Causes and Effects of Climate Change
The average temperature of the Earth is rising at nearly twice the rate it was 50 years ago. This rapid warming trend cannot be explained by natural cycles alone, scientists have concluded. The only way to explain the pattern is to include the effect of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by humans.
Current levels of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in our atmosphere are higher than at any point over the past 800,000 years, and their ability to trap heat is changing our climate in multiple ways.
To come to a scientific conclusion on climate change and what to do about it, the United Nations in 1988 formed a group called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. The IPCC meets every few years to review the latest scientific findings and write a report summarizing all that is known about global warming. Each report represents a consensus, or agreement, among hundreds of leading scientists.
One of the first things the IPCC concluded is that there are several greenhouse gases responsible for warming, and humans emit them in a variety of ways. Most come from the combustion of fossil fuels in cars, buildings, factories, and power plants. The gas responsible for the most warming is carbon dioxide, or CO2. Other contributors include methane released from landfills, natural gas and petroleum industries, and agriculture (especially from the digestive systems of grazing animals); nitrous oxide from fertilizers; gases used for refrigeration and industrial processes; and the loss of forests that would otherwise store CO2.
An iceberg melts in the waters off Antarctica. Climate change has accelerated the rate of ice loss across the continent.
Different greenhouse gases have very different heat-trapping abilities. Some of them can trap more heat than an equivalent amount of CO2. A molecule of methane doesn't hang around the atmosphere as long as a molecule of carbon dioxide will, but it is at least 84 times more potent over two decades. Nitrous oxide is 264 times more powerful than CO2.
Other gases, such as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs—which have been banned in much of the world because they also degrade the ozone layer—have heat-trapping potential thousands of times greater than CO2. But because their emissions are much lower than CO2, none of these gases trap as much heat in the atmosphere as CO2 does.
When those gases that humans are adding to Earth's atmosphere trap heat, it’s called the "greenhouse effect." The gases let light through but then keep much of the heat that radiates from the surface from escaping back into space, like the glass walls of a greenhouse. The more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more dramatic the effect, and the more warming that happens.
Climate change continues
Despite global efforts to address climate change, including the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels continue to rise, hitting record levels in 2018.
Many people think of global warming and climate change as synonyms, but scientists prefer to use “climate change” when describing the complex shifts now affecting our planet’s weather and climate systems. Climate change encompasses not only rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and and habitats, rising seas, and a range of other impacts.
Read next: Global Warming Effects