http://www.skepticalscience.com/big-picture.htmlThe Big Picture
Oftentimes we get bogged down discussing one of the many pieces of evidence behind man-made global warming, and in the process we can't see the forest for the trees. It's important to every so often take a step back and see how all of those trees comprise the forest as a whole. Skeptical Science provides an invaluable resource for examining each individual piece of climate evidence
, so let's make use of these individual pieces to see how they form the big picture.The Earth is warming
We know the planet is warming from surface temperature stations
measuring the temperature of the Earth's surface and lower atmosphere. We also have various tools which have measured the warming of the Earth's oceans
. Satellites have measured an energy imbalance at the top of the Earth's atmosphere
, sea ice
, and ice sheets
are all receding. Sea levels are rising
. Spring is arriving sooner
each year. There's simply no doubt - the planet is warming.And yes, the warming is continuing
. The 2000s were hotter than the 1990s, which were hotter than the 1980s, which were hotter than the 1970s
. 2010 is on pace to be at least in the top 3 hottest calendar years on record. In fact, the 12-month running average global temperature broke the record 3 times in 2010, according to NASA GISS data.Sea levels are still rising, ice is still receding, spring is still coming earlier, there's still a planetary energy imbalance, etc. etc. Contrary to what some would like us to believe, the planet has not magically stopped warming.Humans are causing this warming
There is overwhelming evidence that humans are the dominant cause of this warming, mainly due to our greenhouse gas emissions. Based on fundamental physics and math, we can quantify the amount of warming human activity is causing
, and verify that we're responsible for essentially all of the global warming over the past 3 decades.In fact we expect human greenhouse gas emissions to cause more
warming than we've thus far seen, due to the thermal inertia of the oceans (the time it takes to heat them). There are numerous 'fingerprints'
which we would expect to see from an increased greenhouse effect (i.e. more warming at night, at higher latitudes, upper atmosphere cooling) that we have indeed observed. Climate models have projected the ensuing global warming
to a high level of accuracy, verifying that we have a good understanding of the fundamental physics behind climate change. Sometimes people ask "what would it take to falsify the man-made global warming theory?". Well, basically it would require that our fundamental understanding of physics be wrong, because that's what the theory is based on.The warming will continue
We also know that if we continue to emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, the planet will continue to warm. We know that the climate sensitivity
to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to 560 ppmv (we're currently at 390 ppmv) will cause 2–4.5°C of warming. And we're headed for 560 ppmv in the mid-to-late 21st century if we continue business-as-usual emissions.The net result will be bad
There will be some positive results of this continued warming. For example, an open Northwest Passage, enhanced growth for some
plants and improved agriculture at high latitudes (though this will require use of more fertilizers), etc. However, the negatives will almost certainly outweigh the positives
, by a long shot. We're talking decreased biodiversity, water shortages, increasing heat waves (both in frequency and intensity), decreased crop yields due to these impacts, damage to infrastructure, displacement of millions of people, etc.Arguments to the contrary are superficial
One thing I've found in reading skeptic criticisms of climate science is that they're consistently superficial. For example, the criticisms of James Hansen's 1988 global warming projections
never go beyond "he was wrong", when in reality it's important to evaluate what caused the discrepancy between his projections and actual climate changes, and what we can learn from this. And those who argue that "it's the Sun"
fail to comprehend that we understand the major mechanisms by which the Sun influences the global climate, and that they cannot explain the current global warming trend. And those who argue "it's just a natural cycle"
can never seem to identify exactly which natural cycle can explain the current warming, nor can they explain how our understanding of the fundamental climate physics
is wrong.There are legitimate unresolved questions
Much ado is made out of the expression "the science is settled." My personal opinion is that the science is settled in terms of knowing that the planet is warming dangerously rapidly, and that humans are the dominant cause. There are certainly unresolved issues. There's a big difference between a 2°C and a 4.5°C warming for a doubling of atmospheric CO2, and it's an important question to resolve, because we need to know how fast the planet will warm in order to know how fast we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. There are significant uncertainties in some feedbacks which play into this question. For example, will clouds act as a net positive feedback (by trapping more heat, causing more warming) or negative feedback (by reflecting more sunlight, causing a cooling effect) as the planet continues to warm?These are the sorts of questions we should be debating, and the issues that most climate scientists are investigating. Unfortunately there is a large segment of the population which is determined to continue arguing the resolved questions for which the science has already been settled. And when climate scientists are forced to respond to the constant propagation of misinformation
on these settled issues, it just detracts from our investigation of the legitimate, unresolved, important questions.The Big Picture
The big picture is that we know the planet is warming, humans are causing it, there is a substantial risk to continuing on our current path, but we don't know exactly how large the risk is. However, uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the risk is not an excuse to ignore it. In fact, the larger the uncertainty, the greater the potential for the exceptionally high risk scenario to become reality. We need to continue to decrease the uncertainty, but it's also critical to acknowledge what we know and what questions have been resolved.