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Global Warming FAQ

  1. How do we know that humans are the major cause of global warming?
  2. Why does CO2 get most of the attention when there are so many other heat-trapping gases (greenhouse gases)?
  3. What is the latest climate science?
  4. Does air pollution—specifically particulate matter (aerosols)—affect global warming?
  5. How does the sun affect our climate?  
  6. Is there a connection between the hole in the ozone layer and global warming?
  7. What is the best source of scientific information on global warming?
  8. Will responding to global warming be harmful to our economy?
  9. What are the options for the vast stores of coal around the world?
  10. Is global warming already happening?
  11. More questions? 

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Five frequently-asked questions
about global warming
How do we know that global
warming is human-caused?

How do we know that humans are the major cause of global warming?

The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states: it is a greater than a 90 percent certainty that emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities have caused “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century.” We all know that warming—and cooling—has happened in the past, and long before humans were around. Many factors (called “climate drivers”) can influence Earth’s climate—such as changes in the sun’s intensity and volcanic eruptions, as well as heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

So how do scientists know that today’s warming is primarily caused by humans putting too much carbon in the atmosphere when we burn coal, oil, and gas or cut down forests?

  • There are human fingerprints on carbon overload. When humans burn coal, oil and gas (fossil fuels) to generate electricity or drive our cars, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, where it traps heat. A carbon molecule that comes from fossil fuels and deforestation is “lighter” than the combined signal of those from other sources.  As scientists measure the “weight” of carbon in the atmosphere over time they see a clear increase in the lighter molecules from fossil fuel and deforestation sources that correspond closely to the known trend in emissions. 
  • Natural changes alone can’t explain the temperature changes we’ve seen. For a computer model to accurately project the future climate, scientists must first ensure that it accurately reproduces observed temperature changes.  When the models include only recorded natural climate drivers—such as the sun’s intensity—the models cannot accurately reproduce the observed warming of the past half century. When human-induced climate drivers are also included in the models, then they accurately capture recent temperature increases in the atmosphere and in the oceans. [4][5][6] When all the natural and human-induced climate drivers are compared to one another, the dramatic accumulation of carbon from human sources is by far the largest climate change driver over the past half century.
  • Lower-level atmosphere—which contains the carbon load—is expanding. The boundary between the lower atmosphere (troposphere) and the higher atmosphere (stratosphere) has shifted upward in recent decades. See the ozone FAQ for a figure illustrating the layers of the atmosphere. [6][7][8]This boundary has likely changed because heat-trapping gases accumulate in the lower atmosphere and that atmospheric layer expands as it heats up (much like warming the air in a balloon). And because less heat is escaping into the higher atmosphere, it is likely cooling. This differential would not occur if the sun was the sole climate driver, as solar changes would warm both atmospheric layers, and certainly would not have warmed one while cooling the other.

Figure 2. Twentieth Century History of Climate Drivers

(Click to image to enlarge) Heat-trapping emissions (greenhouse gases) far outweigh the effects of other drivers acting on Earth’s climate. Source: Hansen et al. 2005, figure adapted by Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Why does CO2 get most of the attention when there are so many other heat-trapping gases (greenhouse gases)?

Global warming is primarily a problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  This carbon overload is caused mainly when we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas or cut down and burn forests. There are many heat-trapping gases (from methane to water vapor), but CO2 puts us at the greatest risk of irreversible changes if it continues to accumulate unabated in the atmosphere. There are two key reasons why.

CO2 has caused most of the warming and its influence is expected to continue. CO2, more than any other climate driver, has contributed the most to climate change between 1750 and 2005.[1, 2, 3] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a global climate assessment in 2007 that compared the relative influence exerted by key heat-trapping gases, tiny particles known as aerosols, and land use change of human origin on our climate between 1750 and 2005.[3] By measuring the abundance of heat-trapping gases in ice cores, the atmosphere, and other climate drivers along with models, the IPCC calculated the “radiative forcing” (RF) of each climate driver—in other words, the net increase (or decrease) in the amount of energy reaching Earth’s surface attributable to that climate driver. Positive RF values represent average surface warming and negative values represent average surface cooling. CO2 has the highest positive RF (see Figure 1) of all the human-influenced climate drivers compared by the IPCC. Other gases have more potent heat-trapping ability molecule per molecule than CO2 (e.g. methane), but are simply far less abundant in the atmosphere and being added more slowly.

Figure 1. How Does CO2 Compare To Other Climate Drivers?

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What is the latest climate science?

Major developments in climate change science have been reported since the publication of the comprehensive 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[1]  Recent publications indicate that the consequences of climate change are already occurring at a faster pace and are of greater magnitude than the climate models used by the IPCC projected. A few of the most compelling findings are summarized below.

More CO2 Remains in the Atmosphere
Human activities have pumped excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Natural processes that absorb CO2 cannot keep up. As the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, it becomes more acidic. This combined with increasing ocean temperatures, diminishes its ability to continue absorbing CO2. As a result, more CO2 stays in the atmosphere. In 1960, a metric ton (1,000 kilograms; ~2,205 pounds) of CO2 emissions resulted in around 400 kilograms (~881 pounds) of CO2 remaining in the atmosphere (Figure 1). In 2006, a metric ton of CO2 emissions results in around 450 kilograms (~992 pounds) remaining in the atmosphere.[2] Hence a ton of CO2 emissions today results in more heat-trapping capacity in the atmosphere than the same ton emitted decades ago.

Figure 1. Today’s Ton Is Worse Than a Ton Emitted Decades Ago
The natural processes that have helped clean up the excess CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by human activities have not been able to keep up at the same rate.

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Does air pollution—specifically particulate matter (aerosols)—affect global warming?

Air pollution occurs when the air contains gases, dust, fumes or odor in harmful amounts—aerosols are a subset of air pollution that refers to the tiny particles suspended everywhere in our atmosphere. These particles can be both solid and liquid and are collectively referred to as ‘atmospheric aerosol particles’ [1]. Most are produced by natural processes such as erupting volcanoes, and some are from human industrial and agricultural activities (see Figure 1). Those particles in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, where our weather occurs, usually stay relatively close to the source of emissions and remain in the atmosphere only a few days to a week before they fall to the ground or are rained out; those higher up in the atmosphere travel farther and may linger in the atmosphere for a few years. 

Light-colored aerosol particles can reflect incoming energy from the sun (heat) in cloud-free air and dark particles can absorb it.  Aerosols can modify how much energy clouds reflect and they can change atmospheric circulation patterns—in short, aerosols can modify our climate [2].

Several climate engineering (so-called ‘geoengineering’) strategies for reducing global warming propose using atmospheric aerosol particles to reflect the sun’s energy away from Earth. Because aerosol particles do not stay in the atmosphere for very long—and global warming gases stay in the atmosphere for decades to centuries—accumulated heat-trapping gases will overpower any temporary cooling due to short-lived aerosol particles.

Figure 1. Small Particles (Aerosols) in the Atmosphere


Small particles suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere (aerosols) include fine aerosols such as pollution and smoke (red) and coarse aerosols such as dust and sea-salt (green). Image shows aerosol levels on April 13, 2001 as seen by a NASA satellite. Source: NASA

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How does the sun affect our climate?

The sun is the source of most of the energy that drives the biological and physical processes in the world around us—in oceans and on land it fuels plant growth that forms the base of the food chain, and in the atmosphere it warms air which drives our weather. The rate of energy coming from the sun changes slightly day to day. Over many millennia in the Earth-Sun orbital relationship can change the geographical distribution of the sun’s energy over the Earth’s surface. It has been suggested that changes in solar output might affect our climate—both directly, by changing the rate of solar heating of the Earth and atmosphere, and indirectly, by changing cloud forming processes. 

Over the time-scale of millions of years the change in solar intensity is a critical factor influencing climate (e.g., ice ages).  However, changes in solar heating rate over the last century cannot account for the magnitude and distribution of the rise in global mean temperature during that time period and there is no convincing evidence for significant indirect influences on our climate due to twentieth century changes in solar output.

Copyright © 2006-17 Claud "Sonny" Rouch, all rights reserved. Website by OACYS Technology. Cover photo by Roberts Engineering.