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

TS.2 Changes in Human and Natural Drivers of Climate

The Earth’s global mean climate is determined by incoming energy from the Sun and by the properties of the Earth and its atmosphere, namely the reflection, absorption and emission of energy within the atmosphere and at the surface. Although changes in received solar energy (e.g., caused by variations in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun) inevitably affect the Earth’s energy budget, the properties of the atmosphere and surface are also important and these may be affected by climate feedbacks. The importance of climate feedbacks is evident in the nature of past climate changes as recorded in ice cores up to 650,000 years old.

Changes have occurred in several aspects of the atmosphere and surface that alter the global energy budget of the Earth and can therefore cause the climate to change. Among these are increases in greenhouse gas concentrations that act primarily to increase the atmospheric absorption of outgoing radiation, and increases in aerosols (microscopic airborne particles or droplets) that act to reflect and absorb incoming solar radiation and change cloud radiative properties. Such changes cause a radiative forcing of the climate system.[1] Forcing agents can differ considerably from one another in terms of the magnitudes of forcing, as well as spatial and temporal features. Positive and negative radiative forcings contribute to increases and decreases, respectively, in global average surface temperature. This section updates the understanding of estimated anthropogenic and natural radiative forcings.

The overall response of global climate to radiative forcing is complex due to a number of positive and negative feedbacks that can have a strong influence on the climate system (see e.g., Sections 4.5 and 5.4). Although water vapour is a strong greenhouse gas, its concentration in the atmosphere changes in response to changes in surface climate and this must be treated as a feedback effect and not as a radiative forcing. This section also summarises changes in the surface energy budget and its links to the hydrological cycle. Insights into the effects of agents such as aerosols on precipitation are also noted.

Box TS.1: Treatment of Uncertainties in the Working Group I Assessment

The importance of consistent and transparent treatment of uncertainties is clearly recognised by the IPCC in preparing its assessments of climate change. The increasing attention given to formal treatments of uncertainty in previous assessments is addressed in Section 1.6. To promote consistency in the general treatment of uncertainty across all three Working Groups, authors of the Fourth Assessment Report have been asked to follow a brief set of guidance notes on determining and describing uncertainties in the context of an assessment.[2] This box summarises the way that Working Group I has applied those guidelines and covers some aspects of the treatment of uncertainty specific to material assessed here.

Uncertainties can be classified in several different ways according to their origin. Two primary types are ‘value uncertainties’ and ‘structural uncertainties’. Value uncertainties arise from the incomplete determination of particular values or results, for example, when data are inaccurate or not fully representative of the phenomenon of interest. Structural uncertainties arise from an incomplete understanding of the processes that control particular values or results, for example, when the conceptual framework or model used for analysis does not include all the relevant processes or relationships. Value uncertainties are generally estimated using statistical techniques and expressed probabilistically. Structural uncertainties are generally described by giving the authors’ collective judgment of their confidence in the correctness of a result. In both cases, estimating uncertainties is intrinsically about describing the limits to knowledge and for this reason involves expert judgment about the state of that knowledge. A different type of uncertainty arises in systems that are either chaotic or not fully deterministic in nature and this also limits our ability to project all aspects of climate change.

The scientific literature assessed here uses a variety of other generic ways of categorising uncertainties. Uncertainties associated with ‘random errors’ have the characteristic of decreasing as additional measurements are accumulated, whereas those associated with ‘systematic errors’ do not. In dealing with climate records, considerable attention has been given to the identification of systematic errors or unintended biases arising from data sampling issues and methods of analysing and combining data. Specialised statistical methods based on quantitative analysis have been developed for the detection and attribution of climate change and for producing probabilistic projections of future climate parameters. These are summarised in the relevant chapters.

The uncertainty guidance provided for the Fourth Assessment Report draws, for the first time, a careful distinction between levels of confidence in scientific understanding and the likelihoods of specific results. This allows authors to express high confidence that an event is extremely unlikely (e.g., rolling a dice twice and getting a six both times), as well as high confidence that an event is about as likely as not (e.g., a tossed coin coming up heads). Confidence and likelihood as used here are distinct concepts but are often linked in practice.

The standard terms used to define levels of confidence in this report are as given in the IPCC Uncertainty Guidance Note, namely:

Confidence Terminology Degree of confidence in being correct 
Very high confidence At least 9 out of 10 chance  
High confidence About 8 out of 10 chance 
Medium confidence About 5 out of 10 chance 
Low confidence About 2 out of 10 chance 
Very low confidence Less than 1 out of 10 chance 

Note that ‘low confidence’ and ‘very low confidence’ are only used for areas of major concern and where a risk-based perspective is justified.

Chapter 2 of this report uses a related term ‘level of scientific understanding’ when describing uncertainties in different contributions to radiative forcing. This terminology is used for consistency with the Third Assessment Report, and the basis on which the authors have determined particular levels of scientific understanding uses a combination of approaches consistent with the uncertainty guidance note as explained in detail in Section 2.9.2 and Table 2.11.

The standard terms used in this report to define the likelihood of an outcome or result where this can be estimated probabilistically are:

Likelihood Terminology Likelihood of the occurrence/ outcome  
Virtually certain > 99% probability 
Extremely likely > 95% probability  
Very likely > 90% probability 
Likely > 66% probability 
More likely than not > 50% probability 
About as likely as not 33 to 66% probability 
Unlikely < 33% probability 
Very unlikely < 10% probability 
Extremely unlikely < 5% probability 
Exceptionally unlikely < 1% probability 

The terms ‘extremely likely’, ‘extremely unlikely’ and ‘more likely than not’ as defined above have been added to those given in the IPCC Uncertainty Guidance Note in order to provide a more specific assessment of aspects including attribution and radiative forcing.

Unless noted otherwise, values given in this report are assessed best estimates and their uncertainty ranges are 90% confidence intervals (i.e., there is an estimated 5% likelihood of the value being below the lower end of the range or above the upper end of the range). Note that in some cases the nature of the constraints on a value, or other information available, may indicate an asymmetric distribution of the uncertainty range around a best estimate. In such cases, the uncertainty range is given in square brackets following the best estimate.

  1. ^  ‘Radiative forcing’ is a measure of the influence a factor has in altering the balance of incoming and outgoing energy in the Earth-atmosphere system and is an index of the importance of the factor as a potential climate change mechanism. Positive forcing tends to warm the surface while negative forcing tends to cool it. In this report, radiative forcing values are for changes relative to a pre-industrial background at 1750, are expressed in Watts per square metre (W m–2) and, unless otherwise noted, refer to a global and annual average value. See Glossary for further details.
  2. ^  The IPCC Uncertainty Guidance Note is included in Supplementary Material for this report.