IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

Understanding and Attributing Climate Change

This assessment considers longer and improved records, an expanded range of observations and improvements in the simulation of many aspects of climate and its variability based on studies since the TAR. It also considers the results of new attribution studies that have evaluated whether observed changes are quantitatively consistent with the expected response to external forcings and inconsistent with alternative physically plausible explanations.

Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.[12] This is an advance since the TAR’s conclusion that “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”. Discernible human influences now extend to other aspects of climate, including ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns (see Figure SPM.4 and Table SPM.2). {9.4, 9.5}

Global and Continental Temperature Change

Figure SPM.4

Figure SPM.4. Comparison of observed continental- and global-scale changes in surface temperature with results simulated by climate models using natural and anthropogenic forcings. Decadal averages of observations are shown for the period 1906 to 2005 (black line) plotted against the centre of the decade and relative to the corresponding average for 1901–1950. Lines are dashed where spatial coverage is less than 50%. Blue shaded bands show the 5–95% range for 19 simulations from five climate models using only the natural forcings due to solar activity and volcanoes. Red shaded bands show the 5–95% range for 58 simulations from 14 climate models using both natural and anthropogenic forcings. {FAQ 9.2 Figure 1}

  • It is likely that increases in greenhouse gas concentrations alone would have caused more warming than observed because volcanic and anthropogenic aerosols have offset some warming that would otherwise have taken place. {2.9, 7.5, 9.4}
  • The observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing, and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone. {4.8, 5.2, 9.4, 9.5, 9.7}
  • Warming of the climate system has been detected in changes of surface and atmospheric temperatures in the upper several hundred metres of the ocean, and in contributions to sea level rise. Attribution studies have established anthropogenic contributions to all of these changes. The observed pattern of tropospheric warming and stratospheric cooling is very likely due to the combined influences of greenhouse gas increases and stratospheric ozone depletion. {3.2, 3.4, 9.4, 9.5}
  • It is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent except Antarctica (see Figure SPM.4). The observed patterns of warming, including greater warming over land than over the ocean, and their changes over time, are only simulated by models that include anthropogenic forcing. The ability of coupled climate models to simulate the observed temperature evolution on each of six continents provides stronger evidence of human influence on climate than was available in the TAR. {3.2, 9.4}
  • Difficulties remain in reliably simulating and attributing observed temperature changes at smaller scales. On these scales, natural climate variability is relatively larger, making it harder to distinguish changes expected due to external forcings. Uncertainties in local forcings and feedbacks also make it difficult to estimate the contribution of greenhouse gas increases to observed small-scale temperature changes. {8.3, 9.4}
  • Anthropogenic forcing is likely to have contributed to changes in wind patterns,[13] affecting extra-tropical storm tracks and temperature patterns in both hemispheres. However, the observed changes in the Northern Hemisphere circulation are larger than simulated in response to 20th-century forcing change. {3.5, 3.6, 9.5, 10.3}
  • Temperatures of the most extreme hot nights, cold nights and cold days are likely to have increased due to anthropogenic forcing. It is more likely than not that anthropogenic forcing has increased the risk of heat waves (see Table SPM.2). {9.4}

Analysis of climate models together with constraints from observations enables an assessed likely range to be given for climate sensitivity for the first time and provides increased confidence in the understanding of the climate system response to radiative forcing. {6.6, 8.6, 9.6, Box 10.2}

  • The equilibrium climate sensitivity is a measure of the climate system response to sustained radiative forcing. It is not a projection but is defined as the global average surface warming following a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations. It is likely to be in the range 2°C to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C. Values substantially higher than 4.5°C cannot be excluded, but agreement of models with observations is not as good for those values. Water vapour changes represent the largest feedback affecting climate sensitivity and are now better understood than in the TAR. Cloud feedbacks remain the largest source of uncertainty. {8.6, 9.6, Box 10.2}
  • It is very unlikely that climate changes of at least the seven centuries prior to 1950 were due to variability generated within the climate system alone. A significant fraction of the reconstructed Northern Hemisphere inter-decadal temperature variability over those centuries is very likely attributable to volcanic eruptions and changes in solar irradiance, and it is likely that anthropogenic forcing contributed to the early 20th-century warming evident in these records. {2.7, 2.8, 6.6, 9.3}
  1. ^  Consideration of remaining uncertainty is based on current methodologies.
  2. ^  In particular, the Southern and Northern Annular Modes and related changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation. {3.6, 9.5, Box TS.2}