Human Activities Causing Global Warming
The climate of the United States is strongly connected to the changing global climate. The statements below highlight past, current, and projected climate changes for the United States and the globe.
Global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8°F (1.0°C) over the last 115 years (1901–2016). This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization. The last few years have also seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, and the last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe. These trends are expected to continue over climate timescales.
This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.
In addition to warming, many other aspects of global climate are changing, primarily in response to human activities. Thousands of studies conducted by researchers around the world have documented changes in surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures; melting glaciers; diminishing snow cover; shrinking sea ice; rising sea levels; ocean acidification; and increasing atmospheric water vapor.
For example, global average sea level has risen by about 7–8 inches since 1900, with almost half (about 3 inches) of that rise occurring since 1993. Human-caused climate change has made a substantial contribution to this rise since 1900, contributing to a rate of rise that is greater than during any preceding century in at least 2,800 years. Global sea level rise has already affected the United States; the incidence of daily tidal flooding is accelerating in more than 25 Atlantic and Gulf Coast cities.
Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise—by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1–4 feet by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out. Sea level rise will be higher than the global average on the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States.
Changes in the characteristics of extreme events are particularly important for human safety, infrastructure, agriculture, water quality and quantity, and natural ecosystems. Heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency across the United States and globally and is expected to continue to increase. The largest observed changes in the United States have occurred in the Northeast.
Heatwaves have become more frequent in the United States since the 1960s, while extreme cold temperatures and cold waves are less frequent. Recent record-setting hot years are projected to become common in the near future for the United States, as annual average temperatures continue to rise. Annual average temperature over the contiguous United States has increased by 1.8°F (1.0°C) for the period 1901–2016; over the next few decades (2021–2050), annual average temperatures are expected to rise by about 2.5°F for the United States, relative to the recent past (average from 1976–2005), under all plausible future climate scenarios.
The incidence of large forest fires in the western United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s and is projected to further increase in those regions as the climate changes, with profound changes to regional ecosystems.
Annual trends toward earlier spring melt and reduced snowpack are already affecting water resources in the western United States and these trends are expected to continue. Under higher scenarios, and assuming no change to current water resources management, chronic, long-duration hydrological drought is increasingly possible before the end of this century.
The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) emitted globally. Without major reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century. With significant reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less.
The global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has now passed 400 parts per million (ppm), a level that last occurred about 3 million years ago, when both global average temperature and sea level were significantly higher than today. Continued growth in CO2 emissions over this century and beyond would lead to an atmospheric concentration not experienced in tens to hundreds of millions of years. There is broad consensus that the further and the faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of unanticipated changes and impacts, some of which are potentially large and irreversible.
The observed increase in carbon emissions over the past 15–20 years has been consistent with higher emissions pathways. In 2014 and 2015, emission growth rates slowed as economic growth became less carbon-intensive. Even if this slowing trend continues, however, it is not yet at a rate that would limit global average temperature change to well below 3.6°F (2°C) above preindustrial levels.
New observations and new research have increased our understanding of past, current, and future climate change since the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA3) was published in May 2014. This Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) is designed to capture that new information and build on the existing body of science in order to summarize the current state of knowledge and provide the scientific foundation for the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4).
Since NCA3, stronger evidence has emerged for continuing, rapid, human-caused warming of the global atmosphere and ocean. This report concludes that “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”
The last few years have also seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, the three warmest years on record for the globe, and continued decline in arctic sea ice. These trends are expected to continue in the future over climate (multidecadal) timescales. Significant advances have also been made in our understanding of extreme weather events and how they relate to increasing global temperatures and associated climate changes. Since 1980, the cost of extreme events for the United States has exceeded $1.1 trillion; therefore, better understanding of the frequency and severity of these events in the context of a changing climate is warranted.
Periodically taking stock of the current state of knowledge about climate change and putting new weather extremes, changes in sea ice, increases in ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification into context ensures that rigorous, scientifically-based information is available to inform dialogue and decisions at every level. This climate science report serves as the climate science foundation of the NCA4 and is generally intended for those who have a technical background in climate science.
This report discusses climate trends and findings at several scales: global, nationwide for the United States, and for ten specific U.S. regions (shown in Figure 1 in the Guide to the Report). A statement of scientific confidence also follows each point in the Executive Summary. The confidence scale is described in the Guide to the Report. At the end of the Executive Summary and in Chapter 1: Our Globally Changing Climate, there is also a summary box highlighting the most notable advances and topics since NCA3 and since the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report.
Global and U.S. Temperatures Rising
Long-term temperature observations are among the most consistent and widespread evidence of a warming planet. Temperature (and, above all, its local averages and extremes) affects agricultural productivity, energy use, human health, water resources, infrastructure, natural ecosystems, and many other essential aspects of society and the natural environment. Recent data add to the weight of evidence for rapid global-scale warming, the dominance of human causes, and the expected continuation of increasing temperatures, including more record-setting extremes.
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