NCDC Frequently Asked Questions
How do we know humans are the primary cause of the warming?
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A large body of evidence supports the conclusion that human activity is the primary driver of recent warming. This evidence has accumulated over several decades, and from hundreds of studies. The first line of evidence is our basic physical understanding of how greenhouse gases trap heat, how the climate system responds to increases in greenhouse gases, and how other human and natural factors influence climate. The second line of evidence is from indirect estimates of climate changes over the last 1,000 to 2,000 years. These estimates are often obtained from living things and their remains (like tree rings and corals) which provide a natural archive of climate variations. These indicators show that the recent temperature rise is clearly unusual in at least the last 1,000 years. The third line of evidence is based on comparisons of actual climate with computer models of how we expect climate to behave under certain human influences. For example, when climate models are run with historical increases in greenhouse gases, they show gradual warming of the Earth and ocean surface, increases in ocean heat content, a rise in global sea level, and general retreat of sea ice and snow cover. These and other aspects of modeled climate change are in agreement with observations.
Climate Model Indications and the Observed Climate
Simulated global temperature in experiments that include human influences (pink line), and model experiments that included only natural factors (blue line). The black line is observed temperature change.
Global climate models clearly show the effect of human-induced changes on global temperatures. The blue band shows how global temperatures would have changed due to natural forces only (without human influence). The pink band shows model projections of the effects of human and natural forces combined. The black line shows actual observed global average temperatures. The close match between the black line and the pink band indicates that observed warming over the last half-century cannot be explained by natural factors alone, and is instead caused primarily by human factors.
800,000 Year Record of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Concentrations
Carbon dioxide concentration (parts per million) for the last 800,000 years, measured from trapped bubbles of air in an Antarctic ice core. More information: Climate Change Impacts on the U.S.
Over the last 800,000 years, natural factors have caused the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration to vary within a range of about 170 to 300 parts per million (ppm). The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by roughly 35 percent since the start of the industrial revolution. Globally, over the past several decades, about 80 percent of human-induced CO2 emissions came from the burning of fossil fuels, while about 20 percent resulted from deforestation and associated agricultural practices. In the absence of strong control measures, emissions projected for this century would result in the CO2 concentration increasing to a level that is roughly 2 to 3 times the highest level occurring over the glacial-interglacial era that spans the last 800,000 or more years.
Energy from the Sun Has Not Increased
Global surface temperature (top, blue) and the Sun's energy received at the top of Earth's atmosphere (red, bottom). Solar energy has been measured by satellites since 1978.
The amount of solar energy received at the top of our atmosphere has followed its natural 11-year cycle of small ups and downs, but with no net increase. Over the same period, global temperature has risen markedly. This indicates that it is extremely unlikely that solar influence has been a significant driver of global temperature change over several decades.