Climate Scientists Advise White Rouse on Global Warming

Journal of Environmental Health, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Climate Scientists Advise White Rouse on Global Warming


In a report requested by the Bush administration, a committee of the National Research Council (NRC) sums up the current understanding science has of global climate change. "Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions" characterizes the global warming trend over the last 100 years and examines what may be in store for the 21st century, as well as the extent to which warming may be attributable to human activity. The committee--made up of 11 of the nation's top climate scientists, including seven members of the National Academy of Sciences, one of whom is a Nobel-Prize winner--also emphasized that much more systematic research is needed to reduce current uncertainties in climate-change science.

"We know that greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere, causing surface temperatures to rise," said committee chair Ralph Cicerone, chancellor of the University of California at Irvine. "We don't know precisely how much of this rise to date is from human activities, but based on physical principles and highly sophisticated computer models, we expect the warming to continue because of greenhouse gas emissions."

Based on assumptions that emissions of greenhouse gases will accelerate and conservative assumptions about how the climate will react to that, computer models suggest that average global surface temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 10.4[degrees]F (1.4 and 5.8[degrees]C) by the end of this century.

With respect to the basic question of whether climate change is occurring, the report notes that temperatures at the Earth's surface rose by about 1[degrees]F (about 0.6[degrees]C) during the 20th century. This warming process has intensified in the past 20 years, accompanied by retreating glaciers, thinning arctic ice, rising sea levels, lengthening of the growing season in many areas, and earlier arrival of migratory birds.

The committee said the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the global warming that has occurred in the last 50 years is likely the result of increases in greenhouse gases accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community. It cautioned, however, that uncertainties about this conclusion remain; the sources of uncertainty are the natural variability inherent in the climate on time scales that range from decades to centuries, questions about the ability of models to simulate natural variability on such long time scales, and questions about the degree of confidence that can be placed in estimates of temperatures going back thousands of years and based on evidence from tree rings or ice cores.

The greenhouse gas of most concern is carbon dioxide, since the naturally occurring chemical also is generated by the continued burning of fossil fuels, can last in the atmosphere for centuries, and "forces" more climate change than any other greenhouse gas. Other significant greenhouse gases include methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, tropospheric ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which together have a "forcing" effect on climate change approximately equal to that of carbon dioxide. Man-made sources of methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone have resulted in substantially increased concentrations in the atmosphere in the 20th century, although each of these gases also has natural sources. CFCs are entirely synthetic compounds.

The best information about past climate variability comes from ice cores drilled miles deep in Antarctica and Greenland, which reveal that temperatures have changed substantially over the past 400,000 years. …

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Climate Scientists Advise White Rouse on Global Warming
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