Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis – A.1 The IPCC and its Working Groups – Box 1: What drives changes in climate?

The Earth absorbs radiation from the Sun, mainly at the surface. This energy is then redistributed by the atmospheric and oceanic circulations and radiated back to space at longer (infrared) wavelengths. For the annual mean and for the Earth as a whole, the incoming solar radiation energy is balanced approximately by the outgoing terrestrial radiation. Any factor that alters the radiation received from the Sun or lost to space, or that alters the redistribution of energy within the atmosphere and between the atmosphere, land, and ocean, can affect climate. A change in the net radiative energy available to the global Earth-atmosphere system is termed here, and in previous IPCC reports, a radiative forcing. Positive radiative forcings tend to warm the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere. Negative radiative forcings tend to cool them.

Increases in the concentrations of greenhouse gases will reduce the efficiency with which the Earth’s surface radiates to space. More of the outgoing terrestrial radiation from the surface is absorbed by the atmosphere and re-emitted at higher altitudes and lower temperatures. This results in a positive radiative forcing that tends to warm the lower atmosphere and surface. Because less heat escapes to space, this is the enhanced greenhouse effect – an enhancement of an effect that has operated in the Earth’s atmosphere for billions of years due to the presence of naturally occurring greenhouse gases: water vapour, carbon dioxide, ozone, methane and nitrous oxide. The amount of radiative forcing depends on the size of the increase in concentration of each greenhouse gas, the radiative properties of the gases involved, and the concentrations of other greenhouse gases already present in the atmosphere. Further, many greenhouse gases reside in the atmosphere for centuries after being emitted, thereby introducing a long-term commitment to positive radiative forcing.

Anthropogenic aerosols (microscopic airborne particles or droplets) in the troposphere, such as those derived from fossil fuel and biomass burning, can reflect solar radiation, which leads to a cooling tendency in the climate system. Because it can absorb solar radiation, black carbon (soot) aerosol tends to warm the climate system. In addition, changes in aerosol concentrations can alter cloud amount and cloud reflectivity through their effect on cloud properties and lifetimes. In most cases, tropospheric aerosols tend to produce a negative radiative forcing and a cooler climate. They have a much shorter lifetime (days to weeks) than most greenhouse gases (decades to centuries), and, as a result, their concentrations respond much more quickly to changes in emissions.

Volcanic activity can inject large amounts of sulphur-containing gases (primarily sulphur dioxide) into the stratosphere, which are transformed into sulphate aerosols. Individual eruptions can produce a large, but transitory, negative radiative forcing, tending to cool the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere over periods of a few years.

The Sun’s output of energy varies by small amounts (0.1%) over an 11-year cycle and, in addition, variations over longer periods may occur. On time-scales of tens to thousands of years, slow variations in the Earth’s orbit, which are well understood, have led to changes in the seasonal and latitudinal distribution of solar radiation. These changes have played an important part in controlling the variations of climate in the distant past, such as the glacial and inter-glacial cycles.

When radiative forcing changes, the climate system responds on various time-scales. The longest of these are due to the large heat capacity of the deep ocean and dynamic adjustment of the ice sheets. This means that the transient response to a change (either positive or negative) may last for thousands of years. Any changes in the radiative balance of the Earth, including those due to an increase in greenhouse gases or in aerosols, will alter the global hydrological cycle and atmospheric and oceanic circulation, thereby affecting weather patterns and regional temperatures and precipitation.

Any human-induced changes in climate will be embedded in a background of natural climatic variations that occur on a whole range of time- and space-scales. Climate variability can occur as a result of natural changes in the forcing of the climate system, for example variations in the strength of the incoming solar radiation and changes in the concentrations of aerosols arising from volcanic eruptions. Natural climate variations can also occur in the absence of a change in external forcing, as a result of complex interactions between components of the climate system, such as the coupling between the atmosphere and ocean. The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon is an example of such natural “internal” variability on interannual time-scales. To distinguish anthropogenic climate changes from natural variations, it is necessary to identify the anthropogenic “signal” against the background “noise” of natural climate variability.