Evidence of Human-caused Global Warming 'Unequivocal,' Says International Panel

In a much-anticipated report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that changes in the atmosphere, the oceans and glaciers and ice caps show unequivocally that the world is warming.

Released on Feb. 2, the first major global assessment of climate change science in six years finds that major advances in climate modeling and the collection and analysis of data now give scientists "very high confidence" (at least a 9 out of 10 chance of being correct) in their understanding of how human activities are causing the world to warm. This level of confidence is much greater than what could be achieved in 2001 when the IPCC issued its last major report.

The report was produced by about 600 authors from 40 countries. More than 620 expert reviewers and a large number of government reviewers also participated. Representatives from 113 governments reviewed and revised the summary line-by-line during the course of a week before adopting it and accepting the underlying report.

The Feb. 2 report, the first of four volumes to be released this year by the IPCC, also finds that the marked increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) since 1750 is the result of human activities.

An even greater degree of warming would likely have occurred if emissions of pollution particles and other aerosols had not offset some of the impact of greenhouse gases, mainly by reflecting sunlight back out to space.

Three years in the making, the report is based on a thorough review of the most-up-to-date, peer-reviewed scientific literature available worldwide, officials said. It describes an accelerating transition to a warmer world marked by more extreme temperatures including heat waves, new wind patterns, worsening drought in some regions, heavier precipitation in others, melting glaciers and Arctic ice and rising global average sea levels. For the first time, the report provides evidence that the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are slowly losing mass and contributing to sea level rise.

"This report by the IPCC represents the most rigorous and comprehensive assessment possible of the current state of climate science and has considerably narrowed the uncertainties of the 2001 report," said Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). "Progress in observations and measurements of the weather and climate are keys to improved climate research, with National Meteorological and Hydrological Services playing a crucial role."

"While the conclusions are disturbing, decision makers are now armed with the latest facts and will be better able to respond to these realities. The speed with which melting ice sheets are raising sea levels is uncertain, but the report makes clear that sea levels will rise inexorably over the coming centuries. It is a question of when and how much, and not if," he said.

The report also finds that:

  • If atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases double compared to pre-industrial levels, this would "likely" cause an average warming of around 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit), with a range of 2 degrees Celsius to 4.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit). For the first time, the IPCC is providing best estimates for the warming projected to result from particular increases in greenhouse gases that could occur after the 21st century, along with uncertainty ranges based on more comprehensive modeling.
  • A GHG level of 650 parts per million (ppm) would "likely" warm the global climate by around 3.6 degrees Celsius, while 750 ppm would lead to a 4.3 degrees Celsius warming, 1,000 ppm to 5.5 degrees Celsius and 1,200 ppm to 6.3 degrees Celsius. Future GHG concentrations are difficult to predict and will depend on economic growth, new technologies and policies and other factors.
  • The world's average surface temperature has increased by around 0.74 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years (1906 to 2005). This figure is higher than the 2001 report's 100-year estimate of 0.6 degrees Celsius due to the recent series of extremely warm years, with 11 of the last 12 years ranking among the 12 warmest years since modern records began around 1850. A warming of about 0.2 degrees Celsius is projected for each of the next two decades.
  • Sea ice is projected to shrink in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Large areas of the Arctic Ocean could lose year-round ice cover by the end of the 21st century if human emissions reach the higher end of current estimates. The extent of Arctic sea ice has already shrunk by about 2.7 percent per decade since 1978, with the summer minimum declining by about 7.4 percent per decade.
  • Snow cover has decreased in most regions, especially in spring. The maximum extent of frozen ground in the winter/spring season decreased by about 7 percent in the Northern Hemisphere over the latter half of the 20th century. The average freezing date for rivers and lakes in the Northern Hemisphere over the past 150 years has arrived later by some 5.8 days per century, while the average break-up date has arrived earlier by 6.5 days per century.
  • It is "very likely" that precipitation will increase at high latitudes and "likely" it will decrease over most subtropical land regions. The pattern of these changes is similar to what has been observed during the 20th century.
  • It is "very likely" that the upward trend in hot extremes and heat waves will continue. The duration and intensity of drought has increased over wider areas since the 1970s, particularly in the tropics and subtropics.
  • The amounts of carbon dioxide and methane now in the atmosphere far exceed pre-industrial values going back 650,000 years. As stated above, concentrations of carbon dioxide have already risen from a pre-industrial level of 280 ppm to around 379 ppm in 2005, while methane concentrations have risen from 715 parts per billion (ppb) to 1,774 in 2005.
  • A number of widely discussed uncertainties have been resolved. The temperature record of the lower atmosphere from satellite measurements has been reconciled with the ground-based record. Key remaining uncertainties involve the roles played by clouds, the cryosphere (glaciers and ice caps), oceans, deforestation and other land-use change, and the linking of climate and biogeochemical cycles.

The IPCC does not conduct new research. Instead, its mandate is to make policy-relevant assessments of the existing worldwide literature on the scientific, technical and socio-economic aspects of climate change. Its reports have played a major role in inspiring governments to adopt and implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.

The "Summary for Policymakers for IPCC Working Group I" has now been posted in English at http://www.ipcc.ch. The full underlying report -- "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis" -- will be published by Cambridge University Press.

The report was touted by environmental groups as adding to the avalanche of scientific evidence that the planet is warming and humans are largely responsible. "This new IPCC report makes it clear that global warming is here now, and we must take swift and effective action to stave off the most severe consequences," said Dr. Dan Lashof, science director at Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center. "At this point, some warming is unavoidable, but there is a world of difference between 1 degree and 7 degrees. The good news is that the political climate in Washington is changing as well. Congress needs to enact comprehensive emission limits that will steadily reduce global warming pollution. We have an opportunity to fix this problem, but only if we act before it's too late."

However, the Fraser Institute states that an independent review of the report shows that the scientific evidence about global warming remains uncertain and provides no basis for alarmism.

"While a lot of effort goes into producing the large IPCC reports, its complex message is often obscured by its accompanying Summary for Policymakers. That summary report does not come from the scientific community. Instead it is developed through political negotiations by unnamed bureaucrats from various governments. Critics of past summaries point out they downplay and gloss over areas of uncertainty and data limitations," said Dr. Ross McKitrick, coordinator of the independent review and senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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