Climate Mechanisms

The Greenhouse Effect

The physical mechanisms that cause greenhouse gases to warm the planet, commonly known as the 'greenhouse effect', are well understood and were scientifically demonstrated beginning in the mid-1800s (Tyndal 1861). Of the solar energy that is directed toward Earth, about 30% is reflected back to space by clouds, dust, and haze (Ramanathan & Feng 2009). The remaining 70% is absorbed by the atmosphere and the Earth's surface. The Earth's warmed surface releases some of that absorbed energy as infrared radiation, a form of light, but invisible to human eyes. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and water vapor, absorb this infrared radiation and keep it from passing out into space. This energy is then reradiated in all directions, and the energy that is directed back toward the Earth warms the planet.

Figure 4

Figure 4 -An idealized model of the greenhouse effect. Source: IPCC 2007a Ch.1

Human Influence on Greenhouse Gases

Without the natural presence of energy-absorbing greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere, the average temperature at Earth's surface would be below the freezing point of water (IPCC 2007a Ch.1). However human activities have led directly to increases in greenhouse gas concentrations and therefore an enhanced greenhouse effect.

The 2007 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) provides the most substantive and authoritative evaluation of human-caused global climate change to date. According to this report, "Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely [> 90% probability] due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations." (IPCC 2007b). Independent studies using a variety of methods strongly corroborate this conclusion (e.g. Lean 2010, Huber & Knutti 2011). Examinations and model simulations of many possible explanations of global warming show that we can only explain the strong temperature increases of the past 120 years if we account for human influences (e.g. Figure 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5 - Contributions of to the average monthly global surface temperatures by individual ENSO [El NiƱo], volcanic, solar, and human-caused influences. Source: Lean 2010

Human activity has had the most notable impact on carbon dioxide concentrations, which as noted earlier, have increased dramatically (Figure 2), mainly through fossil fuel burning, cement production, and deforestation. Methane, another potent greenhouse gas, is emitted by activities such as rice and livestock agriculture and biomass burning, and is currently at its highest concentrations of the past 650,000 years (IPCC 2007a Ch.2). Nitrous oxides have increased due in part to agricultural fertilization and fossil fuel burning; other gases emitted from industrial processes, such as halocarbons, also play a role in warming (Figure 5). Many of these greenhouse gases are likely to reside in the atmosphere for decades to centuries (CDIAC 2011). The most abundant greenhouse gas is water vapor, but water vapor is short lived in the atmosphere (on the order of days) and is dependent on temperature. So, human activities have little direct influence on water vapor, although human-caused warming can increase water vapor concentrations and amplify the warming effect (Held and Soden 2000).

Radiative forcing of climate between 1750 and 2005

Figure 6 -The amount of warming influence (red bars) or cooling influence (blue bars) that different
factors have exerted on the Earth's climate over the industrial era (from 1750 - 2005). A longer bar
signifies a greater influence. Source: IPCC 2007a Ch.2

Need more information?

See the following primers and resources for more introductory information on climate change.

Climate Change Resource Center:

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:
Facts and Figures
Climate Change 101 Series

United States Global Change Research Program:
Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States

Climate Change Science Facts

NASA Earth Observatory
Global Warming - (navigate in right hand menu).
World of Change: Global Temperatures


Anderson A.; Bows, A. 2011. Beyond 'dangerous' climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369: 20-44.

Bond, G.; Kromer, B.; Beer, J.; Muscheler, R.; Evans, M.; Showers, W.; Hoffmann, S.; Lotti-Bond, R.; Hajdas, I.; Bonani, G. 2001. Persistent solar influence on North Atlantic climate during the Holocene. Science. 294: 2130-2136.

Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC). 2011. Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations. (Accessed 12-8-2011)

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2E). 2012. Long Term Trends in Carbon Dioxide and Surface Temperature. (Accessed 1-9-2012).

Deser, C.; Alexander, M.A.; Xie, S.P.; Phillips, A.S. 2010. Sea Surface Temperature Variability: Patterns and Mechanisms. Annual Review of Marine Science. 2: 115-143.

Global Carbon Project. 2011. Carbon budget and trends 2010. (Accessed 12-8-2011)

Hansen, J.E. 2003. Can we defuse the global warming time bomb? (Accessed 12-8-2011)

Held, I.M.; Soden, B.J. 2000. Water vapor feedback and global warming. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment. 25:441-475.

Huber, M.; Knutti, R. 2011. Anthropogenic and natural warming inferred from changes in Earth's energy balance. Nature Geoscience. Advance Online Publication.

Lean, J. 2010. Cycles and trends in solar irradiance and climate. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. 1: 111-122.

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI). 2007. Overview of the ENSO System. (Accessed 12-8-2011)

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI). 2008. Global Effects of ENSO. (Accessed 12-8-2011). Formerly available at:

Mann, M.E.; Zhang, Z.; Rutherford, S.; Bradley, R.S.; Hughes, M.K.; Shindell, D.; Ammann, C.; Faluvegi, G.; Ni, F. 2009. Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly. Science. 27 (326): 1256-1260.

NASA - Goddard Institute for Space Studies. 2011. NASA Research Finds 2010 Tied for Warmest Year on Record. Research News.

IPCC, 2000: IPCC Special Report: Emissions Scenarios. Nakicenovic, N.; Swart, R. (Eds.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. 570 pp.

IPCC, 2007a: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S.; Qin, D.; Manning, M.; Chen, Z.; Marquis, M.; Averyt, K.B.; Tignor, M.; Miller, H.L. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

IPCC, 2007b: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K.; Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 104 pp.

IPCC, 2011: Summary for Policymakers. In: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation [Field, C. B.; Barros, V.; Stocker, T.F.; Qin, D.; Dokken, D.; Ebi, K.L.; Mastrandrea, M. D.; Mach, K. J.; Plattner, G.K.; Allen, S.; Tignor, M.; Midgley, P. M. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA.

Ramanathan, V.; Feng, Y. 2009. Air pollution, greenhouse gases and climate change: Global and regional perspectives. Atmospheric Environment. 43: 37-50.

Tyndal J. 1861. On the absorption and radiation of heat by gases and vapours, and on the physical connexion of radiation, absorption, and conduction. Philosophical Magazine. 22:169-94, 273-85

United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). 2009. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Karl, T.R.; Melillo, J.M.; Peterson, T.C. (eds). Cambridge University Press.

Wanner, H.; Beer, J.; Butikofer, J.; Crowley, T.J.; Cubasch, U.; Fluckiger, J.; Goosse, H.; Grosjean, M.; Joos, F.; Kaplan, J.O.; Kuttel,M.; Muller, S.A.; Prentice, C.; Solomina, O.; Stocker, T.F.; Tarasov, P.; Wagner,M.; Widmann, M. 2008. Mid- to Late Holocene climate change: an overview. Quaternary Science Reviews. 27: 1791-1828.

Wolff, E.W. 2011. Greenhouse gases in the Earth system: a palaeoclimate perspective. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369: 2133-2147.