Burning coal, oil and natural gas to heat our homes, power our cars, and illuminate our cities produces carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases as by-products. Deforestation and clearing of land for agriculture also release significant quantities of such gases. Over the last century, we have been emitting greenhouse gases to the atmosphere faster than natural processes can remove them. During this time, atmospheric levels of these gases have climbed steadily and are projected to continue their steep ascent as global economies grow.
Records of past climate going as far back as 160,000 years indicate a close correlation between the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and global temperatures. Computer simulations of the climate indicate that global temperatures will rise as atmospheric concentrations of CO2 increase. The 1995 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the most comprehensive and thoroughly reviewed assessment of climate change science ever produced, concluded that change is already underway. The IPCC, which represents the work of more than 2,000 of the world's leading climate scientists, concluded that Earth has already warmed about 1o F over the last century, and that the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.
The IPCC estimates that global surface air temperature will increase another 2 - 6.5o F in the next 100 years. The difference in temperature from the last ice age to now is about 9o F. Their best guess is that we will experience warming of about 3.5o F by 2100, which would be a faster rate of climate change than any experienced during the last 10,000 years, the period in which modern civilization developed.
Warming of this magnitude will affect many aspects of our lives as it changes temperature and precipitation patterns, induces sea level rise, and alters the distribution of fresh water supplies. The impacts on our health, the vitality of forests and other natural areas, and the productivity of agriculture are all likely to be significant. As the risks of global climate change become increasingly apparent, there is a genuine need to focus on actions to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and minimize the adverse impacts of a changing climate.
During the 1980s, scientific evidence about global climate change and its consequences led to growing concern among scientists, policy makers, and the public. In 1988, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) jointly established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Through the IPCC process, scientists representing more than 150 countries have assessed the available information on climate change and its environmental and economic effects and have provided the scientific understanding needed to help formulate appropriate responses. A series of IPCC reports, incorporating extensive peer review and a commitment to scientific excellence, have provided the most authoritative and comprehensive information available on the science of climate change. In 1996, the IPCC published its Second Assessment Report, which summarizes the most recent information on climate change science and the vulnerability of natural and socioeconomic systems.
In 1990, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). The FCCC was adopted in 1992, and over 160 signatories have now become parties to the agreement. The agreement was signed by the President of the U.S. and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992. The ultimate aim of the FCCC is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. This stabilization should be achieved within a time frame that (1) allows ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, (2) ensures that food production is not threatened, and (3) enables sustainable economic development to proceed.
In the United States, climate change research is overseen by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which was established in 1989. Since its inception, the USGCRP has strengthened research on key scientific issues and has fostered improved understanding of Earth processes. New directions for the USGCRP include identifying and analyzing regional vulnerabilities to climate variability and climate change. The results of the research it supports have played an important role in the work of the IPCC and other national and international bodies.
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