrared radiation
2. They may change the microphysical and chemical properties of clouds
and possibly their lifetime and extent.
The scattering of solar radiation acts to cool the planet, while absorption of
solar radiation by aerosols warms the air directly instead of allowing sunlight
to be absorbed by the surface of the Earth.

Human activity contributes to the amount of aerosols in the

atmosphere in several ways.
Dust is often a bi-product of agricultural processes.

Biomass burning produces a combination of organic droplets and soot


Industrial processes produce a wide variety of aerosols depending on

what is being burned or produced in the manufacturing process.

Exhaust emissions from transport generate a rich cocktail of pollutants

that are either aerosols from the outset, or are converted by chemical
reactions in the atmosphere to form aerosols.

The concentrations of aerosols are about three times higher in the Northern
Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere. This higher concentration is
estimated to result in radiation forcing that is about 50 per cent higher for
the Northern Hemisphere.

Land use change

Land-use changes (e.g. cutting down forests to create farmland) have led to
changes in the amount of sunlight reflected from the ground back into space
(the surface albedo). The scale of these changes is estimated to be about
one-fifth of the forcing on the global climate due to changes in emissions of
greenhouse gases. About half of the land use changes are estimated to have
occurred during the industrial era, much of it due to replacement of forests
by agricultural cropping and grazing lands over Eurasia and North America.
The largest effect of deforestation is estimated to be at high latitudes where
the albedo of snow-covered land, previously forested, has increased. This is
because snow on trees reflects only about half of the sunlight falling on it,
whereas snow-covered open ground reflects about two-thirds.
Overall, the increased albedo over Eurasian and North American agricultural
regions has had a cooling effect.
Other significant changes in the land surface resulting from human activities
include tropical deforestation which changes evapotranspiration rates (the
amount of water vapour put into the atmosphere through evaporation and
transpiration from trees), desertification, which increases surface albedo, and
the general effects of agriculture on soil moisture characteristics. All of these
processes need to be included in climate models.
The earth's climate is dynamic and always changing through a natural cycle.
What the world is more worried about is that the changes that are occurring
today have been speeded up because of man's activities. These changes are
being studied by scientists all over the world who are finding evidence from
tree rings, pollen samples, ice cores, and sea sediments. The causes of
climate change can be divided into two categories - those that are due to


There are a number of natural factors responsible for climate change. Some
of the more prominent ones are continental drift, volcanoes, ocean currents,
the earth's tilt, and comets and meteorites. Let's look at them in a little
Continental drift
You may have noticed something peculiar about South America and Africa on
a map of the world - don't they seem to fit into each other like pieces in a
jigsaw puzzle?

About 200 million years ago they were joined together! Scientists believe
that back then, the earth was not as we see it today, but the continents were
all part of one large landmass. Proof of this comes from the similarity
between plant and animal fossils and broad belts of rocks found on the
eastern coastline of South America and western coastline of Africa, which are
now widely separated by the Atlantic Ocean. The discovery of fossils of
tropical plants (in the form of coal deposits) in Antarctica has led to the
conclusion that this frozen land at some time in the past, must have been
situated closer to the equator, where the climate was tropical, with swamps
and plenty of lush vegetation.
The continents that we are familiar with today were formed when the
landmass began gradually drifting apart, millions of years back. This drift
also had an impact on the climate because it changed the physical features
of the landmass, their position and the position of water bodies. The
separation of the landmasses changed the flow of ocean currents and winds,
which affected the climate. This drift of the continents continues even today;
the Himalayan range is rising by about 1 mm (millimeter) every year
because the Indian land mass is moving towards the Asian land mass, slowly
but steadily.
When a volcano erupts it throws out large volumes of sulphur dioxide (SO2),
water vapour, dust, and ash into the atmosphere. Although the volcanic
activity may last only a few days, yet the large volumes of gases and ash can
influence climatic patterns for years. Millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide gas
can reach the upper levels of the atmosphere (called the stratosphere) from
a major eruption. The gases and dust particles partially block the incoming
rays of the sun, leading to cooling. Sulphur dioxide combines with water to
form tiny droplets of sulphuric acid. These droplets are so small that many of
them can stay aloft for several years. They are efficient reflectors of sunlight,
and screen the ground from some of the energy that it would ordinarily
receive from the sun. Winds in the upper levels of the atmopshere, called the
stratosphere, carry the aerosols rapidly around the globe in either an
easterly or westerly direction. Movement of aerosols north and south is
always much slower. This should give you some idea of the ways by which
cooling can be brought about for a few years after a major volcanic eruption.
Mount Pinatoba, in the Philippine islands erupted in April 1991 emitting
thousands of tonnes of gases into the atmosphere. Volcanic eruptions of this
magnitude can reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth's
surface, lowering temperatures in the lower levels of the atmosphere (called

the troposphere), and changing atmospheric circulation patterns. The extent

to which this occurs is an ongoing debate.
Another striking example was in the year 1816, often referred to as "the year
without a summer." Significant weather-related disruptions occurred in New
England and in Western Europe with killing summer frosts in the United
States and Canada. These strange phenomena were attributed to a major
eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia, in 1815.
The earth's tilt
The earth makes one full orbit around the sun each year. It is tilted at an
angle of 23.5 to the perpendicular plane of its orbital path. For one half of
the year when it is summer, the northern hemisphere tilts towards the sun.
In the other half when it is winter, the earth is tilted away from the sun. If
there was no tilt we would not have experienced seasons. Changes in the tilt
of the earth can affect the severity of the seasons - more tilt means warmer
summers and colder winters; less tilt means cooler summers and milder
The Earth's orbit is somewhat elliptical, which means that the distance
between the earth and the Sun varies over the course of a year. We usually
think of the earth's axis as being fixed, after all, it always seems to point
toward Polaris (also known as the Pole Star and the North Star). Actually, it is
not quite constant: the axis does move, at the rate of a little more than a
half-degree each century. So Polaris has not always been, and will not always
be, the star pointing to the North. When the pyramids were built, around
2500 BC, the pole was near the star Thuban (Alpha Draconis). This gradual
change in the direction of the earth's axis, called precession is responsible
for changes in the climate.
Ocean currents
The oceans are a major component of the climate system. They cover about
71% of the Earth and absorb about twice as much of the sun's radiation as
the atmosphere or the land surface. Ocean currents move vast amounts of
heat across the planet - roughly the same amount as the atmosphere does.
But the oceans are surrounded by land masses, so heat transport through
the water is through channels.
Winds push horizontally against the sea surface and drive ocean current
Certain parts of the world are influenced by ocean currents more than others.
The coast of Peru and other adjoining regions are directly influenced by the
Humboldt current that flows along the coastline of Peru. The El Nio event in

the Pacific Ocean can affect climatic conditions all over the world.
Another region that is strongly influenced by ocean currents is the North
Atlantic. If we compare places at the same latitude in Europe and North
America the effect is immediately obvious. Take a closer look at this example
- some parts of coastal Norway have an average temperature of -2C in
January and 14C in July; while places at the same latitude on the Pacific
coast of Alaska are far colder: -15C in January and only 10C in July. The
warm current along the Norewgian coast keeps much of the GreenlandNorwegian Sea free of ice even in winter. The rest of the Arctic Ocean, even
though it is much further south, remains frozen.
Ocean currents have been known to change direction or slow down. Much of
the heat that escapes from the oceans is in the form of water vapour, the
most abundant greenhouse gas on Earth. Yet, water vapor also contributes to
the formation of clouds, which shade the surface and have a net cooling
Any or all of these phenomena can have an impact on the climate, as is
believed to have happened at the end of the last Ice Age, about 14,000 years
Human causes
The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century saw the large-scale use of fossil
fuels for industrial activities. These industries created jobs and over the
years, people moved from rural areas to the cities. This trend is continuing
even today. More and more land that was covered with vegetation has been
cleared to make way for houses. Natural resources are being used
extensively for construction, industries, transport, and consumption.
Consumerism (our increasing want for material things) has increased by
leaps and bounds, creating mountains of waste. Also, our population has
increased to an incredible extent.
All this has contributed to a rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas supply most of the energy
needed to run vehicles, generate electricity for industries, households, etc.
The energy sector is responsible for about of the carbon dioxide emissions,
1/5 of the methane emissions and a large quantity of nitrous oxide. It also
produces nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide (CO) which are not
greenhouse gases but do have an influence on the chemical cycles in the
atmosphere that produce or destroy greenhouse gases.

Greenhouse gases and their sources

Carbon dioxide is undoubtedly, the most important greenhouse gas in the
atmosphere. Changes in land use pattern, deforestation, land clearing,
agriculture, and other activities have all led to a rise in the emission of
carbon dioxide.
Methane is another important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. About of
all methane emissions are said to come from domesticated animals such as
dairy cows, goats, pigs, buffaloes, camels, horses, and sheep. These animals
produce methane during the cud-chewing process. Methane is also released
from rice or paddy fields that are flooded during the sowing and maturing
periods. When soil is covered with water it becomes anaerobic or lacking in
oxygen. Under such conditions, methane-producing bacteria and other
organisms decompose organic matter in the soil to form methane. Nearly
90% of the paddy-growing area in the world is found in Asia, as rice is the
staple food there. China and India, between them, have 80-90% of the
world's rice-growing areas.
Methane is also emitted from landfills and other waste dumps. If the waste is
put into anincinerator or burnt in the open, carbon dioxide is emitted.
Methane is also emitted during the process of oil drilling, coal mining and
also from leaking gas pipelines (due to accidents and poor maintenance of
A large amount of nitrous oxide emission has been attributed to fertilizer
application. This in turn depends on the type of fertilizer that is used, how
and when it is used and the methods of tilling that are followed.
Contributions are also made by leguminous plants, such as beans and pulses
that add nitrogen to the soil.
How we all contribute every day
All of us in our daily lives contribute our bit to this change in the climate.
Give these points a good, serious thought:
- Electricity is the main source of power in urban areas. All our gadgets run
on electricity generated mainly from thermal power plants. These thermal
power plants are run on fossil fuels (mostly coal) and are responsible for the
emission of huge amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
- Cars, buses, and trucks are the principal ways by which goods and people
are transported in most of our cities. These are run mainly on petrol or
diesel, both fossil fuels.
- We generate large quantities of waste in the form of plastics that remain in
the environment for many years and cause damage.

- We use a huge quantity of paper in our work at schools and in offices. Have
we ever thought about the number of trees that we use in a day?
- Timber is used in large quantities for construction of houses, which means
that large areas of forest have to be cut down.
- A growing population has meant more and more mouths to feed. Because
the land area available for agriculture is limited (and in fact, is actually
shrinking as a result of ecological degradation!), high-yielding varieties of
crop are being grown to increase the agricultural output from a given area of
land. However, such high-yielding varieties of crops require large quantities
of fertilizers; and more fertilizer means more emissions of nitrous oxide, both
from the field into which it is put and the fertilizer industry that makes it.
Pollution also results from the run-off of fertilizer into water bodies.