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Global warming is the rise in the average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans since the late 19th century and its projected continuation. Since the early 20th century, Earth's mean surface temperature has increased by about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F), with about two-thirds of the increase occurring since 1980. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and scientists are 95-100% certain that it is primarily caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. These findings are recognized by the national science academies of all major industrialized nations.
Climate model projections were summarized in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They indicated that during the 21st century the global surface temperature is likely to rise a further 1.1 to 2.9 °C (2.0 to 5.2 °F) for their lowest emissions scenario and 2.4 to 6.4 °C (4.3 to 11.5 °F) for their highest. The ranges of these estimates arise from the use of models with differing sensitivity to greenhouse gas concentrations.
Future climate change and associated impacts will vary from region to region around the globe. The effects of an increase in global temperature include a rise in sea levels and a change in the amount and pattern of precipitation, as well as a probable expansion of subtropical deserts. Warming is expected to be strongest in the Arctic, with the continuing retreat of glaciers, permafrost and sea ice. Other likely effects of the warming include more frequent extreme weather events including heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall; ocean acidification; and species extinctions due to shifting temperature regimes. Effects significant to humans include the threat to food security from decreasing crop yields and the loss of habitat from inundation.
Proposed policy responses to global warming include mitigation by emissions reduction, adaptation to its effects, and possible future geoengineering. Most countries are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), whose ultimate objective is to prevent dangerous anthropogenic (i.e., human-induced) climate change. Parties to the UNFCCC have adopted a range of policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to assist in adaptation to global warming. Parties to the UNFCCC have agreed that deep cuts in emissions are required, and that future global warming should be limited to below 2.0 °C (3.6 °F) relative to the pre-industrial level. Reports published in 2011 by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Energy Agency suggest that efforts as of the early 21st century to reduce emissions may be inadequate to meet the UNFCCC's 2 °C target.
The greenhouse effect is a process by which thermal radiation from a planetary surface (like the earth) is absorbed by atmospheric greenhouse gases, and is re-radiated in all directions. Since part of this re-radiation is back towards the surface and the lower atmosphere, it results in an elevation of the average surface temperature above what it would be in the absence of the gases.
Earth’s natural greenhouse effect makes life as we know it possible. However, human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests, have intensified the natural greenhouse effect, causing global warming.
The Earth receives energy from the Sun in the form UV, visible, and near IR radiation, most of which passes through the atmosphere without being absorbed. Of the total amount of energy available at the top of the atmosphere (TOA), about 50% is absorbed at the Earth's surface. Because it is warm, the surface radiates far IR thermal radiation that consists of wavelengths that are predominantly much longer than the wavelengths that were absorbed. Most of this thermal radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere and re-radiated both upwards and downwards; that radiated downwards is absorbed by the Earth's surface. This trapping of long-wavelength thermal radiation leads to a higher equilibrium temperature than if the atmosphere were absent.
At these wavelengths, greenhouse gases that were largely transparent to incoming solar radiation are more absorbent. Each layer of atmosphere with greenhouses gases absorbs some of the heat being radiated upwards from lower layers. It re-radiates in all directions, both upwards and downwards. This results in more warmth below. Increasing the concentration of the gases increases the amount of absorption and re-radiation, and thereby further warms the layers and ultimately the surface below.
Since 1978, output from the Sun has been precisely measured by satellites. These measurements indicate that the Sun's output has not increased since 1978, so the warming during the past 30 years cannot be attributed to an increase in solar energy reaching the Earth. In the three decades since 1978, the combination of solar and volcanic activity probably had a slight cooling influence on the climate.
The effects of global warming are the ecological and social changes caused by the rise in global temperatures. There is a scientific consensus that climate change is occurring, and that human activities are the primary driver. Evidence of climate change includes the instrumental temperature record, rising sea levels, and decreased snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in human greenhouse gas concentrations.
Projections of future climate change suggest further global warming, sea level rise, and an increase in the frequency and severity of some extreme weather events. Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have agreed to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."
Climate change will impact agriculture and food production around the world due to: the effects of elevated CO2 in the atmosphere, higher temperatures, altered precipitation and transpiration regimes, increased frequency of extreme events, and modified weed, pest, and pathogen pressure. In general, low-latitude areas are at most risk of having decreased crop yields. So far, the effects of regional climate change on agriculture have been small.
Droughts have been occurring more frequently because of global warming and they are expected to become more frequent and intense in Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, most of the Americas, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Their impacts are aggravated because of increased water demand, population growth, urban expansion, and environmental protection efforts in many areas. Droughts result in crop failures and the loss of pasture grazing land for livestock.
Human beings are exposed to climate change through changing weather patterns (temperature, precipitation, sea-level rise and more frequent extreme events) and indirectly through changes in water, air and food quality and changes in ecosystems, agriculture, industry and settlements and the economy. The effects of climate change to date have been small, but are projected to progressively increase in all countries and regions.
About one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activity has already been taken up by the oceans. As carbon dioxide dissolves in sea water, carbonic acid is formed, which has the effect of acidifying the ocean, measured as a change in pH. The uptake of human carbon emissions since the year 1750 has led to an average decrease in pH of 0.1 units. Projections suggest a further reduction in average global surface ocean pH of between 0.14 and 0.35 units over the 21st century. The effects of ocean acidification on the marine biosphere have yet to be documented. Laboratory experiments suggest beneficial effects for a few species, with potentially highly detrimental effects for a substantial number of species.
Future climate change will bring wetter coasts, drier mid-continent areas, and further sea level rise. Such changes could result in the gravest effects of climate change through sudden human migration. Millions might be displaced by shoreline erosions, river and coastal flooding, or severe drought.
Hundreds of studies have documented responses of ecosystems, plants, and animals to the climate changes that have already occurred. For example, in the Northern Hemisphere, species are almost uniformly moving their ranges northward and up in elevation in search of cooler temperatures.
It's safe to say that approximately 20 to 30% of plant and animal species would likely be at increasingly high risk of extinction should global mean temperatures exceed a warming of 2 to 3 °C above pre-industrial temperature levels.
Human-induced climate change may lead to irreversible impacts on physical, biological, and social systems. There are a number of examples of climate change impacts that may be irreversible, at least over the timescale of many human generations. These include the large-scale singularities described above - changes in carbon cycle feedbacks, the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, and changes to the ocean currents. In biological systems, the extinction of species would be an irreversible impact. In social systems, unique cultures may be lost due to climate change. For example, humans living on atoll islands face risks due to sea-level rise, sea-surface warming, and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
Reducing the amount of future climate change is called mitigation of climate change. The IPCC defines mitigation as activities that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or enhance the capacity of carbon sinks to absorb GHGs from the atmosphere. Studies indicate substantial potential for future reductions in emissions by a combination of emission-reducing activities such as energy conservation, increased energy efficiency, and satisfying more of society's power demands with renewable energy and nuclear energy sources. Climate mitigation also includes acts to enhance natural sinks, such as reforestation.
The global warming controversy refers to a variety of disputes, substantially more pronounced in the popular media than in the scientific literature, regarding the nature, causes, and consequences of global warming. The disputed issues include the causes of increased global average air temperature, especially since the mid-20th century, whether this warming trend is unprecedented or within normal climatic variations, whether humankind has contributed significantly to it, and whether the increase is wholly or partially an artifact of poor measurements. Additional disputes concern estimates of climate sensitivity, predictions of additional warming, and what the consequences of global warming will be.
The popular media and the public often confuse global warming with ozone depletion, i.e., the destruction of stratospheric ozone by chlorofluorocarbons. Although there are a few areas of linkage, the relationship between the two is not strong. Reduced stratospheric ozone has had a slight cooling influence on surface temperatures, while increased tropospheric ozone has had a somewhat larger warming effect.
Global dimming is the gradual reduction in the amount of global direct irradiance at the Earth's surface that was observed for several decades after the start of systematic measurements in the 1950s. The effect varies by location, but worldwide it has been estimated to be of the order of a 4% reduction over the three decades from 1960–1990. Global dimming is thought to have been caused by an increase in particulates such as sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere due to human action. Global dimming creates a cooling effect that may have partially masked the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming.
In ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, most developed countries accepted legally binding commitments to limit their emissions. These first-round commitments expire in 2012. US President George W. Bush rejected the treaty on the basis that "it exempts 80% of the world, including major population centers such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the US economy."
Most scientists agree that humans are contributing to observed climate change. A meta study of academic papers concerning global warming, published between 1991 and 2011 and accessible from Web of Knowledge, found that among those whose abstracts expressed a position on the cause of global warming, 97.2% supported the consensus view that it is man made.
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