Global warming

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Global mean land-ocean temperature change from 1880–2013, relative to the 1951–1980 mean. The black line is the annual mean and the red line is the 5-year running mean. The green bars show uncertainty estimates. Source: NASA GISS. (click for larger image)
Map of temperature changes across the world
key to above map of temperature changes
The map shows the 10-year average (2000–2009) global mean temperature anomaly relative to the 1951–1980 mean. The largest temperature increases are in the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula. Source: NASA Earth Observatory[1]
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Fossil fuel related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions compared to five of the IPCC's "SRES" emissions scenarios. The dips are related to global recessions. Image source: Skeptical Science.

Global warming is the unequivocal and continuing rise in the average temperature of Earth's climate system.[2] Since 1971, 90% of the increased energy has been stored in the oceans, mostly in the 0 to 700m region.[3] Despite the oceans' dominant role in energy storage, the term "global warming" is also used to refer to increases in average temperature of the air and sea at Earth's surface.[4] Since the early 20th century, the global air and sea surface temperature has increased about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F), with about two-thirds of the increase occurring since 1980.[5] Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850.[6]

Scientific understanding of the cause of global warming has been increasing. In its fourth assessment (AR4 2007) of the relevant scientific literature, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that scientists were more than 90% certain that most of global warming was being caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities.[7][8][9] In 2010 that finding was recognized by the national science academies of all major industrialized nations.[10]

Affirming these findings in 2013, the IPCC stated that the largest driver of global warming is carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel combustion, cement production, and land use changes such as deforestation.[12] Its 2013 report states:

Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since AR4. It is extremely likely (95-100%) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. - IPCC AR5 WG1 Summary for Policymakers[13]

climate model projections were summarized in the 2013 Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They indicated that during the 21st century the global surface temperature is likely to rise a further 0.3 to 1.7 °C (0.5 to 3.1 °F) for their lowest emissions scenario using stringent mitigation and 2.6 to 4.8 °C (4.7 to 8.6 °F) for their highest.[14] The ranges of these estimates arise from the use of models with differing sensitivity to greenhouse gas concentrations.[15][16]

Future climate change and associated impacts will vary from region to region around the globe.[17][18] The effects of an increase in global temperature include a rise in sea levels and a change in the amount and pattern of precipitation, as well as a probable expansion of subtropical deserts.[19] Warming is expected to be strongest in the Arctic, with the continuing retreat of glaciers, permafrost and sea ice. Other likely effects of the warming include more frequent extreme weather events including heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall; ocean acidification; and species extinctions due to shifting temperature regimes. Effects significant to humans include the threat to food security from decreasing crop yields and the loss of habitat from inundation.[20][21]

Proposed policy responses to global warming include mitigation by emissions reduction, adaptation to its effects, building systems resilient to its effects, and possible future climate engineering. Most countries are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),[22] whose ultimate objective is to prevent dangerous anthropogenic (i.e., human-induced) climate change.[23] Parties to the UNFCCC have adopted a range of policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions[24][25][26][27] and to assist in adaptation to global warming.[24][27][28][29] Parties to the UNFCCC have agreed that deep cuts in emissions are required,[30] and that future global warming should be limited to below 2.0 °C (3.6 °F) relative to the pre-industrial level.[30][a] Reports published in 2011 by the United Nations Environment Programme[31] and the International Energy Agency[32] suggest that efforts as of the early 21st century to reduce emissions may be inadequate to meet the UNFCCC's 2 °C target.

Emissions of greenhouse gases grew 2.2% per year between 2000 and 2010, compared with 1.3% per year from 1970 to 2000.[33]

Observed temperature changes[edit]

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Two millennia of mean surface temperatures according to different reconstructions from Climate proxies, each smoothed on a decadal scale, with the instrumental temperature record overlaid in black.
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NOAA graph of Global Annual Temperature Anomalies 1950–2012, showing the El Niño-Southern Oscillation
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Earth has been in radiative imbalance since at least the 1970s, where less energy leaves the atmosphere than enters it. Most of this extra energy has been absorbed by the oceans.[34] It is very likely that human activities substantially contributed to this increase in ocean heat content.[35]

The Earth's average surface temperature rose by 0.74±0.18 °C over the period 1906–2005. The rate of warming over the last half of that period was almost double that for the period as a whole (0.13±0.03 °C per decade, versus 0.07±0.02 °C per decade). The urban heat island effect is very small, estimated to account for less than 0.002 °C of warming per decade since 1900.[36] Temperatures in the lower troposphere have increased between 0.13 and 0.22 °C (0.22 and 0.4 °F) per decade since 1979, according to satellite temperature measurements. Climate proxies show the temperature to have been relatively stable over the one or two thousand years before 1850, with regionally varying fluctuations such as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age.[37]

The warming that is evident in the instrumental temperature record is consistent with a wide range of observations, as documented by many independent scientific groups.[38] Examples include sea level rise (due to melting of snow and ice and because water above 3.98 °C expands as it warms),[39] widespread melting of snow and ice,[40] increased heat content of the oceans,[38] increased humidity,[38] and the earlier timing of spring events,[41] e.g., the flowering of plants.[42] The probability that these changes could have occurred by chance is virtually zero.[38]

Recent estimates by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and the National Climatic Data Center show that 2005 and 2010 tied for the planet's warmest year since reliable, widespread instrumental measurements became available in the late 19th century, exceeding 1998 by a few hundredths of a degree.[43][44][45] Estimates by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) show 2005 as the second warmest year, behind 1998 with 2003 and 2010 tied for third warmest year, however, "the error estimate for individual years ... is at least ten times larger than the differences between these three years."[46] The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) WMO statement on the status of the global climate in 2010 explains that, "The 2010 nominal value of +0.53 °C ranks just ahead of those of 2005 (+0.52 °C) and 1998 (+0.51 °C), although the differences between the three years are not statistically significant..."[47] Every year from 1986 to 2013 has seen annual average global land and ocean surface temperatures above the 1961–1990 average.[48][49]

Surface temperatures in 1998 were unusually warm because global temperatures are affected by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and the strongest El Niño in the past century occurred during that year.[50] Global temperature is subject to short-term fluctuations that overlay long term trends and can temporarily mask them. The relative stability in surface temperature from 2002 to 2009—which has been dubbed the global warming hiatus by the media and some scientists—[51] is consistent with such an episode.[52][53] 2010 was also an El Niño year. On the low swing of the oscillation, 2011 as a La Niña year was cooler but it was still the 11th warmest year since records began in 1880. Of the 13 warmest years since 1880, 11 were the years from 2001 to 2011. Over the more recent record, 2011 was the warmest La Niña year in the period from 1950 to 2011, and was close to 1997 which was not at the lowest point of the cycle.[54]

Temperature changes vary over the globe. Since 1979, land temperatures have increased about twice as fast as ocean temperatures (0.25 °C per decade against 0.13 °C per decade).[55] Ocean temperatures increase more slowly than land temperatures because of the larger effective heat capacity of the oceans and because the ocean loses more heat by evaporation.[56] The Northern Hemisphere is also naturally warmer than the southern hemisphere mainly because of meridional heat transport in the oceans which has a differential of about 0.9 petawatts northwards,[57] with an additional contribution from the albedo differences between the polar regions. Since the beginning of industrialisation the temperature difference between the hemispheres has increased due to melting of sea ice and snow in the North.[58] Average arctic temperatures have been increasing at almost twice the rate of the rest of the world in the past 100 years; however arctic temperatures are also highly variable.[59] Although more greenhouse gases are emitted in the Northern than Southern Hemisphere this does not contribute to the difference in warming because the major greenhouse gases persist long enough to mix between hemispheres.[60]

The thermal inertia of the oceans and slow responses of other indirect effects mean that climate can take centuries or longer to adjust to changes in forcing. Climate commitment studies indicate that even if greenhouse gases were stabilized at year 2000 levels, a further warming of about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) would still occur.[61]

Initial causes of temperature changes (external forcings)[edit]

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Greenhouse effect schematic showing energy flows between space, the atmosphere, and Earth's surface. Energy exchanges are expressed in watts per square meter (W/m2).
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This graph, known as the Keeling Curve, shows the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations from 1958–2013. Monthly CO2 measurements display seasonal oscillations in an upward trend; each year's maximum occurs during the Northern Hemisphere's late spring, and declines during its growing season as plants remove some atmospheric CO2.

The climate system can respond to changes in external forcings.[62][63] External forcings can "push" the climate in the direction of warming or cooling.[64] Examples of external forcings include changes in atmospheric composition (e.g., increased concentrations of greenhouse gases), solar luminosity, volcanic eruptions, and variations in Earth's orbit around the Sun.[65]Orbital cycles vary slowly over tens of thousands of years and at present are in an overall cooling trend which would be expected to lead towards a glacial period within the current ice age, but the 20th century instrumental temperature record shows a sudden rise in global temperatures.[66]

Greenhouse gases[edit]

The greenhouse effect is the process by which absorption and emission of infrared radiation by gases in a planet's atmosphere warm its lower atmosphere and surface. It was proposed by Joseph Fourier in 1824, discovered in 1860 by John Tyndall,[67] was first investigated quantitatively by Svante Arrhenius in 1896,[68] and was developed in the 1930s through 1960s by Guy Stewart Callendar.[69]

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Annual world greenhouse gas emissions, in 2005, by sector.
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Percentage share of global cumulative energy-related CO2 emissions between 1751 and 2012 across different regions.

On Earth, naturally occurring amounts of greenhouse gases have a mean warming effect of about 33 °C (59 °F).[70][b][70] Without the Earth's atmosphere, the temperature across almost the entire surface of the Earth would be below freezing.[71] The major greenhouse gases are water vapor, which causes about 36–70% of the greenhouse effect; carbon dioxide (CO2), which causes 9–26%; methane (CH4), which causes 4–9%; and ozone (O3), which causes 3–7%.[72][73][74] Clouds also affect the radiation balance through cloud forcings similar to greenhouse gases.

Human activity since the Industrial Revolution has increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to increased radiative forcing from CO2, methane, tropospheric ozone, CFCs and nitrous oxide. According to work published in 2007, the concentrations of CO2 and methane have increased by 36% and 148% respectively since 1750.[75] These levels are much higher than at any time during the last 800,000 years, the period for which reliable data has been extracted from ice cores.[76][77][78][79] Less direct geological evidence indicates that CO2 values higher than this were last seen about 20 million years ago.[80]Fossil fuel burning has produced about three-quarters of the increase in CO2 from human activity over the past 20 years. The rest of this increase is caused mostly by changes in land-use, particularly deforestation.[81] Estimates of global CO2 emissions in 2011 from fossil fuel combustion, including cement production and gas flaring, was 34.8 billion tonnes (9.5 ± 0.5 PgC), an increase of 54% above emissions in 1990. Coal burning was responsible for 43% of the total emissions, oil 34%, gas 18%, cement 4.9% and gas flaring 0.7%[82] In May 2013, it was reported that readings for CO2 taken at the world's primary benchmark site in Mauna Loa surpassed 400 ppm. According to professor Brian Hoskins, this is likely the first time CO2 levels have been this high for about 4.5 million years.[83][84]

Over the last three decades of the 20th century, gross domestic product per capita and population growth were the main drivers of increases in greenhouse gas emissions.[85] CO2 emissions are continuing to rise due to the burning of fossil fuels and land-use change.[86][87]:71 Emissions can be attributed to different regions, e.g., see the figure opposite. Attribution of emissions due to land-use change is a controversial issue.[88][89]:289

Emissions scenarios, estimates of changes in future emission levels of greenhouse gases, have been projected that depend upon uncertain economic, sociological, technological, and natural developments.[90] In most scenarios, emissions continue to rise over the century, while in a few, emissions are reduced.[91][92] Fossil fuel reserves are abundant, and will not limit carbon emissions in the 21st century.[93] Emission scenarios, combined with modelling of the carbon cycle, have been used to produce estimates of how atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases might change in the future. Using the six IPCC SRES "marker" scenarios, models suggest that by the year 2100, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 could range between 541 and 970 ppm.[94] This is 90–250% above the concentration in the year 1750.

The popular media and the public often confuse global warming with ozone depletion, i.e., the destruction of stratospheric ozone by chlorofluorocarbons.[95][96] Although there are a few areas of linkage, the relationship between the two is not strong. Reduced stratospheric ozone has had a slight cooling influence on surface temperatures, while increased tropospheric ozone has had a somewhat larger warming effect.[97]

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Atmospheric CO2 concentration from 650,000 years ago to near present, using ice core proxy data and direct measurements

Particulates and soot[edit]

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Ship tracks can be seen as lines in these clouds over the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast of the United States. The climatic impacts from particulate forcing could have a large effect on climate through the indirect effect.

Global dimming, a gradual reduction in the amount of global direct irradiance at the Earth's surface, was observed from 1961 until at least 1990.[98] The main cause of this dimming is particulates produced by volcanoes and human made pollutants, which exerts a cooling effect by increasing the reflection of incoming sunlight. The effects of the products of fossil fuel combustion – CO2 and aerosols – have partially offset one another in recent decades, so that net warming has been due to the increase in non-CO2 greenhouse gases such as methane.[99] Radiative forcing due to particulates is temporally limited due to wet deposition which causes them to have an atmospheric lifetime of one week. Carbon dioxide has a lifetime of a century or more, and as such, changes in particulate concentrations will only delay climate changes due to carbon dioxide.[100] Black carbon is second only to carbon dioxide for its contribution to global warming.[101] In addition to their direct effect by scattering and absorbing solar radiation, particulates have indirect effects on the Earth's radiation budget. Sulfates act as cloud condensation nuclei and thus lead to clouds that have more and smaller cloud droplets. These clouds reflect solar radiation more efficiently than clouds with fewer and larger droplets, known as the Twomey effect.[102] This effect also causes droplets to be of more uniform size, which reduces growth of raindrops and makes the cloud more reflective to incoming sunlight, known as the Albrecht effect.[103] Indirect effects are most noticeable in marine stratiform clouds, and have very little radiative effect on convective clouds. Indirect effects of particulates represent the largest uncertainty in radiative forcing.[104]

Soot may cool or warm the surface, depending on whether it is airborne or deposited. Atmospheric soot directly absorbs solar radiation, which heats the atmosphere and cools the surface. In isolated areas with high soot production, such as rural India, as much as 50% of surface warming due to greenhouse gases may be masked by atmospheric brown clouds.[105] When deposited, especially on glaciers or on ice in arctic regions, the lower surface albedo can also directly heat the surface.[106] The influences of particulates, including black carbon, are most pronounced in the tropics and sub-tropics, particularly in Asia, while the effects of greenhouse gases are dominant in the extratropics and southern hemisphere.[107]

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Satellite observations of Total Solar Irradiance from 1979–2006.
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Contribution of natural factors and human activities to radiative forcing of climate change.[108] Radiative forcing values are for the year 2005, relative to the pre-industrial era (1750).[108] The contribution of solar irradiance to radiative forcing is 5% the value of the combined radiative forcing due to increases in the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.[109]

Solar activity[edit]

Since 1978, output from the Sun has been precisely measured by satellites.[110] These measurements indicate that the Sun's output has not increased since 1978, so the warming during the past 30 years cannot be attributed to an increase in solar energy reaching the Earth.

Climate models have been used to examine the role of the sun in recent climate change.[111] Models are unable to reproduce the rapid warming observed in recent decades when they only take into account variations in solar output and volcanic activity. Models are, however, able to simulate the observed 20th century changes in temperature when they include all of the most important external forcings, including human influences and natural forcings.

Another line of evidence against the sun having caused recent climate change comes from looking at how temperatures at different levels in the Earth's atmosphere have changed.[112] Models and observations show that greenhouse warming results in warming of the lower atmosphere (called the troposphere) but cooling of the upper atmosphere (called the stratosphere).[113][114]Depletion of the ozone layer by chemical refrigerants has also resulted in a strong cooling effect in the stratosphere. If the sun were responsible for observed warming, warming of both the troposphere and stratosphere would be expected.[115]


Sea ice, shown here in Nunavut, in northern Canada, reflects more sunshine, while open ocean absorbs more, accelerating melting.

The climate system includes a range of feedbacks, which alter the response of the system to changes in external forcings. Positive feedbacks increase the response of the climate system to an initial forcing, while negative feedbacks reduce the response of the climate system to an initial forcing.[116]

There are a range of feedbacks in the climate system, including water vapor, changes in ice-albedo (snow and ice cover affect how much the Earth's surface absorbs or reflects incoming sunlight), clouds, and changes in the Earth's carbon cycle (e.g., the release of carbon from soil).[117] The main negative feedback is the energy which the Earth's surface radiates into space as infrared radiation.[118] According to the Stefan-Boltzmann law, if the absolute temperature (as measured in kelvin) doubles[c], radiated energy increases by a factor of 16 (2 to the 4th power).[119]

Feedbacks are an important factor in determining the sensitivity of the climate system to increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Other factors being equal, a higher climate sensitivity means that more warming will occur for a given increase in greenhouse gas forcing.[120] Uncertainty over the effect of feedbacks is a major reason why different climate models project different magnitudes of warming for a given forcing scenario. More research is needed to understand the role of clouds[116] and carbon cycle feedbacks in climate projections.[121]

The IPCC projections given in the lede span the "likely" range (greater than 66% probability, based on expert judgement)[7] for the selected emissions scenarios. However, the IPCC's projections do not reflect the full range of uncertainty.[122] The lower end of the "likely" range appears to be better constrained than the upper end of the "likely" range.[122]

Climate models[edit]

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Calculations of global warming prepared in or before 2001 from a range of climate models under the SRES A2 emissions scenario, which assumes no action is taken to reduce emissions and regionally divided economic development.
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Projected change in annual mean surface air temperature from the late 20th century to the middle 21st century, based on a medium emissions scenario (SRES A1B).[123] This scenario assumes that no future policies are adopted to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Image credit: NOAA GFDL.[124]

A climate model is a computerized representation of the five components of the climate system: Atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, land surface, and biosphere.[125] Such models are based on scientific disciplines such as fluid dynamics, thermodynamics as well as physical processes such as radiative transfer. The models take into account various components, such as local air movement, temperature, clouds, and other atmospheric properties; ocean temperature, salt content, and circulation; ice cover on land and sea; the transfer of heat and moisture from soil and vegetation to the atmosphere; chemical and biological processes; solar variability and others.

Although researchers attempt to include as many processes as possible, simplifications of the actual climate system are inevitable because of the constraints of available computer power and limitations in knowledge of the climate system. Results from models can also vary due to different greenhouse gas inputs and the model's climate sensitivity. For example, the uncertainty in IPCC's 2007 projections is caused by (1) the use of multiple models[122] with differing sensitivity to greenhouse gas concentrations,[126] (2) the use of differing estimates of humanities' future greenhouse gas emissions,[122] (3) any additional emissions from climate feedbacks that were not included in the models IPCC used to prepare its report, i.e., greenhouse gas releases from permafrost.[127]

The models do not assume the climate will warm due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases. Instead the models predict how greenhouse gases will interact with radiative transfer and other physical processes. One of the mathematical results of these complex equations is a prediction whether warming or cooling will occur.[128]

Recent research has called special attention to the need to refine models with respect to the effect of clouds[129] and the carbon cycle.[130][131][132]

Models are also used to help investigate the causes of recent climate change by comparing the observed changes to those that the models project from various natural and human-derived causes. Although these models do not unambiguously attribute the warming that occurred from approximately 1910 to 1945 to either natural variation or human effects, they do indicate that the warming since 1970 is dominated by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.[65]

The physical realism of models is tested by examining their ability to simulate contemporary or past climates.[133] Climate models produce a good match to observations of global temperature changes over the last century, but do not simulate all aspects of climate.[134] Not all effects of global warming are accurately predicted by the climate models used by the IPCC. Observed Arctic shrinkage has been faster than that predicted.[135] Precipitation increased proportional to atmospheric humidity, and hence significantly faster than global climate models predict.[136][137]

Observed and expected environmental effects[edit]

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Projections of global mean sea level rise by Parris and others.[138] Probabilities have not been assigned to these projections.[139] Therefore, none of these projections should be interpreted as a "best estimate" of future sea level rise. Image credit: NOAA.

"Detection" is the process of demonstrating that climate has changed in some defined statistical sense, without providing a reason for that change. Detection does not imply attribution of the detected change to a particular cause. "Attribution" of causes of climate change is the process of establishing the most likely causes for the detected change with some defined level of confidence.[140] Detection and attribution may also be applied to observed changes in physical, ecological and social systems.[141]

Natural systems[edit]

Global warming has been detected in a number of natural systems. Some of these changes are described in the section on observed temperature changes, e.g., sea level rise and widespread decreases in snow and ice extent.[142] Anthropogenic forcing has likely contributed to some of the observed changes, including sea level rise, changes in climate extremes (such as the number of warm and cold days), declines in Arctic sea ice extent, and to glacier retreat.[143]

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Sparse records indicate that glaciers have been retreating since the early 1800s. In the 1950s measurements began that allow the monitoring of glacial mass balance, reported to the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)

Over the 21st century,[144] the IPCC projects that global mean sea level could rise by 0.18–0.59 m.[145] The IPCC do not provide a best estimate of global mean sea level rise, and their upper estimate of 59 cm is not an upper-bound, i.e., global mean sea level could rise by more than 59 cm by 2100.[145] The IPCC's projections are conservative, and may underestimate future sea level rise.[146] Over the 21st century, Parris and others[138] suggest that global mean sea level could rise by 0.2 to 2.0 m (0.7–6.6 ft), relative to mean sea level in 1992.

Widespread coastal flooding would be expected if several degrees of warming is sustained for millennia.[147] For example, sustained global warming of more than 2 °C (relative to pre-industrial levels) could lead to eventual sea level rise of around 1 to 4 m due to thermal expansion of sea water and the melting of glaciers and small ice caps.[147] Melting of the Greenland ice sheet could contribute an additional 4 to 7.5 m over many thousands of years.[147]

Changes in regional climate are expected to include greater warming over land, with most warming at high northern latitudes, and least warming over the Southern Ocean and parts of the North Atlantic Ocean.[148] During the 21st century, glaciers[149] and snow cover[150] are projected to continue their widespread retreat. Projections of declines in Arctic sea ice vary.[151][152] Recent projections suggest that Arctic summers could be ice-free (defined as ice extent less than 1 million square km) as early as 2025-2030.[153]

Future changes in precipitation are expected to follow existing trends, with reduced precipitation over subtropical land areas, and increased precipitation at subpolar latitudes and some equatorial regions.[154] Projections suggest a probable increase in the frequency and severity of some extreme weather events, such as heat waves.[155]

Ecological systems[edit]

In terrestrial ecosystems, the earlier timing of spring events, and poleward and upward shifts in plant and animal ranges, have been linked with high confidence to recent warming.[142] Future climate change is expected to particularly affect certain ecosystems, including tundra, mangroves, and coral reefs.[148] It is expected that most ecosystems will be affected by higher atmospheric CO2 levels, combined with higher global temperatures.[156] Overall, it is expected that climate change will result in the extinction of many species and reduced diversity of ecosystems.[157]

Increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations have led to an increase in ocean acidity.[158] Dissolved CO2 increases ocean acidity, which is measured by lower pH values.[158] Between 1750 to 2000, surface-ocean pH has decreased by ≈0.1, from ≈8.2 to ≈8.1.[159] Surface-ocean pH has probably not been below ≈8.1 during the past 2 million years.[159] Projections suggest that surface-ocean pH could decrease by an additional 0.3–0.4 units by 2100.[160] Future ocean acidification could threaten coral reefs, fisheries, protected species, and other natural resources of value to society.[158][161]

Long-term effects[edit]

On the timescale of centuries to millennia, the magnitude of global warming will be determined primarily by anthropogenic CO2 emissions.[162] This is due to carbon dioxide's very long lifetime in the atmosphere.[162]

Stabilizing global average temperature would require reductions in anthropogenic CO2 emissions.[162] Reductions in emissions of non-CO2 anthropogenic GHGs (e.g., methane and nitrous oxide) would also be necessary.[162][163] For CO2, anthropogenic emissions would need to be reduced by more than 80% relative to their peak level.[162] Even if this were to be achieved, global average temperatures would remain close to their highest level for many centuries.[162]

Large-scale and abrupt impacts[edit]

Climate change could result in global, large-scale changes in natural and social systems.[164] Two examples are ocean acidification caused by increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and the long-term melting of ice sheets, which contributes to sea level rise.[165]

Some large-scale changes could occur abruptly, i.e., over a short time period, and might also be irreversible. An example of abrupt climate change is the rapid release of methane and carbon dioxide from permafrost, which would lead to amplified global warming.[166][167] Scientific understanding of abrupt climate change is generally poor.[168] However, the probability of abrupt changes appears to be very low.[166][169] Factors that may increase the probability of abrupt climate change include higher magnitudes of global warming, warming that occurs more rapidly, and warming that is sustained over longer time periods.[169]

Observed and expected effects on social systems[edit]

The effects of climate change on human systems, mostly due to warming or shifts in precipitation patterns, or both, have been detected worldwide. Production of wheat and maize globally has been impacted by climate change. While crop production has increased in some mid-latitude regions such as the UK and Northeast China, economic losses due to extreme weather events have increased globally. There has been a shift from cold- to heat-related mortality in some regions as a result of warming. Livelihoods of indigenous peoples of the Arctic have been altered by climate change, and there is emerging evidence of climate change impacts on livelihoods of indigenous peoples in other regions. Regional impacts of climate change are now observable at more locations than before, on all continents and across ocean regions.[170] The future social impacts of climate change will be uneven.[171] Many risks are expected to increase with higher magnitudes of global warming.[172] All regions are at risk of experiencing negative impacts.[173] Low-latitude, less developed areas face the greatest risk.[174] Examples of impacts include:

  • Food: Crop production will probably be negatively affected in low latitude countries, while effects at northern latitudes may be positive or negative.[175] Global warming of around 4.6 °C relative to pre-industrial levels could pose a large risk to global and regional food security.[176]
  • Health: Generally impacts will be more negative than positive.[177] Impacts include: the effects of extreme weather, leading to injury and loss of life;[178] and indirect effects, such as undernutrition brought on by crop failures.[179]

Food security[edit]

Under present trends, by 2030, maize production in Southern Africa could decrease by up to 30%, while rice, millet and maize in South Asia could decrease by up to 10%.[180] By 2080, yields in developing countries could decrease by 10% to 25% on average while India could see a drop of 30% to 40%.[181] By 2100, while the population of three billion is expected to double, rice and maize yields in the tropics are expected to decrease by 20–40% because of higher temperatures without accounting for the decrease in yields as a result of soil moisture and water supplies stressed by rising temperatures.[182]

Future warming of around 3 °C (by 2100, relative to 1990–2000) could result in increased crop yields in mid- and high-latitude areas, but in low-latitude areas, yields could decline, increasing the risk of malnutrition.[183] A similar regional pattern of net benefits and costs could occur for economic (market-sector) effects.[184] Warming above 3 °C could result in crop yields falling in temperate regions, leading to a reduction in global food production.[185]

Habitat inundation[edit]

Map showing where natural disasters caused/aggravated by global warming may occur.

In small islands and mega deltas, inundation as a result of sea level rise is expected to threaten vital infrastructure and human settlements.[186][187] This could lead to issues of homelessness in countries with low lying areas such as Bangladesh, as well as statelessness for populations in countries such as the Maldives and Tuvalu.[188]

Proposed policy responses to global warming[edit]

There are different views over what the appropriate policy response to climate change should be.[189] These competing views weigh the benefits of limiting emissions of greenhouse gases against the costs. In general, it seems likely that climate change will impose greater damages and risks in poorer regions.[190]


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The graph on the right shows three "pathways" to meet the UNFCCC's 2 °C target, labelled "global technology", "decentralised solutions", and "consumption change". Each pathway shows how various measures (e.g., improved energy efficiency, increased use of renewable energy) could contribute to emissions reductions. Image credit: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.[191]

Reducing the amount of future climate change is called mitigation of climate change.[192] The IPCC defines mitigation as activities that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or enhance the capacity of carbon sinks to absorb GHGs from the atmosphere.[193] Studies indicate substantial potential for future reductions in emissions by a combination of emission-reducing activities such as energy conservation, increased energy efficiency, and satisfying more of society's power demands with renewable energy and nuclear energy sources.[194] Climate mitigation also includes acts to enhance natural sinks, such as reforestation.[194]

In order to limit warming to within the lower range described in the IPCC's "Summary Report for Policymakers"[195] it will be necessary to adopt policies that will limit greenhouse gas emissions to one of several significantly different scenarios described in the full report.[196] This will become more and more difficult with each year of increasing volumes of emissions and even more drastic measures will be required in later years to stabilize a desired atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. Energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2010 were the highest in history, breaking the prior record set in 2008.[197]


Other policy responses include adaptation to climate change. Adaptation to climate change may be planned, either in reaction to or anticipation of climate change, or spontaneous, i.e., without government intervention.[198] Planned adaptation is already occurring on a limited basis.[194] The barriers, limits, and costs of future adaptation are not fully understood.[194]

A concept related to adaptation is "adaptive capacity", which is the ability of a system (human, natural or managed) to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes) to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with consequences.[199] Unmitigated climate change (i.e., future climate change without efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions) would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.[200]

Environmental organizations and public figures have emphasized changes in the climate and the risks they entail, while promoting adaptation to changes in infrastructural needs and emissions reductions.[201]

Climate engineering[edit]

Climate engineering (sometimes called by the more expansive term 'geoengineering'), is the deliberate modification of the climate. It has been investigated as a possible response to global warming, e.g. by NASA[202] and the Royal Society.[203] Techniques under research fall generally into the categories solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal, although various other schemes have been suggested. A study from 2014 investigated the most common climate engineering methods and concluded they are either ineffective or have potentially severe side effects and cannot be stopped without causing rapid climate change.[204]

Discourse about global warming[edit]

Political discussion[edit]

refer to caption
Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention refers explicitly to "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations."[205] In order to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of CO
, emissions worldwide would need to be dramatically reduced from their present level.[206]

Most countries are Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).[207] The ultimate objective of the Convention is to prevent dangerous human interference of the climate system.[208] As is stated in the Convention, this requires that GHG concentrations are stabilized in the atmosphere at a level where ecosystems can adapt naturally to climate change, food production is not threatened, and economic development can proceed in a sustainable fashion.[209] The Framework Convention was agreed in 1992, but since then, global emissions have risen.[210] During negotiations, the G77 (a lobbying group in the United Nations representing 133 developing nations)[211]:4 pushed for a mandate requiring developed countries to "[take] the lead" in reducing their emissions.[212] This was justified on the basis that: the developed world's emissions had contributed most to the stock of GHGs in the atmosphere; per-capita emissions (i.e., emissions per head of population) were still relatively low in developing countries; and the emissions of developing countries would grow to meet their development needs.[89]:290 This mandate was sustained in the Kyoto Protocol to the Framework Convention,[89]:290 which entered into legal effect in 2005.[213]

In ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, most developed countries accepted legally binding commitments to limit their emissions. These first-round commitments expired in 2012.[213] US President George W. Bush rejected the treaty on the basis that "it exempts 80% of the world, including major population centers such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the US economy."[211]:5

At the 15th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, held in 2009 at Copenhagen, several UNFCCC Parties produced the Copenhagen Accord.[214] Parties associated with the Accord (140 countries, as of November 2010)[215]:9 aim to limit the future increase in global mean temperature to below 2 °C.[216] A preliminary assessment published in November 2010 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests a possible "emissions gap" between the voluntary pledges made in the Accord and the emissions cuts necessary to have a "likely" (greater than 66% probability) chance of meeting the 2 °C objective.[215]:10–14 The UNEP assessment takes the 2 °C objective as being measured against the pre-industrial global mean temperature level. To having a likely chance of meeting the 2 °C objective, assessed studies generally indicated the need for global emissions to peak before 2020, with substantial declines in emissions thereafter.

The 16th Conference of the Parties (COP16) was held at Cancún in 2010. It produced an agreement, not a binding treaty, that the Parties should take urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet a goal of limiting global warming to 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures. It also recognized the need to consider strengthening the goal to a global average rise of 1.5 °C.[217]

Scientific discussion[edit]

Most scientists agree that humans are contributing to observed climate change.[86][218] A meta study of academic papers concerning global warming, published between 1991 and 2011 and accessible from Web of Knowledge, found that among those whose abstracts expressed a position on the cause of global warming, 97.2% supported the consensus view that it is man made.[219] In an October 2011 paper published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, researchers from George Mason University analyzed the results of a survey of 489 American scientists working in academia, government, and industry. Of those surveyed, 97% agreed that that global temperatures have risen over the past century and 84% agreed that "human-induced greenhouse warming" is now occurring, only 5% disagreeing that human activity is a significant cause of global warming.[220][221] National science academies have called on world leaders for policies to cut global emissions.[222]

In the scientific literature, there is a strong consensus that global surface temperatures have increased in recent decades and that the trend is caused mainly by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. No scientific body of national or international standing disagrees with this view.[223][224]

Discussion by the public and in popular media[edit]

The global warming controversy refers to a variety of disputes, substantially more pronounced in the popular media than in the scientific literature,[225][226] regarding the nature, causes, and consequences of global warming. The disputed issues include the causes of increased global average air temperature, especially since the mid-20th century, whether this warming trend is unprecedented or within normal climatic variations, whether humankind has contributed significantly to it, and whether the increase is wholly or partially an artifact of poor measurements. Additional disputes concern estimates of climate sensitivity, predictions of additional warming, and what the consequences of global warming will be.

From 1990–1997 in the United States, conservative think tanks mobilized to challenge the legitimacy of global warming as a social problem. They challenged the scientific evidence, argued that global warming will have benefits, and asserted that proposed solutions would do more harm than good.[227]

Some people dispute aspects of climate change science.[218][228] Organizations such as the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, conservative commentators, and some companies such as ExxonMobil have challenged IPCC climate change scenarios, funded scientists who disagree with the scientific consensus, and provided their own projections of the economic cost of stricter controls.[229][230][231][232] Some fossil fuel companies have scaled back their efforts in recent years,[233] or called for policies to reduce global warming.[234]

Surveys of public opinion[edit]

Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that the public's belief as to the causes of global warming depends on the wording choice used in the polls.[235]

In 2007–2008 Gallup Polls surveyed 127 countries. Over a third of the world's population was unaware of global warming, with people in developing countries less aware than those in developed, and those in Africa the least aware. Of those aware, Latin America leads in belief that temperature changes are a result of human activities while Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East, and a few countries from the Former Soviet Union lead in the opposite belief.[236] There is a significant contrast of the opinions of the concept and the appropriate response between Europe and the United States. Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University said that "results show the different stages of engagement about global warming on each side of the Atlantic", adding, "The debate in Europe is about what action needs to be taken, while many in the US still debate whether climate change is happening."[237][238] A 2010 poll by the Office for National Statistics found that 75% of UK respondents were at least "fairly convinced" that the world's climate is changing, compared to 87% in a similar survey in 2006.[239] A January 2011 ICM poll in the UK found 83% of respondents viewed climate change as a current or imminent threat, while 14% said it was no threat. Opinion was unchanged from an August 2009 poll asking the same question, though there had been a slight polarisation of opposing views.[240]

By 2010, with 111 countries surveyed, Gallup determined that there was a substantial decrease in the number of Americans and Europeans who viewed global warming as a serious threat. In the US, a little over half the population (53%) now viewed it as a serious concern for either themselves or their families; this was 10% below the 2008 poll (63%). Latin America had the biggest rise in concern, with 73% saying global warming was a serious threat to their families.[241] That global poll also found that people are more likely to attribute global warming to human activities than to natural causes, except in the USA where nearly half (47%) of the population attributed global warming to natural causes.[242]

A March–May 2013 survey by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press polled 39 countries about global threats. According to 54% of those questioned, global warming featured top of the perceived global threats.[243] In a January 2013 survey, Pew found that 69% of Americans say there is solid evidence that the Earth's average temperature has been getting warmer over the past few decades, up six points since November 2011 and 12 points since 2009.[244]


According to Erik M. Conway, global warming became the dominant popular term after June 1988, when NASA climate scientist James Hansen used the term in a testimony to Congress[245] when he said: "global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming."[246] Conway claims that this testimony was widely reported in the media and subsequently global warming became the commonly used term by both the press and in public discourse. However, he also points out that "global climate change" is the more scientifically accurate term, because changes in Earth systems are not limited to surface temperatures.[245]


  1. ^ Earth has already experienced almost 1/2 of the 2.0 °C (3.6 °F) described in the Cancún Agreement. In the last 100 years, Earth's average surface temperature increased by about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F) with about two thirds of the increase occurring over just the last three decades.[5]
  2. ^ The greenhouse effect produces an average worldwide temperature increase of about 33 °C (59 °F) compared to black body predictions without the greenhouse effect, not an average surface temperature of 33 °C (91 °F). The average worldwide surface temperature is about 14 °C (57 °F).
  3. ^ A rise in temperature from 10 °C to 20 °C is not a doubling of absolute temperature; a rise from (273 + 10) K = 283 K to (273 + 20) K = 293 K is an increase of (293 − 283)/283 = 3.5 %.


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


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