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

1.4 Examples of Progress in Understanding Climate Processes

1.4.1 The Earth’s Greenhouse Effect

The realisation that Earth’s climate might be sensitive to the atmospheric concentrations of gases that create a greenhouse effect is more than a century old. Fleming (1998) and Weart (2003) provided an overview of the emerging science. In terms of the energy balance of the climate system, Edme Mariotte noted in 1681 that although the Sun’s light and heat easily pass through glass and other transparent materials, heat from other sources (chaleur de feu) does not. The ability to generate an artificial warming of the Earth’s surface was demonstrated in simple greenhouse experiments such as Horace Benedict de Saussure’s experiments in the 1760s using a ‘heliothermometer’ (panes of glass covering a thermometer in a darkened box) to provide an early analogy to the greenhouse effect. It was a conceptual leap to recognise that the air itself could also trap thermal radiation. In 1824, Joseph Fourier, citing Saussure, argued ‘the temperature [of the Earth] can be augmented by the interposition of the atmosphere, because heat in the state of light finds less resistance in penetrating the air, than in repassing into the air when converted into non-luminous heat’. In 1836, Pouillit followed up on Fourier’s ideas and argued ‘the atmospheric stratum…exercises a greater absorption upon the terrestrial than on the solar rays’. There was still no understanding of exactly what substance in the atmosphere was responsible for this absorption.

In 1859, John Tyndall (1861) identified through laboratory experiments the absorption of thermal radiation by complex molecules (as opposed to the primary bimolecular atmospheric constituents O2 and molecular nitrogen). He noted that changes in the amount of any of the radiatively active constituents of the atmosphere such as water (H2O) or CO2 could have produced ‘all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal’. In 1895, Svante Arrhenius (1896) followed with a climate prediction based on greenhouse gases, suggesting that a 40% increase or decrease in the atmospheric abundance of the trace gas CO2 might trigger the glacial advances and retreats. One hundred years later, it would be found that CO2 did indeed vary by this amount between glacial and interglacial periods. However, it now appears that the initial climatic change preceded the change in CO2 but was enhanced by it (Section 6.4).

G. S. Callendar (1938) solved a set of equations linking greenhouse gases and climate change. He found that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration resulted in an increase in the mean global temperature of 2°C, with considerably more warming at the poles, and linked increasing fossil fuel combustion with a rise in CO2 and its greenhouse effects: ‘As man is now changing the composition of the atmosphere at a rate which must be very exceptional on the geological time scale, it is natural to seek for the probable effects of such a change. From the best laboratory observations it appears that the principal result of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide…would be a gradual increase in the mean temperature of the colder regions of the Earth.’ In 1947, Ahlmann reported a 1.3°C warming in the North Atlantic sector of the Arctic since the 19th century and mistakenly believed this climate variation could be explained entirely by greenhouse gas warming. Similar model predictions were echoed by Plass in 1956 (see Fleming, 1998): ‘If at the end of this century, measurements show that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has risen appreciably and at the same time the temperature has continued to rise throughout the world, it will be firmly established that carbon dioxide is an important factor in causing climatic change’ (see Chapter 9).

In trying to understand the carbon cycle, and specifically how fossil fuel emissions would change atmospheric CO2, the interdisciplinary field of carbon cycle science began. One of the first problems addressed was the atmosphere-ocean exchange of CO2. Revelle and Suess (1957) explained why part of the emitted CO2 was observed to accumulate in the atmosphere rather than being completely absorbed by the oceans. While CO2 can be mixed rapidly into the upper layers of the ocean, the time to mix with the deep ocean is many centuries. By the time of the TAR, the interaction of climate change with the oceanic circulation and biogeochemistry was projected to reduce the fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions taken up by the oceans in the future, leaving a greater fraction in the atmosphere (Sections 7.1, 7.3 and 10.4).

In the 1950s, the greenhouse gases of concern remained CO2 and H2O, the same two identified by Tyndall a century earlier. It was not until the 1970s that other greenhouse gases – CH4, N2O and CFCs – were widely recognised as important anthropogenic greenhouse gases (Ramanathan, 1975; Wang et al., 1976; Section 2.3). By the 1970s, the importance of aerosol-cloud effects in reflecting sunlight was known (Twomey, 1977), and atmospheric aerosols (suspended small particles) were being proposed as climate-forcing constituents. Charlson and others (summarised in Charlson et al., 1990) built a consensus that sulphate aerosols were, by themselves, cooling the Earth’s surface by directly reflecting sunlight. Moreover, the increases in sulphate aerosols were anthropogenic and linked with the main source of CO2, burning of fossil fuels (Section 2.4). Thus, the current picture of the atmospheric constituents driving climate change contains a much more diverse mix of greenhouse agents.