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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Climate Change Science: Key Points

Jane A. Leggett
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy

Though climate change science often is portrayed as controversial, broad scientific agreement exists on many points:
• The Earth’s climate is warming and changing.

• Human-related emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and other pollutants have contributed to warming observed since the 1970s and, if continued, would tend to drive further warming, sea level rise, and other climate shifts.

• Volcanoes, the Earth’s relationship to the Sun, solar cycles, and land cover change may be more influential on climate shifts than rising GHG concentrations on other time and geographic scales. Human-induced changes are super-imposed on and interact with natural climate variability.

• The largest uncertainties in climate projections surround feedbacks in the Earth system that augment or dampen the initial influence, or affect the pattern of changes. Feedback mechanisms are apparent in clouds, vegetation, oceans, and potential emissions from soils.

• There is a wide range of projections of future, human-induced climate change, all pointing toward warming and associated sea level rise, with wider uncertainties regarding the nature of precipitation, storms, and other important aspects of climate.

• Human societies and ecosystems are sensitive to climate. Some past climate changes benefited civilizations; others contributed to the demise of some societies. Small future changes may bring benefits for some and adverse effects to others. Large climate changes would be increasingly adverse for a widening scope of populations and ecosystems.

As is common and constructive in science, scientists debate finer points. For example, a large majority but not all scientists find compelling evidence that rising GHG have contributed the most influence on global warming since the 1970s, with solar radiation a smaller influence on that time scale. Most climate modelers project important impacts of unabated GHG emissions, with low likelihoods of catastrophic impacts over this century. Human influences on climate change would continue for centuries after atmospheric concentrations of GHG are stabilized, as the accumulated gases continue to exert effects and as the Earth’s systems seek to equilibrate.

The U.S. government and others have invested billions of dollars in research to improve understanding of the Earth’s climate system, resulting in major improvements in understanding while major uncertainties remain. However, it is fundamental to the scientific method that science does not provide absolute proofs; all scientific theories are to some degree provisional and may be rejected or modified based on new evidence. Private and public decisions to act or not to act, to reduce the human contribution to climate change or to prepare for future changes, will be made in the context of accumulating evidence (or lack of evidence), accumulating GHG concentrations, ongoing debate about risks, and other considerations (e.g., economics and distributional effects). 

Date of Report: September 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: R43229
Price: $29.95

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