This page is about the current warming of the Earth's climate system. "Climate change" can also refer to climate trends at any point in Earth's history. For other uses see Global warming (disambiguation).
Global warming, also referred to as climate change, is the observed century-scale rise in the average temperature of the Earth's climate system and its related effects. Multiple lines of scientific evidence show that the climate system is warming. Many of the observed changes since the 1950s are unprecedented in the instrumental temperature record which extends back to the mid-19th century, and in paleoclimateproxy records covering thousands of years.
In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report concluded that "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." The largest human influence has been the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Climate model projections summarized in the report indicated that during the 21st century, the global surface temperature is likely to rise a further 0.3 to 1.7 °C (0.5 to 3.1 °F) in the lowest emissions scenario, and 2.6 to 4.8 °C (4.7 to 8.6 °F) in the highest emissions scenario. These findings have been recognized by the national science academies of the major industrialized nations[a] and are not disputed by any scientific body of national or international standing.
Future climate change and associated impacts will differ from region to region. Anticipated effects include increasing global temperatures, rising sea levels, changing precipitation, and expansion of deserts in the subtropics. Warming is expected to be greater over land than over the oceans and greatest in the Arctic, with the continuing retreat of glaciers, permafrost and sea ice. Other likely changes include more frequent extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, heavy rainfall with floods and heavy snowfall;ocean acidification; and species extinctions due to shifting temperature regimes. Effects significant to humans include the threat to food security from decreasing crop yields and the abandonment of populated areas due to rising sea levels. Because the climate system has a large "inertia" and greenhouse gases will remain in the atmosphere for a long time, many of these effects will persist for not only decades or centuries, but for tens of thousands of years to come.
Possible societal responses to global warming include mitigation by emissions reduction, adaptation to its effects, building systems resilient to its effects, and possible future climate engineering. Most countries are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), whose ultimate objective is to prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Parties to the UNFCCC have agreed that deep cuts in emissions are required and that global warming should be limited to well below 2.0 °C (3.6 °F) compared to pre-industrial levels,[b] with efforts made to limit warming to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F).
Public reactions to global warming and concern about its effects are also increasing. A global 2015 Pew Research Center report showed that a median of 54% of all respondents asked consider it "a very serious problem". Significant regional differences exist, with Americans and Chinese (whose economies are responsible for the greatest annual CO2 emissions) among the least concerned.
Observed temperature changes
Main article: Instrumental temperature record
In the period from 1880 to 2012, the global average (land and ocean) surface temperature has increased by 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C, multiple independently produced datasets confirm. In the period from 1906 to 2005, Earth's average surface temperature rose by 7002273890000000000♠0.74±0.18 °C. The rate of warming almost doubled in the last half of that period (7002273279999999999♠0.13±0.03 °C per decade, against 7002273219999999999♠0.07±0.02 °C per decade). Although the popular press often reports the increase of the average near-surface atmospheric temperature as the measure of global warming, most of the additional energy stored in the climate system since 1970 has accumulated in the oceans. The rest has melted ice and warmed the continents and the atmosphere.[c]
Since 1979, the average temperature of the lower troposphere has increased between 0.12 and 0.135 °C (0.216 and 0.243 °F) per decade, satellite temperature measurements confirm.Climate proxies show the temperature to have been relatively stable over the one or two thousand years before 1850, with regionally varying fluctuations such as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age.
The warming evident in the instrumental temperature record is consistent with a wide range of observations, as documented by many independent scientific groups. Examples include sea level rise, widespread melting of snow and land ice, increased heat content of the oceans, increased humidity, and the earlier timing of spring events, e.g., the flowering of plants. The probability that these changes could have occurred by chance is virtually zero.
Regional trends and short-term fluctuations
Temperature increases vary a lot across the globe. Since 1979, land temperatures have increased about twice as fast as ocean temperatures (7002273399999999999♠0.25 °C per decade against 7002273279999999999♠0.13 °C per decade). Ocean temperatures increase more slowly than land temperatures because of the larger effective heat capacity of the oceans and because oceans lose more heat by evaporation. Since the beginning of industrialisation in the eighteenth century, the temperature difference between the hemispheres has increased due to melting of sea ice and snow in the North. In the past one hundred years, average arctic temperatures have been increasing at almost twice the rate of the rest of the world; however, arctic temperatures are also highly variable. Although more greenhouse gases are emitted in the Northern than in the Southern Hemisphere, this fact does not contribute to the difference in warming because the major greenhouse gases persist long enough to diffuse within as well as between the hemispheres.
The thermal inertia of the oceans and the slow responses of other indirect effects occasion the climate to take centuries or longer to adjust to past changes in forcings. One climate commitment study concluded that if greenhouse gases were stabilized at year 2000 levels, surface temperatures would still increase by about one-half degree Celsius, and another found that if they were stabilized at 2005 levels, surface warming could exceed a whole degree Celsius. Some of this surface warming will be driven by past natural forcings which are still seeking equilibrium in the climate system. One study using a highly simplified climate model indicates these past natural forcings may account for as much as 64% of the committed 2050 surface warming and their influence will fade with time compared to the human contribution.
Global temperature is subject to short-term fluctuations that overlay long-term trends and can temporarily mask them. The relative stability in surface temperature from 2002 to 2009, which has since been dubbed the global warming hiatus by the media and some scientists, is an example of such an episode. 2015 updates to account for differing methods of measuring ocean surface temperature measurements show a positive trend over the recent decade.
Warmest years vs. overall trend
Sixteen of the seventeen warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. While record-breaking years attract considerable public interest, individual years are less significant than the overall trend. Some climatologists have criticized the attention that the popular press gives to "warmest year" statistics. In particular, ocean oscillations such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) can cause temperatures of a given year to be abnormally warm or cold for reasons unrelated to the overall trend of climate change. Gavin Schmidt stated "the long-term trends or the expected sequence of records are far more important than whether any single year is a record or not."
Initial causes of temperature changes (external forcings)
Main article: Attribution of recent climate change
By itself, the climate system may generate random changes in global temperatures for years to decades at a time, but long-term changes emanate only from so-called external forcings. These forcings are "external" to the climate system, but not necessarily external to Earth. Examples of external forcings include changes in the composition of the atmosphere (e.g., increased concentrations of greenhouse gases), solar luminosity, volcanic eruptions, and variations in Earth's orbit around the Sun.
Main articles: Greenhouse gas, Greenhouse effect, Radiative forcing, Carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, and Earth's energy budget
See also: List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions and History of climate change science
The greenhouse effect is the process by which absorption and emission of infrared radiation by gases in a planet's atmosphere warm its lower atmosphere and surface. It was proposed by Joseph Fourier in 1824, discovered in 1860 by John Tyndall, was first investigated quantitatively by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, and its scientific description was developed in the 1930s through 1960s by Guy Stewart Callendar.
On Earth, an atmosphere containing naturally occurring amounts of greenhouse gases causes air temperature near the surface to be about 33 °C (59 °F) warmer than it would be in their absence.[d] Without the Earth's atmosphere, the Earth's average temperature would be well below the freezing temperature of water. The major greenhouse gases are water vapour, which causes about 36–70% of the greenhouse effect; carbon dioxide (CO2), which causes 9–26%; methane (CH4), which causes 4–9%; and ozone (O3), which causes 3–7%. Clouds also affect the radiation balance through cloud forcings similar to greenhouse gases.
Human activity since the Industrial Revolution has increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to increased radiative forcing from CO2, methane, tropospheric ozone, CFCs and nitrous oxide. According to work published in 2007, the concentrations of CO2 and methane had increased by 36% and 148% respectively since 1750. These levels are much higher than at any time during the last 800,000 years, the period for which reliable data has been extracted from ice cores. Less direct geological evidence indicates that CO2 values higher than this were last seen about 20 million years ago.
Fossil fuel burning has produced about three-quarters of the increase in CO2 from human activity over the past 20 years. The rest of this increase is caused mostly by changes in land-use, particularly deforestation. Another significant non-fuel source of anthropogenic CO2 emissions is the calcination of limestone for clinker production, a chemical process which releases CO2. Estimates of global CO2 emissions in 2011 from fossil fuel combustion, including cement production and gas flaring, was 34.8 billion tonnes (9.5 ± 0.5 PgC), an increase of 54% above emissions in 1990. Coal burning was responsible for 43% of the total emissions, oil 34%, gas 18%, cement 4.9% and gas flaring 0.7%.
In May 2013, it was reported that readings for CO2 taken at the world's primary benchmark site in Mauna Loa surpassed 400 ppm. According to professor Brian Hoskins, this is likely the first time CO2 levels have been this high for about 4.5 million years. Monthly global CO2 concentrations exceeded 400 ppm in March 2015, probably for the first time in several million years. On 12 November 2015, NASA scientists reported that human-made carbon dioxide continues to increase above levels not seen in hundreds of thousands of years; currently, about half of the carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels is not absorbed by vegetation and the oceans and remains in the atmosphere.
Over the last three decades of the twentieth century, gross domestic product per capita and population growth were the main drivers of increases in greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 emissions are continuing to rise due to the burning of fossil fuels and land-use change.:71 Emissions can be attributed to different regions. Attributions of emissions due to land-use change are subject to considerable uncertainty.:289
Emissions scenarios, estimates of changes in future emission levels of greenhouse gases, have been projected that depend upon uncertain economic, sociological, technological, and natural developments. In most scenarios, emissions continue to rise over the century, while in a few, emissions are reduced. Fossil fuel reserves are abundant, and will not limit carbon emissions in the 21st century. Emission scenarios, combined with modelling of the carbon cycle, have been used to produce estimates of how atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases might change in the future. Using the six IPCC SRES "marker" scenarios, models suggest that by the year 2100, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 could range between 541 and 970 ppm. This is 90–250% above the concentration in the year 1750.
The popular media and the public often confuse global warming with ozone depletion, i.e., the destruction of stratospheric ozone (e.g., the ozone layer) by chlorofluorocarbons. Although there are a few areas of linkage, the relationship between the two is not strong. Reduced stratospheric ozone has had a slight cooling influence on surface temperatures, while increased tropospheric ozone has had a somewhat larger warming effect.
Aerosols and soot
Global dimming, a gradual reduction in the amount of global direct irradiance at the Earth's surface, was observed from 1961 until at least 1990.Solid and liquid particles known as aerosols, produced by volcanoes and human-made pollutants, are thought to be the main cause of this dimming. They exert a cooling effect by increasing the reflection of incoming sunlight. The effects of the products of fossil fuel combustion – CO2 and aerosols – have partially offset one another in recent decades, so that net warming has been due to the increase in non-CO2 greenhouse gases such as methane. Radiative forcing due to aerosols is temporally limited due to the processes that remove aerosols from the atmosphere. Removal by clouds and precipitation gives tropospheric aerosols an atmospheric lifetime of only about a week, while stratospheric aerosols can remain for a few years. Carbon dioxide has a lifetime of a century or more, and as such, changes in aerosols will only delay climate changes due to carbon dioxide.Black carbon is second only to carbon dioxide for its contribution to global warming (contribution being estimated at 17 to 20%, whereas carbon dioxide contributes 40 to 45% to global warming).
In addition to their direct effect by scattering and absorbing solar radiation, aerosols have indirect effects on the Earth's radiation budget. Sulfate aerosols act as cloud condensation nuclei and thus lead to clouds that have more and smaller cloud droplets. These clouds reflect solar radiation more efficiently than clouds with fewer and larger droplets, a phenomenon known as the Twomey effect. This effect also causes droplets to be of more uniform size, which reduces growth of raindrops and makes the cloud more reflective to incoming sunlight, known as the Albrecht effect. Indirect effects are most noticeable in marine stratiform clouds, and have very little radiative effect on convective clouds. Indirect effects of aerosols represent the largest uncertainty in radiative forcing.
Soot may either cool or warm Earth's climate system, depending on whether it is airborne or deposited. Atmospheric soot directly absorbs solar radiation, which heats the atmosphere and cools the surface. In isolated areas with high soot production, such as rural India, as much as 50% of surface warming due to greenhouse gases may be masked by atmospheric brown clouds. When deposited, especially on glaciers or on ice in arctic regions, the lower surface albedo can also directly heat the surface. The influences of atmospheric particles, including black carbon, are most pronounced in the tropics and sub-tropics, particularly in Asia, while the effects of greenhouse gases are dominant in the extratropics and southern hemisphere.
Main article: Solar activity and climate
Since 1978, solar irradiance has been measured by satellites. These measurements indicate that the Sun's radiative output has not increased since then, so the warming that occurred in the past 40 years cannot be attributed to an increase in solar energy reaching the Earth.
Climate models have been used to examine the role of the Sun in recent climate change. Models are unable to reproduce the rapid warming observed in recent decades when only taking into account variations in solar output and volcanic activity. Models are, however, able to simulate the observed 20th century changes in temperature when they include all of the most important external forcings, consisting of both human influences and natural forcings.
Another line of evidence for the Sun's non-attributability is the differing temperature changes at different levels in the Earth's atmosphere. According to basic physical principles, the greenhouse effect produces warming of the lower atmosphere (the troposphere), but cooling of the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere). If solar variations were responsible for the observed warming, warming of both the troposphere and the stratosphere would be expected.
Variations in Earth's orbit
Main article: Milankovitch cycles
The tilt of the Earth’s axis and the shape of its orbit around the Sun vary slowly over tens of thousands of years. This changes climate by changing the seasonal and latitudinal distribution of incoming solar energy at Earth's surface. During the last few thousand years, this phenomenon contributed to a slow cooling trend at high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere during summer, a trend that was reversed by greenhouse-gas-induced warming during the 20th century. Orbital cycles favorable for glaciation are not expected within the next 50,000 years.
Main articles: Climate change feedback and Climate sensitivity
The climate system includes a range of feedbacks, which alter the response of the system to changes in external forcings. Positive feedbacks increase the response of the climate system to an initial forcing, while negative feedbacks reduce it.
There are a range of feedbacks in the climate system, including water vapour, changes in ice-albedo (snow and ice cover affect how much the Earth's surface absorbs or reflects incoming sunlight), clouds, and changes in the Earth's carbon cycle (e.g., the release of carbon from soil). The main negative feedback is the energy the Earth's surface radiates into space as infrared radiation. According to the Stefan-Boltzmann law, if the absolute temperature (as measured in kelvins) doubles,[e] radiated energy increases by a factor of 16 (2 to the 4th power).
Feedbacks are an important factor in determining the sensitivity of the climate system to increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Other factors being equal, a higher climate sensitivity means that more warming will occur for a given increase in greenhouse gas forcing. Uncertainty over the effect of feedbacks is a major reason why different climate models project different magnitudes of warming for a given forcing scenario. More research is needed to understand the role of clouds and carbon cycle feedbacks in climate projections.
The IPCC projections previously mentioned span the "likely" range (greater than 66% probability, based on expert judgement) for the selected emissions scenarios. However, the IPCC's projections do not reflect the full range of uncertainty. The lower end of the "likely" range appears to be better constrained than the upper end.
An observation based study on future climate change, on the soil carbon feedback, conducted since 1991 in Harvard, suggests release of about 190 petagrams of soil carbon, the equivalent of the past two decades of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning, until 2100 from the top 1-meter of Earth's soils, due to changes in microbial communities under elevated temperatures. Climate models do not account for this possible feedback mechanism.
Main article: Global climate model
A climate model is a representation of the physical, chemical and biological processes that affect the climate system. Such models are based on scientific disciplines such as fluid dynamics and thermodynamics as well as physical processes such as radiative transfer. The models may be used to predict a range of variables such as local air movement, temperature, clouds, and other atmospheric properties; ocean temperature, salt content, and circulation; ice cover on land and sea; the transfer of heat and moisture from soil and vegetation to the atmosphere; and chemical and biological processes, among others.
Although researchers attempt to include as many processes as possible, simplifications of the actual climate system are inevitable because of the constraints of available computer power and limitations in knowledge of the climate system. Results from models can also vary due to different greenhouse gas inputs and the model's climate sensitivity. For example, the uncertainty in IPCC's 2007 projections is caused by (1) the use of multiple models with differing sensitivity to greenhouse gas concentrations, (2) the use of differing estimates of humanity's future greenhouse gas emissions, (3) any additional emissions from climate feedbacks that were not included in the models IPCC used to prepare its report, i.e., greenhouse gas releases from permafrost.
The models do not assume the climate will warm due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases. Instead the models predict how greenhouse gases will interact with radiative transfer and other physical processes. Warming or cooling is thus a result, not an assumption, of the models.
Clouds and their effects are especially difficult to predict. Improving the models' representation of clouds is therefore an important topic in current research. Another prominent research topic is expanding and improving representations of the carbon cycle.
Models are also used to help investigate the causes of recent climate change by comparing the observed changes to those that the models project from various natural and human causes. Although these models do not unambiguously attribute the warming that occurred from approximately 1910 to 1945 to either natural variation or human effects, they do indicate that the warming since 1970 is dominated by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
The physical realism of models is tested by examining their ability to simulate contemporary or past climates. Climate models produce a good match to observations of global temperature changes over the last century, but do not simulate all aspects of climate. Not all effects of global warming are accurately predicted by the climate models used by the IPCC. Observed Arctic shrinkage has been faster than that predicted. Precipitation increased proportionally to atmospheric humidity, and hence significantly faster than global climate models predict. Since 1990, sea level has also risen considerably faster than models predicted it would.
Observed and expected environmental effects
Main article: Effects of global warming
Anthropogenic forcing has likely contributed to some of the observed changes, including sea level rise, changes in climate extremes (such as the number of warm and cold days), declines in Arctic sea ice extent, glacier retreat, and greening of the Sahara.
The average sea ice decline recorded from 1953 to 2006 is -7.8%±0.6%/decade, this is more than three times the size of the average forecast trend of -2.5%±0.2%/decade. Even the ‘worst case scenario’ models didn’t forecast the extent of the sea ice decline adequately. The quickest rate of sea ice decline from any of the models associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report was -5.4%±0.4%/decade. Global warming has led to decades of shrinking and thinning in a warm climate that has put the Arctic sea ice in a precarious position, it is now vulnerable to atmospheric anomalies. Projections of declines in Arctic sea ice vary. Recent projections suggest that Arctic summers could be ice-free (defined as ice extent less than 1 million square km) as early as 2025–2030.
"Detection" is the process of demonstrating that climate has changed in some defined statistical sense, without providing a reason for that change. Detection does not imply attribution of the detected change to a particular cause. "Attribution" of causes of climate change is the process of establishing the most likely causes for the detected change with some defined level of confidence. Detection and attribution may also be applied to observed changes in physical, ecological and social systems.
Main articles: Extreme weather and Physical impacts of climate change § Extreme events
See also: Tropical cyclones and climate change
Changes in regional climate are expected to include greater warming over land, with most warming at high northern latitudes, and least warming over the Southern Ocean and parts of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Future changes in precipitation are expected to follow existing trends, with reduced precipitation over subtropical land areas, and increased precipitation at subpolar latitudes and some equatorial regions. Projections suggest a probable increase in the frequency and severity of some extreme weather events, such as heat waves.
A 2015 study published in Nature Climate Change, states:
About 18% of the moderate daily precipitation extremes over land are attributable to the observed temperature increase since pre-industrial times, which in turn primarily results from human influence. For 2 °C of warming the fraction of precipitation extremes attributable to human influence rises to about 40%. Likewise, today about 75% of the moderate daily hot extremes over land are attributable to warming. It is the most rare and extreme events for which the largest fraction is anthropogenic, and that contribution increases nonlinearly with further warming.
Data analysis of extreme events from 1960 until 2010 suggests that droughts and heat waves appear simultaneously with increased frequency. Extremely wet or dry events within the monsoon period have increased since 1980.
Sea level rise
Main articles: Sea level rise and Retreat of glaciers since 1850
The sea level rise since 1993 has been estimated to have been on average 2.6 mm and 2.9 mm per year ± 0.4 mm. Additionally, sea level rise has accelerated from 1995 to 2015. Over the 21st century, the IPCC projects for a high emissions scenario, that global mean sea level could rise by 52–98 cm. The IPCC's projections are conservative, and may underestimate future sea level rise. Other estimates suggest that for the same period, global mean sea level could rise by 0.2 to 2.0 m (0.7–6.6 ft), relative to mean sea level in 1992.
Widespread coastal flooding would be expected if several degrees of warming is sustained for millennia. For example, sustained global warming of more than 2 °C (relative to pre-industrial levels) could lead to eventual sea level rise of around 1 to 4 m due to thermal expansion of sea water and the melting of glaciers and small ice caps. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet could contribute an additional 4 to 7.5 m over many thousands of years. It has been estimated that we are already committed to a sea-level rise of approximately 2.3 metres for each degree of temperature rise within the next 2,000 years.
Warming beyond the 2 °C target would potentially lead to rates of sea-level rise dominated by ice loss from Antarctica. Continued CO2 emissions from fossil sources could cause additional tens of metres of sea level rise, over the next millennia and eventually ultimately eliminate the entire Antarctic ice sheet, causing about 58 metres of sea level rise.
Main article: Climate change and ecosystems
In terrestrial ecosystems, the earlier timing of spring events, as well as poleward and upward shifts in plant and animal ranges, have been linked with high confidence to recent warming. Future climate change is expected to affect particular ecosystems, including tundra, mangroves, coral reefs, and caves. It is expected that most ecosystems will be affected by higher atmospheric CO2 levels, combined with higher global temperatures. Overall, it is expected that climate change will result in the extinction of many species and reduced diversity of ecosystems.
Increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations have led to an increase in ocean acidity. Dissolved CO2 increases ocean acidity, measured by lower pH values. Between 1750 and 2000, surface-ocean pH has decreased by ≈0.1, from ≈8.2 to ≈8.1. Surface-ocean pH has probably not been below ≈8.1 during the past 2 million years. Projections suggest that surface-ocean pH could decrease by an additional 0.3–0.4 units by 2100. Future ocean acidification could threaten coral reefs, fisheries, protected species, and other natural resources of value to society.
Ocean deoxygenation is projected to increase hypoxia by 10%, and triple suboxic waters (oxygen concentrations 98% less than the mean surface concentrations), for each 1 °C of upper ocean warming.
Main article: Long-term effects of global warming
On the timescale of centuries to millennia, the magnitude of global warming will be determined primarily by anthropogenic CO2 emissions. This is due to carbon dioxide's very long lifetime in the atmosphere.
Stabilizing the global average temperature would require large reductions in CO2 emissions, as well as reductions in emissions of other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. Emissions of CO2 would need to be reduced by more than 80% relative to their peak level. Even if this were achieved, global average temperatures would remain close to their highest level for many centuries. As of 2016, emissions of CO2 from burning fossil fuels had stopped increasing, but The Guardian reports they need to be "reduced to have a real impact on climate change". Meanwhile, this greenhouse gas continues to accumulate in the atmosphere. In that context, the New York Times reported that scientific installations analyzing oceanic air detected the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere "rose at the highest rate on record in 2015 and 2016." It hs been suggested that this rise in CO2 levels is the result of changing absorption patterns of the ocean and land surface in that they may have reached the limit of their ability to absorb carbon dioxide.
Also, CO2 is not the only factor driving climate change. Concentrations of atmospheric methane, another greenhouse gas, rose dramatically between 2006–2016 for unknown reasons. This undermines efforts to combat global warming and there is a risk of an uncontrollable runaway greenhouse effect.
Long-term effects also include a response from the Earth's crust, due to ice melting and deglaciation, in a process called post-glacial rebound, when land masses are no longer depressed by the weight of ice. This could lead to landslides and increased seismic and volcanic activities. Tsunamis could be generated by submarine landslides caused by warmer ocean water thawing ocean-floor permafrost or releasing gas hydrates. Some world regions, such as the French Alps, already show signs of an increase in landslide frequency.
Large-scale and abrupt impacts
Main article: Abrupt climate change
See also: Cold blob (North Atlantic)
Climate change could result in global, large-scale changes in natural and social systems. Examples include the possibility for the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation to slow- or shutdown, which in the instance of a shutdown would change weather in Europe and North America considerably, ocean acidification caused by increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and the long-term melting of ice sheets, which contributes to sea level rise.
Some large-scale changes could occur abruptly, i.e., over a short time period, and might also be irreversible. Examples of abrupt climate change are the rapid release of methane and carbon dioxide from permafrost, which would lead to amplified global warming, or the shutdown of thermohaline circulation.
CO2 concentrations over the last 400,000 years.
Greenhouse effect schematic showing energy flows between space, the atmosphere, and Earth's surface. Energy exchanges are expressed in watts per square metre (W/m2).
Annual world greenhouse gas emissions, in 2010, by sector.
Percentage share of global cumulative energy-related CO2 emissions between 1751 and 2012 across different regions.
Calculations of global warming prepared in or before 2001 from a range of climate models under the SRES A2 emissions scenario, which assumes no action is taken to reduce emissions and regionally divided economic development.
Projected change in annual mean surface air temperature from the late 20th century to the middle 21st century, based on a medium emissions scenario (SRES A1B). This scenario assumes that no future policies are adopted to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Image credit: NOAAGFDL.
What can we do? Global warming is such a mammoth problem it is hard to know where to start. Will turning down the heating, recycling rubbish and planting a tree be enough? Or are governments going to have to force us to count up our carbon emissions and change our energy-guzzling ways?
What role can governments play; can scientists and engineers offer any solutions, and are there any ways we at home can make a real difference? We talked to some of the world's leading experts to find out about the best ways of tackling arguably the greatest threat mankind has ever faced.
What governments can do
Greenhouse gases don't respect national boundaries, making global warming an international problem that no one country can tackle alone.
"At the highest level, the key role of governments is to set up internationally agreed global frameworks to tackle climate change," says Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for climate change research at the University of East Anglia.
The Kyoto protocol was supposed to be just that, but many people feel that without the US - the world's biggest CO2 emitter - the treaty will have little impact. Hulme disagrees: "Kyoto is absolutely critical, not for what it will deliver by 2012, but to show that there can be collective action."
However, there is no 'one size fits all' solution and instead, solutions need to be tailored to fit the needs of individual countries.
"Governments of developing countries face different challenges, but there are substantial benefits for going down the low carbon route, such as security of energy supply and better air quality," says Hulme. In rapidly developing countries, such as China and India, greenhouse emissions are increasing at an alarmingly rate and Western governments have a responsibility to help.
"We have an opportunity to influence the practice that they adopt and it is our duty to share the clean technologies that we develop," says Andrew Ives, president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
At the national level, governments need to persuade people to change their ways. "With individual citizens, the carrot-and-stick approach can be used with things like penalties for buying large and inefficient cars," explains Hulme. For businesses, however, a different approach is needed. "Governments need to set out long-term targets and frameworks for businesses, so that they can plan for the future and know that their investments in things like low carbon technology will be worthwhile," says Hulme.
But no matter how hard governments try, they won't be able to stabilise the effects of global warming immediately. "Climate change will not be solved in our lifetime, or that of the next few generations," says Hulme. "Instead, governments must ensure that we can cope with future weather conditions in 20, 50, even 80 years down the line.
"For example, buildings in the future may need to be able to cope with driving rains in winter and temperatures of more than 35C in summer - something that needs to be considered in building regulations today."
These decisions are very difficult for governments to make, and could not be done without the help of climate scientists and engineers. "Governments can play a major role by funding research to establish the basic science behind climate change," says Hulme.
All over the world, scientists are working hard at understanding our climate and coming up with ingenious solutions for tackling the global warming problem. So what are they suggesting?
What scientists and engineers advise
First up is cleaner, greener forms of energy. Driving a car accounts for about 40% of the average person's greenhouse gas emissions, so developing low emission cars could make a real difference. Bio-power cars, such as those produced for Saab's 9-5 range, run almost entirely on wood chip, wheat and sugar.
Meanwhile, hybrid cars, such as the Toyota Prius, combine the power of a petrol engine with the efficiency of an electric motor. Biopower cars are already popular in Brazil and Sweden, while congestion charge exemption and tight emissions laws have made hybrids the latest fashion accessory in London and California, respectively. "By building on today's technology, we avoid the problem of introducing a completely new infrastructure," says Andrew Ives.
Hybrids and biopower cars can certainly help to cut CO2, but is it possible to go one step better and produce no greenhouse gas emissions at all? David Hart, head of fuel cell and hydrogen research at Imperial College London, certainly thinks so. "Fuel cell vehicles using hydrogen created from renewable power emit virtually no carbon, so switching over to fuel cells could have very great benefits in the long term," he says.
Fuel cells work by converting chemical energy into electrical energy, like a battery, but with a continuous supply of fuel. "The great advantage of a hydrogen fuel cell is that its only product is water," says Hart. Ideally, the fuel would be produced by electrochemically splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, using renewable energy such as wind power.
Extrapolating from current vehicle emissions, Hart has calculated that CO2 emissions from vehicles could drop to nearly zero by 2050 if everyone started to adopt hydrogen fuel cell cars. But the problem is encouraging people to switch over. "Hydrogen is not used outside demonstrations and its introduction would be a major shift," says Hart.
In the short term, we are more likely to see fuel cells doing the job that conventional batteries do. "Within the next few years, you may be charging your mobile phone with a methanol fuel cell," says Hart. And in the medium term, biomass, or natural gas fuel cells, might replace conventional boilers to provide super-efficient heating.
More than a third of the average UK person's greenhouse emissions come from energy used at home, so finding new ways of heating and powering homes is a priority.
Robert Mather, of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, is developing solar-powered clothing and fabrics. The challenge is to create solar cells that can bend as the fabric moves, creating flexible solar panels and possibly even solar clothes. "We envisage these new solar cells on curved surfaces of buildings, or as transportable power that can be rolled up and moved around," he says.
Nonetheless, there is a limit to what solar power can do in the UK, so what about the other renewables: wind, wave and tide?
"If wind, tidal and wave power were developed to their full potential, they could provide 40% of the UK's power needs," says Graham Sinden, from the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University. Add hydrogen fuel cells and you overcome the intermittent supply problem of renewables; combine with hi-tech biomass and landfill gas boilers, and you are more than halfway there. However, unless we all wear more woolly jumpers in winter, we still have to find more energy from somewhere else.
Kenneth Fergusson, president of the Combustion Engineering Association, believes the answer lies in clean coal technology.
"By gasifying coal before we burn it, we can remove the CO2 and turn coal into a carbon neutral fuel," he says. This technique is already being used in power stations in the US and China.
But what happens to the CO2 from the gasification process? Howard Herzog, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is looking into ways of storing it underground. Capturing CO2 from power plants and pumping it into the ground is feasible; the difficulty is in finding storage where there is no chance of it escaping for thousands of years. "Empty oil and gas fields are good places, as we know they have already managed to seal fluids into the ground for millions of years, but their capacity is somewhat limited," says Herzog.
Another possibility is a very common rock formation known as a saline aquifer. "These contain a dome-like structure, which can be filled with CO2, just like an upturned cup," says Clair Gough, a Tyndall Centre researcher based at the University of Manchester.
Experimental carbon storage projects already exist, including one under the North Sea, which swallows 1m tonnes of CO2 every year from a gas field just off Norway. "There is still more work to be done in surveying the geology of saline aquifers, but in theory we could store decades-worth of CO2 from UK power stations in rocks below the sea bed around the UK," says Gough.
Perhaps more extreme is the idea of getting the ocean to gobble up CO2. "Experiments have shown that adding iron to certain parts of the ocean can encourage the growth of algae, which draw down CO2 from the atmosphere," says Dorothee Bakker, from the University of East Anglia.
Unfortunately, the most suitable ocean is the environmentally sensitive Southern Ocean, around Antarctica. And no one is sure exactly how much of the carbon gets locked away at the bottom of the ocean, and how much might bubble back out again. "Calculations suggest that if we fertilised around 10% of the Southern Ocean we would draw down around 2% of the CO2 that we release into the atmosphere at the moment," says Bakker.
If reducing energy consumption and gathering up CO2 are not sufficient to solve the global warming problem, some scientists say we may need to turn down the Earth's thermostat.
John Latham, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, has come up with an idea to make the clouds more reflective, bouncing more sunlight back into space and helping the Earth to cool down. "Modifying clouds over around 3% of the Earth's surface would be enough to balance out the warming from doubled levels of atmospheric CO2," he says.
Meanwhile, Lowell Wood, from the University of California's Lawrence Livermore National Lab, has ideas for reflecting sunlight from higher up. "The quick and dirty solution would be to fire particles into the Earth's stratosphere, which would enhance scattering of sunlight in a similar way to violent volcanoes like Pinatubo," he says. "With just a modest amount of particles we could scatter around 1% of incoming sunlight."
More ambitious still is Wood's idea to scatter sunlight before it even reaches the Earth. He has suggested using rockets and solar sails to place a hi-tech transparent screen between the Earth and the sun, which would bend a fraction of the light and bounce it around the sides of the Earth. "The screen would be made from exceedingly fine wire, which would diffuse the infra-red portion of the sunlight and make it skitter around the Earth," says Wood.
Much as the idea of technological fixes like these are appealing, it is unlikely that we would all manage to agree on such drastic solutions. Smaller changes are easier for governments to implement, and therefore more likely to be introduced. Most of us have very little say in these big decisions, but we can still help to tackle the problem.
What we can do
"If everyone in the world moderated their transport use, made small changes to their home energy and paid attention to the foods they ate, then we would achieve the Kyoto protocol targets six times over," says Dave Reay, an environmental scientist at the University of Edinburgh and author of Climate Change Begins at Home. According to Reay, just small changes in lifestyle can make huge differences.
One of the most significant contributions we can make is to change the type of car we drive, or better still, take public transport. "A large four-wheel drive produces around three times as much CO2 as a 1.3 litre car," Reay says.
Flying is another problem. "It is not necessary to cut out flying completely, but to try and opt for the train over a short-haul flight, as these flights are the least efficient per kilometre."
And if you do fly, you can choose to offset your carbon and make your journey carbon neutral, by using an organisation such as Climate Care.
Very small changes in the home can also add up to big savings. "The biggest impact comes from things like better insulating your home, turning down the thermostat and wearing an extra jumper, and buying energy efficient appliances," says Reay.
Curbing your appetite for exotic foods and eating local produce can also help slash your emissions.
"By looking at individual actions and then multiplying them up, street by street, town by town and city by city, I found that small changes in lifestyle could make a huge difference," says Reay.
"For people in the developed world, these changes could amount to a 30% reduction in emissions if everyone did them."
There is no silver bullet solution to global warming, but it also isn't an impossible problem. While governments set up international policies, and scientists and engineers conceive technical fixes, we can all do our bit at home and be confident that it really is making a difference.
The next big thing: making cash from carbon
At the start of the year, a new market mechanism kicked in across Europe, with the sole aim of reducing member states' CO2 emissions to levels set by the Kyoto protocol. Although Britain set up an emissions trading system in 2002, many experts regard this European scheme as the most progressive in the world.
The principle behind emissions trading is simple. First, nations work out how much CO2 they are pumping into the atmosphere. Then they decide upon a tough but realistic reduction. Once a cap is set, any site or company that produces more than a certain amount of energy is allocated an emissions quota. If they want to emit more CO2, they must buy permits to make up the shortfall.
If a site or company introduces efficient new technology that cuts its emissions below the quota, it can sell permits up to that quantity to another company. By gradually reducing the cap, the scheme should reveal the cheapest ways to cut emissions across Europe.
Although widely praised, the system only covers 46% of Europe's emissions, significantly excluding those from transport and homes. In the US, nine north-eastern states are thrashing out a similar scheme. The hope is that the US scheme will eventually link with the European one, marking the start of a truly global emissions market.