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

1.3.3 Detection and Attribution

Using knowledge of past climates to qualify the nature of ongoing changes has become a concern of growing importance during the last decades, as reflected in the successive IPCC reports. While linked together at a technical level, detection and attribution have separate objectives. Detection of climate change is the process of demonstrating that climate has changed in some defined statistical sense, without providing a reason for that change. Attribution of causes of climate change is the process of establishing the most likely causes for the detected change with some defined level of confidence. Using traditional approaches, unequivocal attribution would require controlled experimentation with our climate system. However, with no spare Earth with which to experiment, attribution of anthropogenic climate change must be pursued by: (a) detecting that the climate has changed (as defined above); (b) demonstrating that the detected change is consistent with computer model simulations of the climate change ‘signal’ that is calculated to occur in response to anthropogenic forcing; and (c) demonstrating that the detected change is not consistent with alternative, physically plausible explanations of recent climate change that exclude important anthropogenic forcings.

Both detection and attribution rely on observational data and model output. In spite of the efforts described in Section 1.3.2, estimates of century-scale natural climate fluctuations remain difficult to obtain directly from observations due to the relatively short length of most observational records and a lack of understanding of the full range and effects of the various and ongoing external influences. Model simulations with no changes in external forcing (e.g., no increases in atmospheric CO2 concentration) provide valuable information on the natural internal variability of the climate system on time scales of years to centuries. Attribution, on the other hand, requires output from model runs that incorporate historical estimates of changes in key anthropogenic and natural forcings, such as well-mixed greenhouse gases, volcanic aerosols and solar irradiance. These simulations can be performed with changes in a single forcing only (which helps to isolate the climate effect of that forcing), or with simultaneous changes in a whole suite of forcings.

In the early years of detection and attribution research, the focus was on a single time series – the estimated global-mean changes in the Earth’s surface temperature. While it was not possible to detect anthropogenic warming in 1980, Madden and Ramanathan (1980) and Hansen et al. (1981) predicted it would be evident at least within the next two decades. A decade later, Wigley and Raper (1990) used a simple energy-balance climate model to show that the observed change in global-mean surface temperature from 1867 to 1982 could not be explained by natural internal variability. This finding was later confirmed using variability estimates from more complex coupled ocean-atmosphere general circulation models (e.g., Stouffer et al., 1994).

As the science of climate change progressed, detection and attribution research ventured into more sophisticated statistical analyses that examined complex patterns of climate change. Climate change patterns or ‘fingerprints’ were no longer limited to a single variable (temperature) or to the Earth’s surface. More recent detection and attribution work has made use of precipitation and global pressure patterns, and analysis of vertical profiles of temperature change in the ocean and atmosphere. Studies with multiple variables make it easier to address attribution issues. While two different climate forcings may yield similar changes in global mean temperature, it is highly unlikely that they will produce exactly the same ‘fingerprint’ (i.e., climate changes that are identical as a function of latitude, longitude, height, season and history over the 20th century).

Such model-predicted fingerprints of anthropogenic climate change are clearly statistically identifiable in observed data. The common conclusion of a wide range of fingerprint studies conducted over the past 15 years is that observed climate changes cannot be explained by natural factors alone (Santer et al., 1995, 1996a,b,c; Hegerl et al., 1996, 1997, 2000; Hasselmann, 1997; Barnett et al., 1999; Tett et al., 1999; Stott et al., 2000). A substantial anthropogenic influence is required in order to best explain the observed changes. The evidence from this body of work strengthens the scientific case for a discernible human influence on global climate.