What We Know About Climate Change and Its Interactions with People and Ecosystems

Over the past several decades, the international and national research communities have developed a progressively clearer picture of how and why Earth's climate is changing and of the impacts of climate change on a wide range of human and environmental systems. Research has also evaluated actions that could be taken—and in some cases are already being taken—to limit the magnitude of future climate change and adapt to its impacts. In the United States, a series of reports by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP, also known as the Climate Change Science Program from 2001 to 2008) have synthesized the information specific to the nation, culminating in the report Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (USGCRP, 2009a). Internationally, scientific information about climate change is periodically assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), most recently in 2007. Much has been learned, and this knowledge base is continuously being updated and expanded with new research results.

Our assessment of the current state of knowledge about global climate change, which is summarized in this chapter and described in detail in Part II of the report, leads to the following conclusion.

Conclusion 1: Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems.

This conclusion is based on a substantial array of scientific evidence, including recent work, and is consistent with the conclusions of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC, 2007a-d), recent assessments by the USGCRP (e.g., USGRP, 2009a), and other recent assessments of the state of scientific knowledge on climate change. Both our assessment and these previous assessments place high or very high confidence1 in the following findings:

1 As discussed in Appendix D, high confidence indicates an estimated 8 out of 10 or better chance of a statement being correct, while very high confidence (or a statement than an ourcome is "very likely") indicates a 9 out of 10 or better chance.

• Earth is warming. Detailed observations of surface temperature assembled and analyzed by several different research groups show that the planet's average surface temperature was 1.4°F (0.8°C) warmer during the first decade of the 21st century than during the first decade of the 20th century, with the most pronounced warming over the past three decades. These data are corroborated by a variety of independent observations that indicate warming in other parts of the Earth system, including the cryosphere (the frozen portions of Earth's surface), the lower atmosphere, and the oceans.

• Most of the warming over the last several decades can be attributed to human activities that release carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—for energy is the single largest human driver of climate change, but agriculture, forest clearing, and certain industrial activities also make significant contributions.

• Natural climate variability leads to year-to-year and decade-to-decade fluctuations in temperature and other climate variables, as well as substantial regional differences, but cannot explain or offset the long-term warming trend.

• Global warming is closely associated with a broad spectrum of other changes, such as increases in the frequency of intense rainfall, decreases in Northern Hemisphere snow cover and Arctic sea ice, warmer and more frequent hot days and nights, rising sea levels, and widespread ocean acidification.

• Human-induced climate change and its impacts will continue for many decades, and in some cases for many centuries. Individually and collectively, and in combination with the effects of other human activities, these changes pose risks for a wide range of human and environmental systems, including freshwater resources, the coastal environment, ecosystems, agriculture, fisheries, human health, and national security, among others.

• The ultimate magnitude of climate change and the severity of its impacts depend strongly on the actions that human societies take to respond to these risks.

The following sections elaborate on these statements and provide a concise, highlevel overview of the current state of scientific knowledge about climate change in 12 critical areas of interest to a broad range of stakeholders:

• Changes in the climate system;

• Sea level rise and risk in the coastal environment;

• Freshwater resources;

• Ecosystems, ecosystem services, and biodiversity;

• Agriculture, fisheries, and food production;

• Cities and the built environment;

• Transportation systems;

• Solar radiation management;

• National and human security; and

• Designing, implementing, and evaluating climate policies.

The research progress in each of these topics is explored in additional detail in Part II of the report, but even those chapters are too brief to provide a comprehensive review of the very large body of research on these issues. Likewise, this report does not cover all scientific topics of interest in climate change research, only those of most immediate interest to decision makers. Readers interested in additional information should consult the extensive assessment reports completed by the USGCRP,2 the IPCC,3 the National Research Council (NRC),4 and other groups, as well as the numerous scientific papers that have been published since their completion.

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