Common Questions about Climate Change

Trenberth, K.E., et. al. 1997

WMO, UNEP. 24 pp


This document answers some of the most commonly asked questions about climate change, including whether the Earth has warmed, which human activities are contributing to climate change, what further climatic changes are expected to occur, and what effects these changes may have on humans and the environment. First, however, several issues are clarified: what the Earth's climate is, how climate differs from weather, and what processes influence climate.

Climate is the average weather, including seasonal extremes and variations, either locally, regionally, or across the globe. In any one location, weather can change very rapidly from day to day and from year to year, even within an unchanging climate. These changes involve shifts in, for example, temperatures, precipitation, winds, and clouds. In contrast to weather, climate is generally influenced by slow changes in features like the ocean, the land, the orbit of the Earth about the sun, and the energy output of the sun.

Fundamentally, climate is controlled by the long-term balance of energy of the Earth and its atmosphere. Incoming radiation from the sun, mainly in the form of visible light, is absorbed at the Earth's surface and in the atmosphere above. On average, absorbed radiation is balanced by the amount of energy returned to space in the form of infrared "heat" radiation. Greenhouse gases such as water vapor and carbon dioxide, as well as clouds and small particles (called aerosols), trap some heat in the lower part of the Earth's atmosphere. This is called the greenhouse effect. If there were no natural greenhouse effect, the average surface temperature would be about 34°C (61°F) colder than it is today.

Winds and ocean currents redistribute heat over the surface of the Earth. The evaporation of surface water and its subsequent condensation and precipitation in the atmosphere redistribute heat between the Earth's surface and the atmosphere, and between different parts of the atmosphere.

Figure 1.1

Schematic view of components of the global climate system, some of their processes and interactions, and some aspects that can cause climate change.

Natural events cause changes in climate. For example, large volcanic eruptions put tiny particles in the atmosphere that block sunlight, resulting in a surface cooling of a few years' duration. Variations in ocean currents change the distribution of heat and precipitation. El Niño events (periodic warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean) typically last one to two years and change weather patterns around the world, causing heavy rains in some places and droughts in others. Over longer time spans, tens or hundreds of thousands of years, natural changes in the geographical distribution of energy received from the sun and the amounts of greenhouse gases and dust in the atmosphere have caused the climate to shift from ice ages to relatively warmer periods, such as the one we are currently experiencing.

Human activities can also change the climate. The atmospheric amounts of many greenhouse gases are increasing, especially that of carbon dioxide, which has increased by 30% over the last 200 years, primarily as a result of changes in land use (e.g., deforestation) and of burning coal, oil, and natural gas (e.g., in automobiles, industry, and electricity generation). If current trends in emissions were to continue, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would double during the twenty-first century, with further increases thereafter. The amounts of several other greenhouse gases would increase substantially as well.

The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activities will change the climate by enhancing the natural greenhouse effect, leading to an increase in the Earth's average surface temperature. This warming may be partially offset in certain regions where air pollution leads to high concentrations of small particles in the atmosphere that block sunlight.

The current best estimate of the expected rise of globally averaged surface temperature relative to 1990 is 1 to 3.5°C (about 2 to 6°F) by the year 2100, with continued increases thereafter. Because most greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for a long period of time, even if emissions from human activities were to stop immediately, effects of accumulated past emissions would persist for centuries.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), cosponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization and made up of over 2000 scientific and technical experts from around the world, published its First Assessment Report in 1990 and its Second Assessment Report in 1996. The Second report contains over 10,000 references and is over 2000 pages in length. Although our understanding of some details of climate change is still evolving, the IPCC report is the most comprehensive and scientifically authoritative account of our understanding of climate change, the potential impacts on humans and the natural environment, the technology currently available to reduce human influences on climate, and the socio-economic implications of possible measures to mitigate these changes. The document that follows has been written and reviewed by scientists who participated in the IPCC process, and it attempts to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about these issues, based upon information contained in the IPCC reports. A list of the scientists who prepared this document is provided inside the front cover.

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