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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.

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Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century. Secondary effects are suggested by computer model simulations and basic physical reasoning. These include increases in rainfall rates and increased susceptibility of semi-arid regions to drought. The impacts of these changes will be critically dependent on the magnitude of the warming and the rate with which it occurs.

The mid-range model estimate of human induced global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is based on the premise that the growth rate of climate forcing 1 agents such as carbon dioxide will accelerate. The predicted warming of 3°C (5.4°F) by the end of the 21st century is consistent with the assumptions about how clouds and atmospheric relative humidity will react to global warming. This estimate is also consistent with inferences about the sensitivity 2 of climate drawn from comparing the sizes of past temperature swings between ice ages and intervening warmer periods with the corresponding changes in the climate forcing. This predicted temperature increase is sensitive to assumptions concerning future concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols. Hence, national policy decisions made now and in the longer-term future will influence the extent of any damage suffered by vulnerable human populations and ecosystems later in this century. Because there is considerable uncertainty in current understanding of how the climate system varies naturally and reacts to emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols, current estimates of the magnitude of future warming should be regarded as tentative and subject to future adjustments (either upward or downward).

Reducing the wide range of uncertainty inherent in current model predictions of global climate change will require major advances in understanding and modeling of both (1) the factors that determine atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and (2) the so-called “feedbacks” that determine the sensitivity of the climate system to a prescribed increase in greenhouse gases. There also is a pressing need for a global observing system designed for monitoring climate.

The committee generally agrees with the assessment of human-caused climate change presented in the IPCC Working Group I (WGI) scientific report, but seeks here to articulate more clearly the level of confidence that can be ascribed to those assessments and the caveats that need to be attached to them. This articulation may be helpful to policy makers as they consider a variety of options for mitigation and/or adaptation. In the sections that follow, the committee provides brief responses to some of the key questions related to climate change science. More detailed responses to these questions are located in the main body of the text.

What is the range of natural variability in climate?

The range of natural climate variability is known to be quite large (in excess of several degrees Celsius) on local

1A climate forcing is defined as an imposed perturbation of Earth's energy balance. Climate forcing is typically measured in watts per square meter (W/m2).

2The sensitivity of the climate system to a prescribed forcing is commonly expressed in terms of the global mean temperature change that would be expected after a time sufficiently long for both the atmosphere and ocean to come to equilibrium with the change in climate forcing.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.

Page 2

and regional spatial scales over periods as short as a decade. Precipitation also can vary widely. For example, there is evidence to suggest that droughts as severe as the “dust bowl” of the 1930s were much more common in the central United States during the 10th to 14th centuries than they have been in the more recent record. Mean temperature variations at local sites have exceeded 10°C (18°F) in association with the repeated glacial advances and retreats that occurred over the course of the past million years. It is more difficult to estimate the natural variability of global mean temperature because of the sparse spatial coverage of existing data and difficulties in inferring temperatures from various proxy data. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that global warming rates as large as 2°C (3.6°F) per millennium may have occurred during retreat of the glaciers following the most recent ice age.

Are concentrations of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change increasing at an accelerating rate, and are different greenhouse gases and other emissions increasing at different rates? Is human activity the cause of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change?

The emissions of some greenhouse gases are increasing, but others are decreasing. In some cases the decreases are a result of policy decisions, while in other cases the reasons for the decreases are not well understood.

Of the greenhouse gases that are directly influenced by human activity, the most important are carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Aerosols released by human activities are also capable of influencing climate. ( Table 1 lists the estimated climate forcing due to the presence of each of these “climate forcing agents” in the atmosphere.)

Concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) extracted from ice cores drilled in Greenland and Antarctica have typically ranged from near 190 parts per million by volume (ppmv) during the ice ages to near 280 ppmv during the warmer “interglacial” periods like the present one that began around 10,000 years ago. Concentrations did not rise much above 280 ppmv until the Industrial Revolution. By 1958, when systematic atmospheric measurements began, they had reached 315 ppmv, and they are currently ~370 ppmv and rising at a rate of 1.5 ppmv per year (slightly higher than the rate during the early years of the 43-year record). Human activities are responsible for the increase. The primary source, fossil fuel burning, has released roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as would be required to account for the observed increase. Tropical deforestation also has contributed to carbon dioxide releases during the past few decades. The excess carbon dioxide has been taken up by the oceans and land biosphere.

Like carbon dioxide, methane (CH4) is more abundant in Earth's atmosphere now than at any time during the 400,000 year long ice core record, which dates back over a number of glacial/interglacial cycles. Concentrations increased rather smoothly by about 1% per year from 1978, until about 1990. The rate of increase slowed and became more erratic during the 1990s. About two-thirds of the current emissions of methane are released by human activities such as rice growing, the raising of cattle, coal mining, use of land-fills, and natural gas handling, all of which have increased over the past 50 years.

A small fraction of the ozone (O3) produced by natural processes in the stratosphere mixes into the lower atmosphere. This “tropospheric ozone” has been supplemented during the 20th century by additional ozone, created locally by the action of sunlight upon air polluted by exhausts from motor vehicles, emissions from fossil fuel burning power plants, and biomass burning.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is formed by many microbial reactions in soils and waters, including those acting on the increasing amounts of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. Some synthetic chemical processes that release nitrous oxide have also been identified. Its concentration has increased approximately 13% in the past 200 years.

Atmospheric concentrations of CFCs rose steadily following their first synthesis in 1928 and peaked in the early 1990s. Many other industrially useful fluorinated compounds (e.g., carbon tetrafluoride, CF4, and sulfur hexafluoride, SF6), have very long atmospheric lifetimes, which is of concern, even though their atmospheric concentrations have not yet produced large radiative forcings. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are replacing CFCs, have a greenhouse effect, but it is much less pronounced because of their shorter atmospheric lifetimes. The sensitivity and generality of modern analytical systems make it quite unlikely that any currently significant greenhouse gases remain to be discovered.

What other emissions are contributing factors to climate change (e.g., aerosols, CO, black carbon soot), and what is their relative contribution to climate change?

Besides greenhouse gases, human activity also contributes to the atmospheric burden of aerosols, which include both sulfate particles and black carbon (soot). Both are unevenly distributed, owing to their short lifetimes in the atmosphere. Sulfate particles scatter solar radiation back to space, thereby offsetting the greenhouse effect to some degree. Recent “clean coal technologies” and use of low sulfur fuels have resulted in decreasing sulfate concentrations, especially in North America, reducing this offset. Black carbon aerosols are end-products of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass burning (forest fires and land clearing). They impact radiation budgets both directly and indirectly; they are believed to contribute to global warming, although their relative importance is difficult to quantify at this point.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.

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How long does it take to reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to climate change? Do different greenhouse gases and other emissions have different draw down periods?

TABLE 1 Removal Times and Climate Forcing Values for Specified Atmospheric Gases and Aerosols

Forcing Agent

Approximate Removal Times 3

Climate Forcing (W/m2) Up to the year 2000

Greenhouse Gases

Carbon Dioxide

>100 years

1.3 to 1.5


10 years

0.5 to 0.7

Tropospheric Ozone

10–100 days

0.25 to 0.75

Nitrous Oxide

100 years

0.1 to 0.2



(Including SF6)

>1000 years


Fine Aerosols


10 days

–0.3 to –1.0

Black Carbon

10 days

0.1 to 0.8

3A removal time of 100 years means that much, but not all, of the substance would be gone in 100 years. Typically, the amount remaining at the end of 100 years is 37%; after 200 years 14%; after 300 years 5%; after 400 years 2%

Is climate change occurring? If so, how?

Weather station records and ship-based observations indicate that global mean surface air temperature warmed between about 0.4 and 0.8°C (0.7 and 1.5°F) during the 20th century. Although the magnitude of warming varies locally, the warming trend is spatially widespread and is consistent with an array of other evidence detailed in this report. The ocean, which represents the largest reservoir of heat in the climate system, has warmed by about 0.05°C (0.09°F) averaged over the layer extending from the surface down to 10,000 feet, since the 1950s.

The observed warming has not proceeded at a uniform rate. Virtually all the 20th century warming in global surface air temperature occurred between the early 1900s and the 1940s and during the past few decades. The troposphere warmed much more during the 1970s than during the two subsequent decades, whereas Earth's surface warmed more during the past two decades than during the 1970s. The causes of these irregularities and the disparities in the timing are not completely understood. One striking change of the past 35 years is the cooling of the stratosphere at altitudes of ~13 miles, which has tended to be concentrated in the wintertime polar cap region.

Are greenhouse gases causing climate change?

The IPCC's conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue. The stated degree of confidence in the IPCC assessment is higher today than it was 10, or even 5 years ago, but uncertainty remains because of (1) the level of natural variability inherent in the climate system on time scales of decades to centuries, (2) the questionable ability of models to accurately simulate natural variability on those long time scales, and (3) the degree of confidence that can be placed on reconstructions of global mean temperature over the past millennium based on proxy evidence. Despite the uncertainties, there is general agreement that the observed warming is real and particularly strong within the past 20 years. Whether it is consistent with the change that would be expected in response to human activities is dependent upon what assumptions one makes about the time history of atmospheric concentrations of the various forcing agents, particularly aerosols.

By how much will temperatures change over the next 100 years and where?

Climate change simulations for the period of 1990 to 2100 based on the IPCC emissions scenarios yield a globally-averaged surface temperature increase by the end of the century of 1.4 to 5.8°C (2.5 to 10.4°F) relative to 1990. The wide range of uncertainty in these estimates reflects both the different assumptions about future concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols in the various scenarios considered by the IPCC and the differing climate sensitivities of the various climate models used in the simulations. The range of climate sensitivities implied by these predictions is generally consistent with previously reported values.

The predicted warming is larger over higher latitudes than over low latitudes, especially during winter and spring, and larger over land than over sea. Rainfall rates and the frequency of heavy precipitation events are predicted to increase, particularly over the higher latitudes. Higher evaporation rates would accelerate the drying of soils following rain events, resulting in lower relative humidities and higher daytime temperatures, especially during the warm season. The likelihood that this effect could prove important is greatest in semi-arid regions, such as the U.S. Great Plains. These predictions in the IPCC report are consistent with current understanding of the processes that control local climate.

In addition to the IPCC scenarios for future increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, the committee considered a scenario based on an energy policy designed to keep climate change moderate in the next 50 years. This scenario takes into account not only the growth of carbon emissions, but also the changing concentrations of other greenhouse gases and aerosols.

Sufficient time has elapsed now to enable comparisons between observed trends in the concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases with the trends predicted

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.

Page 4

in previous IPCC reports. The increase of global fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions in the past decade has averaged 0.6% per year, which is somewhat below the range of IPCC scenarios, and the same is true for atmospheric methane concentrations. It is not known whether these slowdowns in growth rate will persist.

How much of the expected climate change is the consequence of climate feedback processes (e.g., water vapor, clouds, snow packs)?

The contribution of feedbacks to the climate change depends upon “climate sensitivity,” as described in the report. If a central estimate of climate sensitivity is used, about 40% of the predicted warming is due to the direct effects of greenhouse gases and aerosols. The other 60% is caused by feedbacks. Water vapor feedback (the additional greenhouse effect accruing from increasing concentrations of atmospheric water vapor as the atmosphere warms) is the most important feedback in the models. Unless the relative humidity in the tropical middle and upper troposphere drops, this effect is expected to increase the temperature response to increases in human induced greenhouse gas concentrations by a factor of 1.6. The ice-albedo feedback (the reduction in the fraction of incoming solar radiation reflected back to space as snow and ice cover recede) also is believed to be important. Together, these two feedbacks amplify the simulated climate response to the greenhouse gas forcing by a factor of 2.5. In addition, changes in cloud cover, in the relative amounts of high versus low clouds, and in the mean and vertical distribution of relative humidity could either enhance or reduce the amplitude of the warming. Much of the difference in predictions of global warming by various climate models is attributable to the fact that each model represents these processes in its own particular way. These uncertainties will remain until a more fundamental understanding of the processes that control atmospheric relative humidity and clouds is achieved.

What will be the consequences (e.g., extreme weather, health effects) of increases of various magnitude?

In the near term, agriculture and forestry are likely to benefit from carbon dioxide fertilization and an increased water efficiency of some plants at higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The optimal climate for crops may change, requiring significant regional adaptations. Some models project an increased tendency toward drought over semi-arid regions, such as the U.S. Great Plains. Hydrologic impacts could be significant over the western United States, where much of the water supply is dependent on the amount of snow pack and the timing of the spring runoff. Increased rainfall rates could impact pollution run-off and flood control. With higher sea level, coastal regions could be subject to increased wind and flood damage even if tropical storms do not change in intensity. A significant warming also could have far reaching implications for ecosystems. The costs and risks involved are difficult to quantify at this point and are, in any case, beyond the scope of this brief report.

Health outcomes in response to climate change are the subject of intense debate. Climate is one of a number of factors influencing the incidence of infectious disease. Cold-related stress would decline in a warmer climate, while heat stress and smog induced respiratory illnesses in major urban areas would increase, if no adaptation occurred. Over much of the United States, adverse health outcomes would likely be mitigated by a strong public health system, relatively high levels of public awareness, and a high standard of living.

Global warming could well have serious adverse societal and ecological impacts by the end of this century, especially if globally-averaged temperature increases approach the upper end of the IPCC projections. Even in the more conservative scenarios, the models project temperatures and sea levels that continue to increase well beyond the end of this century, suggesting that assessments that examine only the next 100 years may well underestimate the magnitude of the eventual impacts.

Has science determined whether there is a “safe” level of concentration of greenhouse gases?

The question of whether there exists a “safe” level of concentration of greenhouse gases cannot be answered directly because it would require a value judgment of what constitutes an acceptable risk to human welfare and ecosystems in various parts of the world, as well as a more quantitative assessment of the risks and costs associated with the various impacts of global warming. In general, however, risk increases with increases in both the rate and the magnitude of climate change.

What are the substantive differences between the IPCC Reports and the Summaries?

The committee finds that the full IPCC Working Group I (WGI) report is an admirable summary of research activities in climate science, and the full report is adequately summarized in the Technical Summary. The full WGI report and its Technical Summary are not specifically directed at policy. The Summary for Policymakers reflects less emphasis on communicating the basis for uncertainty and a stronger emphasis on areas of major concern associated with human-induced climate change. This change in emphasis appears to be the result of a summary process in which scientists work with policy makers on the document. Written responses from U.S. coordinating and lead scientific authors to the committee indicate, however, that (a) no changes were made without the consent of the convening lead authors (this group represents a fraction of the lead and contributing authors) and (b) most changes that did occur lacked significant impact.

It is critical that the IPCC process remain truly representative of the scientific community. The committee's concerns

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.

Page 5

focus primarily on whether the process is likely to become less representative in the future because of the growing voluntary time commitment required to participate as a lead or coordinating author and the potential that the scientific process will be viewed as being too heavily influenced by governments which have specific postures with regard to treaties, emission controls, and other policy instruments. The United States should promote actions that improve the IPCC process while also ensuring that its strengths are maintained.

What are the specific areas of science that need to be studied further, in order of priority, to advance our understanding of climate change?

Making progress in reducing the large uncertainties in projections of future climate will require addressing a number of fundamental scientific questions relating to the buildup of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere and the behavior of the climate system. Issues that need to be addressed include (a) the future usage of fossil fuels, (b) the future emissions of methane, (c) the fraction of the future fossil-fuel carbon that will remain in the atmosphere and provide radiative forcing versus exchange with the oceans or net exchange with the land biosphere, (d) the feedbacks in the climate system that determine both the magnitude of the change and the rate of energy uptake by the oceans, which together determine the magnitude and time history of the temperature increases for a given radiative forcing, (e) details of the regional and local climate change consequent to an overall level of global climate change, (f) the nature and causes of the natural variability of climate and its interactions with forced changes, and (g) the direct and indirect effects of the changing distributions of aerosols. Maintaining a vigorous, ongoing program of basic research, funded and managed independently of the climate assessment activity, will be crucial for narrowing these uncertainties.

In addition, the research enterprise dealing with environmental change and the interactions of human society with the environment must be enhanced. This includes support of (a) interdisciplinary research that couples physical, chemical, biological, and human systems, (b) an improved capability of integrating scientific knowledge, including its uncertainty, into effective decision support systems, and (c) an ability to conduct research at the regional or sectoral level that promotes analysis of the response of human and natural systems to multiple stresses.

An effective strategy for advancing the understanding of climate change also will require (1) a global observing system in support of long-term climate monitoring and prediction, (2) concentration on large-scale modeling through increased, dedicated supercomputing and human resources, and (3) efforts to ensure that climate research is supported and managed to ensure innovation, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.
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Suggested Citation:"Summary." National Research Council. 2001. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10139.
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The warming of the Earth has been the subject of intense debate and concern for many scientists, policy-makers, and citizens for at least the past decade. Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, a new report by a committee of the National Research Council, characterizes the global warming trend over the last 100 years, and examines what may be in store for the 21st century and the extent to which warming may be attributable to human activity.


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