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

Executive Summary

Evidence of the effect of external influences on the climate system has continued to accumulate since the Third Assessment Report (TAR). The evidence now available is substantially stronger and is based on analyses of widespread temperature increases throughout the climate system and changes in other climate variables.

Human-induced warming of the climate system is widespread. Anthropogenic warming of the climate system can be detected in temperature observations taken at the surface, in the troposphere and in the oceans. Multi-signal detection and attribution analyses, which quantify the contributions of different natural and anthropogenic forcings to observed changes, show that greenhouse gas forcing alone during the past half century would likely have resulted in greater than the observed warming if there had not been an offsetting cooling effect from aerosol and other forcings.

It is extremely unlikely (<5%) that the global pattern of warming during the past half century can be explained without external forcing, and very unlikely that it is due to known natural external causes alone. The warming occurred in both the ocean and the atmosphere and took place at a time when natural external forcing factors would likely have produced cooling.

Greenhouse gas forcing has very likely caused most of the observed global warming over the last 50 years. This conclusion takes into account observational and forcing uncertainty, and the possibility that the response to solar forcing could be underestimated by climate models. It is also robust to the use of different climate models, different methods for estimating the responses to external forcing and variations in the analysis technique.

Further evidence has accumulated of an anthropogenic influence on the temperature of the free atmosphere as measured by radiosondes and satellite-based instruments. The observed pattern of tropospheric warming and stratospheric cooling is very likely due to the influence of anthropogenic forcing, particularly greenhouse gases and stratospheric ozone depletion. The combination of a warming troposphere and a cooling stratosphere has likely led to an increase in the height of the tropopause. It is likely that anthropogenic forcing has contributed to the general warming observed in the upper several hundred meters of the ocean during the latter half of the 20th century. Anthropogenic forcing, resulting in thermal expansion from ocean warming and glacier mass loss, has very likely contributed to sea level rise during the latter half of the 20th century. It is difficult to quantify the contribution of anthropogenic forcing to ocean heat content increase and glacier melting with presently available detection and attribution studies.

It is likely that there has been a substantial anthropogenic contribution to surface temperature increases in every continent except Antarctica since the middle of the 20th century. Anthropogenic influence has been detected in every continent except Antarctica (which has insufficient observational coverage to make an assessment), and in some sub-continental land areas. The ability of coupled climate models to simulate the temperature evolution on continental scales and the detection of anthropogenic effects on each of six continents provides stronger evidence of human influence on the global climate than was available at the time of the TAR. No climate model that has used natural forcing only has reproduced the observed global mean warming trend or the continental mean warming trends in all individual continents (except Antarctica) over the second half of the 20th century.

Difficulties remain in attributing temperature changes on smaller than continental scales and over time scales of less than 50 years. Attribution at these scales, with limited exceptions, has not yet been established. Averaging over smaller regions reduces the natural variability less than does averaging over large regions, making it more difficult to distinguish between changes expected from different external forcings, or between external forcing and variability. In addition, temperature changes associated with some modes of variability are poorly simulated by models in some regions and seasons. Furthermore, the small-scale details of external forcing, and the response simulated by models are less credible than large-scale features.

Surface temperature extremes have likely been affected by anthropogenic forcing. Many indicators of climate extremes and variability, including the annual numbers of frost days, warm and cold days, and warm and cold nights, show changes that are consistent with warming. An anthropogenic influence has been detected in some of these indices, and there is evidence that anthropogenic forcing may have substantially increased the risk of extremely warm summer conditions regionally, such as the 2003 European heat wave.

There is evidence of anthropogenic influence in other parts of the climate system. Anthropogenic forcing has likely contributed to recent decreases in arctic sea ice extent and to glacier retreat. The observed decrease in global snow cover extent and the widespread retreat of glaciers are consistent with warming, and there is evidence that this melting has likely contributed to sea level rise.

Trends over recent decades in the Northern and Southern Annular Modes, which correspond to sea level pressure reductions over the poles, are likely related in part to human activity, affecting storm tracks, winds and temperature patterns in both hemispheres. Models reproduce the sign of the Northern Annular Mode trend, but the simulated response is smaller than observed. Models including both greenhouse gas and stratospheric ozone changes simulate a realistic trend in the Southern Annular Mode, leading to a detectable human influence on global sea level pressure patterns.

The response to volcanic forcing simulated by some models is detectable in global annual mean land precipitation during the latter half of the 20th century. The latitudinal pattern of change in land precipitation and observed increases in heavy precipitation over the 20th century appear to be consistent with the anticipated response to anthropogenic forcing. It is more likely than not that anthropogenic influence has contributed to increases in the frequency of the most intense tropical cyclones. Stronger attribution to anthropogenic factors is not possible at present because the observed increase in the proportion of such storms appears to be larger than suggested by either theoretical or modelling studies and because of inadequate process knowledge, insufficient understanding of natural variability, uncertainty in modelling intense cyclones and uncertainties in historical tropical cyclone data.

Analyses of palaeoclimate data have increased confidence in the role of external influences on climate. Coupled climate models used to predict future climate have been used to understand past climatic conditions of the Last Glacial Maximum and the mid-Holocene. While many aspects of these past climates are still uncertain, key features have been reproduced by climate models using boundary conditions and radiative forcing for those periods. A substantial fraction of the reconstructed Northern Hemisphere inter-decadal temperature variability of the seven centuries prior to 1950 is very likely attributable to natural external forcing, and it is likely that anthropogenic forcing contributed to the early 20th-century warming evident in these records.

Estimates of the climate sensitivity are now better constrained by observations. Estimates based on observational constraints indicate that it is very likely that the equilibrium climate sensitivity is larger than 1.5°C with a most likely value between 2°C and 3°C. The upper 95% limit remains difficult to constrain from observations. This supports the overall assessment based on modelling and observational studies that the equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely 2°C to 4.5°C with a most likely value of approximately 3°C (Box 10.2). The transient climate response, based on observational constraints, is very likely larger than 1°C and very unlikely to be greater than 3.5°C at the time of atmospheric CO2 doubling in response to a 1% yr–1 increase in CO2, supporting the overall assessment that the transient climate response is very unlikely greater than 3°C (Chapter 10).

Overall consistency of evidence. Many observed changes in surface and free atmospheric temperature, ocean temperature and sea ice extent, and some large-scale changes in the atmospheric circulation over the 20th century are distinct from internal variability and consistent with the expected response to anthropogenic forcing. The simultaneous increase in energy content of all the major components of the climate system as well as the magnitude and pattern of warming within and across the different components supports the conclusion that the cause of the warming is extremely unlikely (<5%) to be the result of internal processes. Qualitative consistency is also apparent in some other observations, including snow cover, glacier retreat and heavy precipitation.

Remaining uncertainties. Further improvements in models and analysis techniques have led to increased confidence in the understanding of the influence of external forcing on climate since the TAR. However, estimates of some radiative forcings remain uncertain, including aerosol forcing and inter-decadal variations in solar forcing. The net aerosol forcing over the 20th century from inverse estimates based on the observed warming likely ranges between –1.7 and –0.1 W m–2. The consistency of this result with forward estimates of total aerosol forcing (Chapter 2) strengthens confidence in estimates of total aerosol forcing, despite remaining uncertainties. Nevertheless, the robustness of surface temperature attribution results to forcing and response uncertainty has been evaluated with a range of models, forcing representations and analysis procedures. The potential impact of the remaining uncertainties has been considered, to the extent possible, in the overall assessment of every line of evidence listed above. There is less confidence in the understanding of forced changes in other variables, such as surface pressure and precipitation, and on smaller spatial scales.

Better understanding of instrumental and proxy climate records, and climate model improvements, have increased confidence in climate model-simulated internal variability. However, uncertainties remain. For example, there are apparent discrepancies between estimates of ocean heat content variability from models and observations. While reduced relative to the situation at the time of the TAR, uncertainties in the radiosonde and satellite records still affect confidence in estimates of the anthropogenic contribution to tropospheric temperature change. Incomplete global data sets and remaining model uncertainties still restrict understanding of changes in extremes and attribution of changes to causes, although understanding of changes in the intensity, frequency and risk of extremes has improved.