What Are the Causes of Climate Change?

We can’t fight climate change without understanding what drives it.

A river runs through a valley between mountains, with brown banks visible on either side of the water

Low water levels at Shasta Lake, California, following a historic drought in October 2021

Andrew Innerarity/California Department of Water Resources

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

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At the root of climate change is the phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect , the term scientists use to describe the way that certain atmospheric gases “trap” heat that would otherwise radiate upward, from the planet’s surface, into outer space. On the one hand, we have the greenhouse effect to thank for the presence of life on earth; without it, our planet would be cold and unlivable.

But beginning in the mid- to late-19th century, human activity began pushing the greenhouse effect to new levels. The result? A planet that’s warmer right now than at any other point in human history, and getting ever warmer. This global warming has, in turn, dramatically altered natural cycles and weather patterns, with impacts that include extreme heat, protracted drought, increased flooding, more intense storms, and rising sea levels. Taken together, these miserable and sometimes deadly effects are what have come to be known as climate change .

Detailing and discussing the human causes of climate change isn’t about shaming people, or trying to make them feel guilty for their choices. It’s about defining the problem so that we can arrive at effective solutions. And we must honestly address its origins—even though it can sometimes be difficult, or even uncomfortable, to do so. Human civilization has made extraordinary productivity leaps, some of which have led to our currently overheated planet. But by harnessing that same ability to innovate and attaching it to a renewed sense of shared responsibility, we can find ways to cool the planet down, fight climate change , and chart a course toward a more just, equitable, and sustainable future.

Here’s a rough breakdown of the factors that are driving climate change.

Natural causes of climate change

Human-driven causes of climate change, transportation, electricity generation, industry & manufacturing, agriculture, oil & gas development, deforestation, our lifestyle choices.

Some amount of climate change can be attributed to natural phenomena. Over the course of Earth’s existence, volcanic eruptions , fluctuations in solar radiation , tectonic shifts , and even small changes in our orbit have all had observable effects on planetary warming and cooling patterns.

But climate records are able to show that today’s global warming—particularly what has occured since the start of the industrial revolution—is happening much, much faster than ever before. According to NASA , “[t]hese natural causes are still in play today, but their influence is too small or they occur too slowly to explain the rapid warming seen in recent decades.” And the records refute the misinformation that natural causes are the main culprits behind climate change, as some in the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks would like us to believe.

A black and white image of an industrial plant on the banks of a body of water, with black smoke rising from three smokestacks

Chemical manufacturing plants emit fumes along Onondaga Lake in Solvay, New York, in the late-19th century. Over time, industrial development severely polluted the local area.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection

Scientists agree that human activity is the primary driver of what we’re seeing now worldwide. (This type of climate change is sometimes referred to as anthropogenic , which is just a way of saying “caused by human beings.”) The unchecked burning of fossil fuels over the past 150 years has drastically increased the presence of atmospheric greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide . At the same time, logging and development have led to the widespread destruction of forests, wetlands, and other carbon sinks —natural resources that store carbon dioxide and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere.

Right now, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane , and nitrous oxide are the highest they’ve been in the last 800,000 years . Some greenhouse gases, like hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs) , do not even exist in nature. By continuously pumping these gases into the air, we helped raise the earth’s average temperature by about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit during the 20th century—which has brought us to our current era of deadly, and increasingly routine, weather extremes. And it’s important to note that while climate change affects everyone in some way, it doesn’t do so equally: All over the world, people of color and those living in economically disadvantaged or politically marginalized communities bear a much larger burden , despite the fact that these communities play a much smaller role in warming the planet.

Our ways of generating power for electricity, heat, and transportation, our built environment and industries, our ways of interacting with the land, and our consumption habits together serve as the primary drivers of climate change. While the percentages of greenhouse gases stemming from each source may fluctuate, the sources themselves remain relatively consistent.

Four lanes of cars and trucks sit in traffic on a highway

Traffic on Interstate 25 in Denver

David Parsons/iStock

The cars, trucks, ships, and planes that we use to transport ourselves and our goods are a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions. (In the United States, they actually constitute the single-largest source.) Burning petroleum-based fuel in combustion engines releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Passenger cars account for 41 percent of those emissions, with the typical passenger vehicle emitting about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. And trucks are by far the worst polluters on the road. They run almost constantly and largely burn diesel fuel, which is why, despite accounting for just 4 percent of U.S. vehicles, trucks emit 23 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

We can get these numbers down, but we need large-scale investments to get more zero-emission vehicles on the road and increase access to reliable public transit .

As of 2021, nearly 60 percent of the electricity used in the United States comes from the burning of coal, natural gas , and other fossil fuels . Because of the electricity sector’s historical investment in these dirty energy sources, it accounts for roughly a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.

That history is undergoing a major change, however: As renewable energy sources like wind and solar become cheaper and easier to develop, utilities are turning to them more frequently. The percentage of clean, renewable energy is growing every year—and with that growth comes a corresponding decrease in pollutants.

But while things are moving in the right direction, they’re not moving fast enough. If we’re to keep the earth’s average temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, which scientists say we must do in order to avoid the very worst impacts of climate change, we have to take every available opportunity to speed up the shift from fossil fuels to renewables in the electricity sector.

A graphic titled "Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector (2020)"

The factories and facilities that produce our goods are significant sources of greenhouse gases; in 2020, they were responsible for fully 24 percent of U.S. emissions. Most industrial emissions come from the production of a small set of carbon-intensive products, including basic chemicals, iron and steel, cement and concrete, aluminum, glass, and paper. To manufacture the building blocks of our infrastructure and the vast array of products demanded by consumers, producers must burn through massive amounts of energy. In addition, older facilities in need of efficiency upgrades frequently leak these gases, along with other harmful forms of air pollution .

One way to reduce the industrial sector’s carbon footprint is to increase efficiency through improved technology and stronger enforcement of pollution regulations. Another way is to rethink our attitudes toward consumption (particularly when it comes to plastics ), recycling , and reuse —so that we don’t need to be producing so many things in the first place. And, since major infrastructure projects rely heavily on industries like cement manufacturing (responsible for 7 percent of annual global greenhouse gas), policy mandates must leverage the government’s purchasing power to grow markets for cleaner alternatives, and ensure that state and federal agencies procure more sustainably produced materials for these projects. Hastening the switch from fossil fuels to renewables will also go a long way toward cleaning up this energy-intensive sector.

The advent of modern, industrialized agriculture has significantly altered the vital but delicate relationship between soil and the climate—so much so that agriculture accounted for 11 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. This sector is especially notorious for giving off large amounts of nitrous oxide and methane, powerful gases that are highly effective at trapping heat. The widespread adoption of chemical fertilizers , combined with certain crop-management practices that prioritize high yields over soil health, means that agriculture accounts for nearly three-quarters of the nitrous oxide found in our atmosphere. Meanwhile, large-scale industrialized livestock production continues to be a significant source of atmospheric methane, which is emitted as a function of the digestive processes of cattle and other ruminants.

A man in a cap and outdoor vest in front of a wooden building holds a large squash

Stephen McComber holds a squash harvested from the community garden in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory, a First Nations reserve of the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke, in Quebec.

Stephanie Foden for NRDC

But farmers and ranchers—especially Indigenous farmers, who have been tending the land according to sustainable principles —are reminding us that there’s more than one way to feed the world. By adopting the philosophies and methods associated with regenerative agriculture , we can slash emissions from this sector while boosting our soil’s capacity for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, and producing healthier foods.

A pipe sticks out of a hole in the ground in the center of a wide pit surrounded by crude fencing

A decades-old, plugged and abandoned oil well at a cattle ranch in Crane County, Texas, in June 2021, when it was found to be leaking brine water

Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Oil and gas lead to emissions at every stage of their production and consumption—not only when they’re burned as fuel, but just as soon as we drill a hole in the ground to begin extracting them. Fossil fuel development is a major source of methane, which invariably leaks from oil and gas operations : drilling, fracking , transporting, and refining. And while methane isn’t as prevalent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, it’s many times more potent at trapping heat during the first 20 years of its release into the atmosphere. Even abandoned and inoperative wells—sometimes known as “orphaned” wells —leak methane. More than 3 million of these old, defunct wells are spread across the country and were responsible for emitting more than 280,000 metric tons of methane in 2018.

Unsurprisingly, given how much time we spend inside of them, our buildings—both residential and commercial—emit a lot of greenhouse gases. Heating, cooling, cooking, running appliances, and maintaining other building-wide systems accounted for 13 percent of U.S. emissions overall in 2020. And even worse, some 30 percent of the energy used in U.S. buildings goes to waste, on average.

Every day, great strides are being made in energy efficiency , allowing us to achieve the same (or even better) results with less energy expended. By requiring all new buildings to employ the highest efficiency standards—and by retrofitting existing buildings with the most up-to-date technologies—we’ll reduce emissions in this sector while simultaneously making it easier and cheaper for people in all communities to heat, cool, and power their homes: a top goal of the environmental justice movement.

An aerial view show a large area of brown land surrounded by deep green land

An aerial view of clearcut sections of boreal forest near Dryden in Northwestern Ontario, Canada, in June 2019

River Jordan for NRDC

Another way we’re injecting more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere is through the clearcutting of the world’s forests and the degradation of its wetlands . Vegetation and soil store carbon by keeping it at ground level or underground. Through logging and other forms of development, we’re cutting down or digging up vegetative biomass and releasing all of its stored carbon into the air. In Canada’s boreal forest alone, clearcutting is responsible for releasing more than 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year—the emissions equivalent of 5.5 million vehicles.

Government policies that emphasize sustainable practices, combined with shifts in consumer behavior , are needed to offset this dynamic and restore the planet’s carbon sinks .

A passnger train crosses over a bridge on a river

The Yellow Line Metro train crossing over the Potomac River from Washington, DC, to Virginia on June 24, 2022

Sarah Baker

The decisions we make every day as individuals—which products we purchase, how much electricity we consume, how we get around, what we eat (and what we don’t—food waste makes up 4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions)—add up to our single, unique carbon footprints . Put all of them together and you end up with humanity’s collective carbon footprint. The first step in reducing it is for us to acknowledge the uneven distribution of climate change’s causes and effects, and for those who bear the greatest responsibility for global greenhouse gas emissions to slash them without bringing further harm to those who are least responsible .

The big, climate-affecting decisions made by utilities, industries, and governments are shaped, in the end, by us : our needs, our demands, our priorities. Winning the fight against climate change will require us to rethink those needs, ramp up those demands , and reset those priorities. Short-term thinking of the sort that enriches corporations must give way to long-term planning that strengthens communities and secures the health and safety of all people. And our definition of climate advocacy must go beyond slogans and move, swiftly, into the realm of collective action—fueled by righteous anger, perhaps, but guided by faith in science and in our ability to change the world for the better.

If our activity has brought us to this dangerous point in human history, breaking old patterns can help us find a way out.

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The Causes of Climate Change

Human activities are driving the global warming trend observed since the mid-20th century.

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

  • The greenhouse effect is essential to life on Earth, but human-made emissions in the atmosphere are trapping and slowing heat loss to space.
  • Five key greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapor.
  • While the Sun has played a role in past climate changes, the evidence shows the current warming cannot be explained by the Sun.

Increasing Greenhouses Gases Are Warming the Planet

Scientists attribute the global warming trend observed since the mid-20 th century to the human expansion of the "greenhouse effect" 1 — warming that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space.

Life on Earth depends on energy coming from the Sun. About half the light energy reaching Earth's atmosphere passes through the air and clouds to the surface, where it is absorbed and radiated in the form of infrared heat. About 90% of this heat is then absorbed by greenhouse gases and re-radiated, slowing heat loss to space.

Four Major Gases That Contribute to the Greenhouse Effect

Carbon dioxide.

A vital component of the atmosphere, carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) is released through natural processes (like volcanic eruptions) and through human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation.

Like many atmospheric gases, methane comes from both natural and human-caused sources. Methane comes from plant-matter breakdown in wetlands and is also released from landfills and rice farming. Livestock animals emit methane from their digestion and manure. Leaks from fossil fuel production and transportation are another major source of methane, and natural gas is 70% to 90% methane.

Nitrous Oxide

A potent greenhouse gas produced by farming practices, nitrous oxide is released during commercial and organic fertilizer production and use. Nitrous oxide also comes from burning fossil fuels and burning vegetation and has increased by 18% in the last 100 years.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)

These chemical compounds do not exist in nature – they are entirely of industrial origin. They were used as refrigerants, solvents (a substance that dissolves others), and spray can propellants.

FORCING:  Something acting upon Earth's climate that causes a change in how energy flows through it (such as long-lasting, heat-trapping gases - also known as greenhouse gases). These gases slow outgoing heat in the atmosphere and cause the planet to warm.

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

Another Gas That Contributes to the Greenhouse Effect:

Water vapor.

Water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas, but because the warming ocean increases the amount of it in our atmosphere, it is not a direct cause of climate change. Credit:  John Fowler  on  Unsplash

FEEDBACKS:  A process where something is either amplified or reduced as time goes on, such as water vapor increasing as Earth warms leading to even more warming.

Photo of monsoon over Mexico.

Human Activity Is the Cause of Increased Greenhouse Gas Concentrations

Over the last century, burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO 2 ). This increase happens because the coal or oil burning process combines carbon with oxygen in the air to make CO 2 . To a lesser extent, clearing of land for agriculture, industry, and other human activities has increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.

The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by nearly 50% since 1750 2 . This increase is due to human activities, because scientists can see a distinctive isotopic fingerprint in the atmosphere.

In its Sixth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, composed of scientific experts from countries all over the world, concluded that it is unequivocal that the increase of CO 2 , methane, and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere over the industrial era is the result of human activities and that human influence is the principal driver of many changes observed across the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere.

"Since systematic scientific assessments began in the 1970s, the influence of human activity on the warming of the climate system has evolved from theory to established fact."

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The panel's AR6 Working Group I (WGI) Summary for Policymakers report is online at https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/ .

Evidence Shows That Current Global Warming Cannot Be Explained by Solar Irradiance

Scientists use a metric called Total Solar Irradiance (TSI) to measure the changes in energy the Earth receives from the Sun. TSI incorporates the 11-year solar cycle and solar flares/storms from the Sun's surface.

Studies show that solar variability has played a role in past climate changes. For example, a decrease in solar activity coupled with increased volcanic activity helped trigger the Little Ice Age.

temperature vs solar activity updated July 2020

But several lines of evidence show that current global warming cannot be explained by changes in energy from the Sun:

  • Since 1750, the average amount of energy from the Sun either remained constant or decreased slightly 3 .
  • If a more active Sun caused the warming, scientists would expect warmer temperatures in all layers of the atmosphere. Instead, they have observed a cooling in the upper atmosphere and a warming at the surface and lower parts of the atmosphere. That's because greenhouse gases are slowing heat loss from the lower atmosphere.
  • Climate models that include solar irradiance changes can’t reproduce the observed temperature trend over the past century or more without including a rise in greenhouse gases.

1. IPCC 6 th Assessment Report, WG1, Summary for Policy Makers, Sections A, “ The Current State of the Climate ”

IPCC 6 th Assessment Report, WG1, Technical Summary, Sections TS.1.2, TS.2.1 and TS.3.1

2. P. Friedlingstein, et al., 2022: “Global Carbon Budget 2022”, Earth System Science Data ( 11 Nov 2022): 4811–4900. https://doi.org/10.5194/essd-14-4811-2022

3. IPCC 6 th Assessment Report, WG1, Chapter 2, Section 2.2.1, “ Solar and Orbital Forcing ” IPCC 6 th Assessment Report, WG1, Chapter 7, Sections 7.3.4.4, 7.3.5.2, Figure 7.6, “ Solar ” M. Lockwood and W.T. Ball, Placing limits on long-term variations in quiet-Sun irradiance and their contribution to total solar irradiance and solar radiative forcing of climate,” Proceedings of the Royal Society A , 476, issue 2228 (24 June 2020): https://doi 10.1098/rspa.2020.0077

Header image credit: Pixabay/stevepb Four Major Gases image credit: Adobe Stock/Ilya Glovatskiy

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Causes of Climate Change

Graph: Human and Natural Influences on Global Temperature

Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have released large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which has changed the earth’s climate. Natural processes, such as changes in the sun's energy and volcanic eruptions, also affect the earth's climate. However, they do not explain the warming that we have observed over the last century. 1

Human Versus Natural Causes

It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land . - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 4

Scientists have pieced together a record of the earth’s climate by analyzing a number of indirect measures of climate, such as ice cores, tree rings, glacier lengths, pollen remains, and ocean sediments, and by studying changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun. 2 This record shows that the climate varies naturally over a wide range of time scales, but this variability does not explain the observed warming since the 1950s. Rather, it is extremely likely (> 95%) that human activities have been the dominant cause of that warming. 3

Human activities have contributed substantially to climate change through:

  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Reflectivity or Absorption of the Sun’s Energy

Heat-trapping greenhouse gases and the earth's climate, greenhouse gases.

Concentrations of the key greenhouse gases have all increased since the Industrial Revolution due to human activities. Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide concentrations are now more abundant in the earth’s atmosphere than any time in the last 800,000 years. 5 These greenhouse gas emissions have increased the greenhouse effect and caused the earth’s surface temperature to rise . Burning fossil fuels changes the climate more than any other human activity.

Carbon dioxide: Human activities currently release over 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. 6 Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by more than 40 percent since pre-industrial times, from approximately 280 parts per million (ppm) in the 18th century 7 to 414 ppm in 2020. 8

Methane: Human activities increased methane concentrations during most of the 20th century to more than 2.5 times the pre-industrial level, from approximately 722 parts per billion (ppb) in the 18th century 9 to 1,867 ppb in 2019. 10

Nitrous oxide: Nitrous oxide concentrations have risen approximately 20 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution, with a relatively rapid increase toward the end of the 20th century. Nitrous oxide concentrations have increased from a pre-industrial level of 270 ppb 11 to 332 ppb in 2019. 12

For more information on greenhouse gas emissions, see the Greenhouse Gas Emissions website. To learn more about actions that can reduce these emissions, see What You Can Do . To translate abstract greenhouse gas emissions measurements into concrete terms, try using EPA's Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator .

Graph showing concentrations of key greenhouse gases.

Activities such as agriculture, road construction, and deforestation can change the reflectivity of the earth's surface, leading to local warming or cooling. This effect is observed in heat islands , which are urban centers that are warmer than the surrounding, less populated areas. One reason that these areas are warmer is that buildings, pavement, and roofs tend to reflect less sunlight than natural surfaces. While deforestation can increase the earth’s reflectivity globally by replacing dark trees with lighter surfaces such as crops, the net effect of all land-use changes appears to be a small cooling. 13

Emissions of small particles, known as aerosols, into the air can also lead to reflection or absorption of the sun's energy. Many types of air pollutants undergo chemical reactions in the atmosphere to create aerosols. Overall, human-generated aerosols have a net cooling effect on the earth. Learn more about human-generated and natural aerosols .

Natural Processes

Natural processes are always influencing the earth’s climate and can explain climate changes prior to the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s. However, recent climate changes cannot be explained by natural causes alone.

Changes in the Earth’s Orbit and Rotation

Changes in the earth’s orbit and its axis of rotation have had a big impact on climate in the past. For example, the amount of summer sunshine on the Northern Hemisphere, which is affected by changes in the planet’s orbit, appears to be the primary cause of past cycles of ice ages, in which the earth has experienced long periods of cold temperatures (ice ages), as well as shorter interglacial periods (periods between ice ages) of relatively warmer temperatures. 14   At the coldest part of the last glacial period (or ice age), the average global temperature was about 11°F colder than it is today. At the peak of the last interglacial period, however, the average global temperature was at most 2°F warmer than it is today. 15

Variations in Solar Activity

Changes in the sun’s energy output can affect the intensity of the sunlight that reaches the earth’s surface. While these changes can influence the earth’s climate, solar variations have played little role in the climate changes observed in recent decades. 16 Satellites have been measuring the amount of energy the earth receives from the sun since 1978. These measurements show no net increase in the sun’s output, even as global surface temperatures have risen. 17

Measurements of Global Average Surface Temperature and the Sun’s Energy

Changes in the Earth’s Reflectivity

The amount of sunlight that is absorbed or reflected by the planet depends on the earth’s surface and atmosphere. Dark objects and surfaces, like the ocean, forests, and soil, tend to absorb more sunlight. Light-colored objects and surfaces, like snow and clouds, tend to reflect sunlight. About 70 percent of the sunlight that reaches the earth is absorbed. 18 Natural changes in the earth’s surface, like the melting of sea ice , have contributed to climate change in the past, often acting as feedbacks  to other processes.

Volcanic Activity

Volcanoes have played a noticeable role in climate, and volcanic eruptions released large quantities of carbon dioxide in the distant past. Some explosive volcano eruptions can throw particles (e.g., SO 2 ) into the upper atmosphere, where they can reflect enough sunlight back to space to cool the surface of the planet for several years. 19 These particles are an example of cooling aerosols .

Volcanic particles from a single eruption do not produce long-term climate change because they remain in the atmosphere for a much shorter time than greenhouse gases. In addition, human activities emit more than 100 times as much carbon dioxide as volcanoes each year. 20

Changes in Naturally Occurring Carbon Dioxide Concentrations

Over the last several hundred thousand years, carbon dioxide levels varied in tandem with the glacial cycles. During warm interglacial periods, carbon dioxide levels were higher. During cool glacial periods, carbon dioxide levels were lower. 21 The heating or cooling of the earth’s surface and oceans can cause changes in the natural sources and sinks of these gases, and thus change greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. 22 These changing concentrations have acted as a positive climate feedback , amplifying the temperature changes caused by long-term shifts in the earth’s orbit. 23

A graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

1  National Academy of Sciences. (2020). Climate change: Evidence and causes: Update 2020 . The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, p. 5. doi: 10.17226/25733

2  Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, B. DeAngelo, S. Doherty, K. Hayhoe, R. Horton, J.P. Kossin, P.C. Taylor, A.M. Waple & C.P. Weaver. (2017). Executive summary. In: Climate science special report: Fourth national climate assessment, volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart & T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, pp. 12–34, doi: 10.7930/J0DJ5CTG

National Academy of Sciences. (2020). Climate change: Evidence and causes: Update 2020 . The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, p. 5. doi: 10.17226/25733

3  IPCC (2013). Climate change 2013: The physical science basis .  Working Group I contribution to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex & P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, p. 869.

4  IPCC. (2021). Climate change 2021: The physical science basis . Working Group I contribution to the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu & B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, p. SPM-5.

5  National Academy of Sciences. (2020). Climate change: Evidence and causes: Update 2020 . The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, p. B-2. doi: 10.17226/25733

Fahey, D.W., S.J. Doherty, K.A. Hibbard, A. Romanou & P.C. Taylor. (2017).  Physical drivers of climate change . In: Climate science special report: Fourth national climate assessment, volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart & T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, p. 80, Figure 2.4. doi: 10.7930/J0513WCR

6  Hayhoe, K., D.J. Wuebbles, D.R. Easterling, D.W. Fahey, S. Doherty, J. Kossin, W. Sweet, R. Vose & M. Wehner. (2018). Our changing climate . In: Impacts, risks, and adaptation in the United States: Fourth national climate assessment, volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock & B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, p. 76. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018

7  IPCC. (2013). Climate change 2013: The physical science basis . Working Group I contribution to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex & P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, and New York, NY, p. 166.

8 NOAA. (2021). Trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide . Retrieved 3/25/2021. esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/mlo.html

9 IPCC. (2013).  Climate change 2013: The physical science basis . Working Group I contribution to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex & P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, and New York, NY, p. 167.

10 NOAA. (2021). Trends in atmospheric methane . Retrieved 3/25/2021. esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends_ch4

11 IPCC. (2013).  Climate change 2013: The physical science basis . Working Group I contribution to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex & P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, and New York, NY, p. 168.

12 NOAA. (2021). Trends in nitrous oxide . Retrieved 3/25/2021. esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends_n2o/

13 Fahey, D.W., S.J. Doherty, K.A. Hibbard, A. Romanou & P.C. Taylor. (2017). Physical drivers of climate change . In: Climate science special report: Fourth national climate assessment, volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart & T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, p. 78, Fig. 2.3 and p. 86. doi: 10.7930/J0513WCR

14  National Academy of Sciences. (2020). Climate change: Evidence and causes: Update 2020.  The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, p. 9. doi: 10.17226/25733

15  Fahey, D.W., S.J. Doherty, K.A. Hibbard, A. Romanou & P.C. Taylor. (2017). Our globally changing climate . In: Climate science special report: Fourth national climate assessment, volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart & T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, p. 53. doi: 10.7930/J08S4N35

16  National Academy of Sciences. (2020). Climate change: Evidence and causes: Update 2020.  The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, p. 7. doi: 10.17226/25733

17  National Academy of Sciences. (2020). Climate change: Evidence and causes: Update 2020.  The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, p. 7. doi: 10.17226/25733

18  Fahey, D.W., S.J. Doherty, K.A. Hibbard, A. Romanou, & P.C. Taylor. (2017). Physical drivers of climate change . In: Climate science special report: Fourth national climate assessment, volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart & T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, p. 2. doi: 10.7930/J0513WCR

19  Fahey, D.W., S.J. Doherty, K.A. Hibbard, A. Romanou, & P.C. Taylor. (2017). Physical drivers of climate change . In: Climate science special report: Fourth national climate assessment, volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart & T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, p. 79. doi: 10.7930/J0513WCR

20  Fahey, D.W., S.J. Doherty, K.A. Hibbard, A. Romanou & P.C. Taylor. (2017). Physical drivers of climate change . In: Climate science special report: Fourth national climate assessment, volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart & T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, p. 79. doi: 10.7930/J0513WCR

21  National Academy of Sciences. (2020). Climate change: Evidence and causes: Update 2020.  The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, pp. 9–10. doi: 10.17226/25733

22  IPCC. (2013).  Climate change 2013: The physical science basis .  Working Group I contribution to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex & P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, p. 399.

23  National Academy of Sciences. (2020). Climate change: Evidence and causes: Update 2020.  The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, pp. 9–10. doi: 10.17226/25733

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what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

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Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions. As greenhouse gas emissions blanket the Earth, they trap the sun’s heat. This leads to global warming and climate change. The world is now warming faster than at any point in recorded history. Warmer temperatures over time are changing weather patterns and disrupting the usual balance of nature. This poses many risks to human beings and all other forms of life on Earth. 

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Humans are causing global warming

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

The Basics of Climate Change

Greenhouse gases affect Earth’s energy balance and climate

The Sun serves as the primary energy source for Earth’s climate. Some of the incoming sunlight is reflected directly back into space, especially by bright surfaces such as ice and clouds, and the rest is absorbed by the surface and the atmosphere. Much of this absorbed solar energy is re-emitted as heat (longwave or infrared radiation). The atmosphere in turn absorbs and re-radiates heat, some of which escapes to space. Any disturbance to this balance of incoming and outgoing energy will affect the climate. For example, small changes in the output of energy from the Sun will affect this balance directly.

If all heat energy emitted from the surface passed through the atmosphere directly into space, Earth’s average surface temperature would be tens of degrees colder than today. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, act to make the surface much warmer than this because they absorb and emit heat energy in all directions (including downwards), keeping Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere warm [Figure B1]. Without this greenhouse effect, life as we know it could not have evolved on our planet. Adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere makes it even more effective at preventing heat from escaping into space. When the energy leaving is less than the energy entering, Earth warms until a new balance is established.

Greenhouse gases emitted by human activities alter Earth’s energy balance and thus its climate. Humans also affect climate by changing the nature of the land surfaces (for example by clearing forests for farming) and through the emission of pollutants that affect the amount and type of particles in the atmosphere.

Scientists have determined that, when all human and natural factors are considered, Earth’s climate balance has been altered towards warming, with the biggest contributor being increases in CO 2 .

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

Figure b1. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, absorb heat energy and emit it in all directions (including downwards), keeping Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere warm. Adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere enhances the effect, making Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere even warmer. Image based on a figure from US EPA.

Human activities have added greenhouse gases to the atmosphere

The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased significantly since the Industrial Revolution began. In the case of carbon dioxide, the average concentration measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has risen from 316 parts per million (ppm) in 1959 (the first full year of data available) to more than 411 ppm in 2019 [Figure B2]. The same rates of increase have since been recorded at numerous other stations worldwide. Since preindustrial times, the atmospheric concentration of CO 2  has increased by over 40%, methane has increased by more than 150%, and nitrous oxide has increased by roughly 20%. More than half of the increase in CO 2  has occurred since 1970. Increases in all three gases contribute to warming of Earth, with the increase in CO 2  playing the largest role. See page B3 to learn about the sources of human emitted greenhouse gases.  Learn about the sources of human emitted greenhouse gases.

Scientists have examined greenhouse gases in the context of the past. Analysis of air trapped inside ice that has been accumulating over time in Antarctica shows that the CO 2  concentration began to increase significantly in the 19th century [Figure B3], after staying in the range of 260 to 280 ppm for the previous 10,000 years. Ice core records extending back 800,000 years show that during that time, CO 2  concentrations remained within the range of 170 to 300 ppm throughout many “ice age” cycles -  learn about the ice ages  -  and no concentration above 300 ppm is seen in ice core records until the past 200 years.

Measurements of the forms (isotopes) of carbon in the modern atmosphere show a clear fingerprint of the addition of “old” carbon (depleted in natural radioactive  14 C) coming from the combustion of fossil fuels (as opposed to “newer” carbon coming from living systems). In addition, it is known that human activities (excluding land use changes) currently emit an estimated 10 billion tonnes of carbon each year, mostly by burning fossil fuels, which is more than enough to explain the observed increase in concentration. These and other lines of evidence point conclusively to the fact that the elevated CO 2  concentration in our atmosphere is the result of human activities. 

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

Fig b2. Measurements of atmospheric CO 2  since 1958 from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii (black) and from the South Pole (red) show a steady annual increase in atmospheric CO 2  concentration. The measurements are made at remote places like these because they are not greatly influenced by local processes, so therefore they are representative of the background atmosphere. The small up-and-down saw-tooth pattern reflects seasonal changes in the release and uptake of CO 2  by plants. Source: Scripps CO2 Program

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

Figure b3. CO 2  variations during the past 1,000 years, obtained from analysis of air trapped in an ice core extracted from Antarctica (red squares), show a sharp rise in atmospheric CO 2  starting in the late 19th century. Modern atmospheric measurements from Mauna Loa are superimposed in gray. Source: figure by Eric Wolff, data from Etheridge et al., 1996; MacFarling Meure et al., 2006; Scripps CO 2  Program. 

Climate records show a warming trend

Estimating global average surface air temperature increase requires careful analysis of millions of measurements from around the world, including from land stations, ships, and satellites. Despite the many complications of synthesising such data, multiple independent teams have concluded separately and unanimously that global average surface air temperature has risen by about 1 °C (1.8 °F) since 1900 [Figure B4]. Although the record shows several pauses and accelerations in the increasing trend, each of the last four decades has been warmer than any other decade in the instrumental record since 1850.

Going further back in time before accurate thermometers were widely available, temperatures can be reconstructed using climate-sensitive indicators “proxies” in materials such as tree rings, ice cores, and marine sediments. Comparisons of the thermometer record with these proxy measurements suggest that the time since the early 1980s has been the warmest 40-year period in at least eight centuries, and that global temperature is rising towards peak temperatures last seen 5,000 to 10,000 years ago in the warmest part of our current interglacial period.

Many other impacts associated with the warming trend have become evident in recent years. Arctic summer sea ice cover has shrunk dramatically. The heat content of the ocean has increased. Global average sea level has risen by approximately 16 cm (6 inches) since 1901, due both to the expansion of warmer ocean water and to the addition of melt waters from glaciers and ice sheets on land. Warming and precipitation changes are altering the geographical ranges of many plant and animal species and the timing of their life cycles. In addition to the effects on climate, some of the excess CO 2  in the atmosphere is being taken up by the ocean, changing its chemical composition (causing ocean acidification).

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

Figure b4. Earth’s global average surface temperature has risen, as shown in this plot of combined land and ocean measurements from 1850 to 2019 derived from three independent analyses of the available data sets. The top panel shows annual average values from the three analyses, and the bottom panel shows decadal average values, including the uncertainty range (grey bars) for the maroon (HadCRUT4) dataset. The temperature changes are relative to the global average surface temperature, averaged from 1961−1990. Source: Based on IPCC AR5, data from the HadCRUT4 dataset (black), NOAA Climate.gov; data from UK Met Office Hadley Centre (maroon), US National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies (red), and US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information (orange). 

Many complex processes shape our climate

Based just on the physics of the amount of energy that CO 2 absorbs and emits, a doubling of atmospheric CO 2 concentration from pre-industrial levels (up to about 560 ppm) would by itself cause a global average temperature increase of about 1 °C (1.8 °F). In the overall climate system, however, things are more complex; warming leads to further effects (feedbacks) that either amplify or diminish the initial warming.

The most important feedbacks involve various forms of water. A warmer atmosphere generally contains more water vapour. Water vapour is a potent greenhouse gas, thus causing more warming; its short lifetime in the atmosphere keeps its increase largely in step with warming. Thus, water vapour is treated as an amplifier, and not a driver, of climate change. Higher temperatures in the polar regions melt sea ice and reduce seasonal snow cover, exposing a darker ocean and land surface that can absorb more heat, causing further warming. Another important but uncertain feedback concerns changes in clouds. Warming and increases in water vapour together may cause cloud cover to increase or decrease which can either amplify or dampen temperature change depending on the changes in the horizontal extent, altitude, and properties of clouds. The latest assessment of the science indicates that the overall net global effect of cloud changes is likely to be to amplify warming.

The ocean moderates climate change. The ocean is a huge heat reservoir, but it is difficult to heat its full depth because warm water tends to stay near the surface. The rate at which heat is transferred to the deep ocean is therefore slow; it varies from year to year and from decade to decade, and it helps to determine the pace of warming at the surface. Observations of the sub-surface ocean are limited prior to about 1970, but since then, warming of the upper 700 m (2,300 feet) is readily apparent, and deeper warming is also clearly observed since about 1990.

Surface temperatures and rainfall in most regions vary greatly from the global average because of geographical location, in particular latitude and continental position. Both the average values of temperature, rainfall, and their extremes (which generally have the largest impacts on natural systems and human infrastructure), are also strongly affected by local patterns of winds.

Estimating the effects of feedback processes, the pace of the warming, and regional climate change requires the use of mathematical models of the atmosphere, ocean, land, and ice (the cryosphere) built upon established laws of physics and the latest understanding of the physical, chemical and biological processes affecting climate, and run on powerful computers. Models vary in their projections of how much additional warming to expect (depending on the type of model and on assumptions used in simulating certain climate processes, particularly cloud formation and ocean mixing), but all such models agree that the overall net effect of feedbacks is to amplify warming.

Human activities are changing the climate

Rigorous analysis of all data and lines of evidence shows that most of the observed global warming over the past 50 years or so cannot be explained by natural causes and instead requires a significant role for the influence of human activities.

In order to discern the human influence on climate, scientists must consider many natural variations that affect temperature, precipitation, and other aspects of climate from local to global scale, on timescales from days to decades and longer. One natural variation is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), an irregular alternation between warming and cooling (lasting about two to seven years) in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that causes significant year-to-year regional and global shifts in temperature and rainfall patterns. Volcanic eruptions also alter climate, in part increasing the amount of small (aerosol) particles in the stratosphere that reflect or absorb sunlight, leading to a short-term surface cooling lasting typically about two to three years. Over hundreds of thousands of years, slow, recurring variations in Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which alter the distribution of solar energy received by Earth, have been enough to trigger the ice age cycles of the past 800,000 years.

Fingerprinting is a powerful way of studying the causes of climate change. Different influences on climate lead to different patterns seen in climate records. This becomes obvious when scientists probe beyond changes in the average temperature of the planet and look more closely at geographical and temporal patterns of climate change. For example, an increase in the Sun’s energy output will lead to a very different pattern of temperature change (across Earth’s surface and vertically in the atmosphere) compared to that induced by an increase in CO 2 concentration. Observed atmospheric temperature changes show a fingerprint much closer to that of a long-term CO 2 increase than to that of a fluctuating Sun alone. Scientists routinely test whether purely natural changes in the Sun, volcanic activity, or internal climate variability could plausibly explain the patterns of change they have observed in many different aspects of the climate system. These analyses have shown that the observed climate changes of the past several decades cannot be explained just by natural factors.

How will climate change in the future?

Scientists have made major advances in the observations, theory, and modelling of Earth’s climate system, and these advances have enabled them to project future climate change with increasing confidence. Nevertheless, several major issues make it impossible to give precise estimates of how global or regional temperature trends will evolve decade by decade into the future. Firstly, we cannot predict how much CO 2  human activities will emit, as this depends on factors such as how the global economy develops and how society’s production and consumption of energy changes in the coming decades. Secondly, with current understanding of the complexities of how climate feedbacks operate, there is a range of possible outcomes, even for a particular scenario of CO 2  emissions. Finally, over timescales of a decade or so, natural variability can modulate the effects of an underlying trend in temperature. Taken together, all model projections indicate that Earth will continue to warm considerably more over the next few decades to centuries. If there were no technological or policy changes to reduce emission trends from their current trajectory, then further globally-averaged warming of 2.6 to 4.8 °C (4.7 to 8.6 °F) in addition to that which has already occurred would be expected during the 21st century [Figure B5]. Projecting what those ranges will mean for the climate experienced at any particular location is a challenging scientific problem, but estimates are continuing to improve as regional and local-scale models advance.

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

Figure b5. The amount and rate of warming expected for the 21st century depends on the total amount of greenhouse gases that humankind emits. Models project the temperature increase for a business-as-usual emissions scenario (in red) and aggressive emission reductions, falling close to zero 50 years from now (in blue). Black is the modelled estimate of past warming. Each solid line represents the average of different model runs using the same emissions scenario, and the shaded areas provide a measure of the spread (one standard deviation) between the temperature changes projected by the different models. All data are relative to a reference period (set to zero) of 1986-2005. Source: Based on IPCC AR5

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Home / For Educators: Grades 6-12 / Climate Explained: Introductory Essays About Climate Change Topics

Climate Explained: Introductory Essays About Climate Change Topics

Filed under: backgrounders for educators ,.

Climate Explained, a part of Yale Climate Connections, is an essay collection that addresses an array of climate change questions and topics, including why it’s cold outside if global warming is real, how we know that humans are responsible for global warming, and the relationship between climate change and national security.

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what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

Climate Change Basics: Five Facts, Ten Words

Backgrounders for Educators

To simplify the scientific complexity of climate change, we focus on communicating five key facts about climate change that everyone should know. 

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

Why should we care about climate change?

Having different perspectives about global warming is natural, but the most important thing that anyone should know about climate change is why it matters.  

what are the 10 causes of climate change essay

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  1. What Causes Climate Change? Human and Natural Causes - NRDC

    Natural causes of climate change. Some amount of climate change can be attributed to natural phenomena. Over the course of Earth’s existence, volcanic eruptions, fluctuations in solar radiation ...

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    Essay Writing Service. There are two main causes of climate changes – natural causes and human activities. Natural causes have influenced the earth’s climates such as volcanic eruptions, ocean current, the earth’s orbital changes and solar variations. The eruptions of volcanoes cause a cooling effect on the earth.

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    Takeaways. The greenhouse effect is essential to life on Earth, but human-made emissions in the atmosphere are trapping and slowing heat loss to space. Five key greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapor. While the Sun has played a role in past climate changes, the evidence shows the ...

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    Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide concentrations are now more abundant in the earth’s atmosphere than any time in the last 800,000 years. 5 These greenhouse gas emissions have increased the greenhouse effect and caused the earth’s surface temperature to rise. Burning fossil fuels changes the climate more than any other human activity.

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  6. Causes and Effects of Climate Change | United Nations

    Causes and Effects of Climate Change. Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas ...

  7. Humans are causing global warming | National Academies

    Today’s climate change is driven by human activities. Scientists know that the warming climate is caused by human activities because: They understand how heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide work in the atmosphere. They know why those gases are increasing in the atmosphere. They have ruled out other possible explanations.

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    Global warming, the phenomenon of rising average air temperatures near Earth’s surface over the past 100 to 200 years. Although Earth’s climate has been evolving since the dawn of geologic time, human activities since the Industrial Revolution have a growing influence over the pace and extent of climate change.

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    Fingerprinting is a powerful way of studying the causes of climate change. Different influences on climate lead to different patterns seen in climate records. This becomes obvious when scientists probe beyond changes in the average temperature of the planet and look more closely at geographical and temporal patterns of climate change.

  10. Climate Explained: Introductory Essays About Climate Change ...

    Climate Explained, a part of Yale Climate Connections, is an essay collection that addresses an array of climate change questions and topics, including why it’s cold outside if global warming is real, how we know that humans are responsible for global warming, and the relationship between climate change and national security.