What Effect Do Greenhouse Gases Have on Climate Change?
Given the natural variability of the Earth’s climate, it is difficult to determine the extent of change that humans cause. In computer-based models, rising concentrations of greenhouse gases generally produce an increase in the average temperature of the Earth. Rising temperatures may, in turn, produce changes in weather, sea levels, and land use patterns, commonly referred to as “climate change.”
Assessments generally suggest that the Earth’s climate has warmed over the past century and that human activity affecting the atmosphere is likely an important driving factor. A National Research Council study dated May 2001 stated, “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and sub-surface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability.”
However, there is uncertainty in how the climate system varies naturally and reacts to emissions of greenhouse gases. Making progress in reducing uncertainties in projections of future climate will require better awareness and understanding of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the behavior of the climate system.
What Are the Sources of Greenhouse Gases?
In the U.S., our greenhouse gas emissions come mostly from energy use. These are driven largely by economic growth, fuel used for electricity generation, and weather patterns affecting heating and cooling needs. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, resulting from petroleum and natural gas, represent 82 percent of total U.S. human-made greenhouse gas emissions.