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 long-term state and average temperature are regulated by the balance between incoming and outgoing energy, which determines the Earth's energy balance. (Learn more about the Earth's climate system). 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 earth's 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 long-term forced climate change.

Natural causes

The Earth's 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 Earth's 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 over 50 times that of changes in the Sun's 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.

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