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|Five frequently-asked questions |
about global warming
|How do we know that global |
warming is human-caused?
So how do scientists know that today’s warming is primarily caused by humans putting too much carbon in the atmosphere when we burn coal, oil, and gas or cut down forests?
- There are human fingerprints on carbon overload. When humans burn coal, oil and gas (fossil fuels) to generate electricity or drive our cars, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, where it traps heat. A carbon molecule that comes from fossil fuels and deforestation is “lighter” than the combined signal of those from other sources. As scientists measure the “weight” of carbon in the atmosphere over time they see a clear increase in the lighter molecules from fossil fuel and deforestation sources that correspond closely to the known trend in emissions.
- Natural changes alone can’t explain the temperature changes we’ve seen. For a computer model to accurately project the future climate, scientists must first ensure that it accurately reproduces observed temperature changes. When the models include only recorded natural climate drivers—such as the sun’s intensity—the models cannot accurately reproduce the observed warming of the past half century. When human-induced climate drivers are also included in the models, then they accurately capture recent temperature increases in the atmosphere and in the oceans.  When all the natural and human-induced climate drivers are compared to one another, the dramatic accumulation of carbon from human sources is by far the largest climate change driver over the past half century.
- Lower-level atmosphere—which contains the carbon load—is expanding. The boundary between the lower atmosphere (troposphere) and the higher atmosphere (stratosphere) has shifted upward in recent decades. See the ozone FAQ for a figure illustrating the layers of the atmosphere. This boundary has likely changed because heat-trapping gases accumulate in the lower atmosphere and that atmospheric layer expands as it heats up (much like warming the air in a balloon). And because less heat is escaping into the higher atmosphere, it is likely cooling. This differential would not occur if the sun was the sole climate driver, as solar changes would warm both atmospheric layers, and certainly would not have warmed one while cooling the other.
(Click to image to enlarge) Heat-trapping emissions (greenhouse gases) far outweigh the effects of other drivers acting on Earth’s climate. Source: Hansen et al. 2005, figure adapted by Union of Concerned Scientists.
Explore more about humans' role in global warming.