The science of carbon dioxide and climate

The vast majority of scientists around the world agree that our climate is changing at a faster rate than ever recorded in human history because of our use of fuels such as coal and oil, so-called fossil fuels.

The conclusion rests on basic physics known since the 19th century, when physical scientists first recognized that carbon dioxide, then a recently discovered gas, could act as a sort of greenhouse, preventing heat introduced by the Sun from escaping back as thermal radiation into space – the “greenhouse effect.” The heat trapped by carbon dioxide warms our oceans and atmosphere. This effect is what enables life on this planet, keeping Earth at a livable global temperature. But changes in the concentrations of these gases change the amount of heat that remains here.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – measured in parts per million of carbon dioxide – has drastically increased since the start of the Industrial Revolution, in the 18th Century. When fossil fuels are burned to produce electricity, or to heat and cool buildings, or to power machines, carbon dioxide is released. Human emissions from burning of fossil fuels and other activities are feeding vast amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—recently around 2.4 million pounds per second. The changes to our climate largely match the effects expected from the increase in emission of greenhouse gases.

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