Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science

  1. The Sun is the primary source of energy for Earth's climate system.

    1. When Earth emits the same amount of energy as it absorbs, its energy budget is in balance, and its average temperature remains stable.
  2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.

    1. The amount of solar energy absorbed or radiated by Earth is modulated by the atmosphere and depends on its composition. Greenhouse gases-such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane-occur naturally in small amounts and absorb and release heat energy more efficiently than abundant atmospheric gases like nitrogen and oxygen. Small increases in carbon dioxide concentration have a large effect on the climate system.
    2. The abundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is controlled by biogeochemical cycles that continually move these components between their ocean, land, life, and atmosphere reservoirs. The abundance of carbon in the atmosphere is reduced through seafloor accumulation of marine sediments and accumulation of plant biomass and is increased through deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels as well as through other processes.
  3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.

    1. The presence of small amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere warms Earth's surface, resulting in a planet that sustains liquid water and life.
  4. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.

    1. Environmental observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system. From the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the Sun, instruments on weather stations, buoys, satellites, and other platforms collect climate data. To learn about past climates, scientists use natural records, such as tree rings, ice cores, and sedimentary layers. Historical observations, such as native knowledge and personal journals, also document past climate change.
    2. Scientists have conducted extensive research on the fundamental characteristics of the climate system and their understanding will continue to improve. Current climate change projections are reliable enough to help humans evaluate potential decisions and actions in response to climate change.
  5. Human activities are impacting the climate system.

    1. The overwhelming consensus of scientific studies on climate indicates that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the latter part of the 20th century is very likely due to human activities, primarily from increases in greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.2
    2. Emissions from the widespread burning of fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Because these gases can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years before being removed by natural processes, their warming influence is projected to persist into the next century.
    3. Human activities have affected the land, oceans, and atmosphere, and these changes have altered global climate patterns. Burning fossil fuels, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere, reducing the amount of forest cover, and rapid expansion of farming, development, and industrial activities are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and changing the balance of the climate system.
    4. Scientists and economists predict that there will be both positive and negative impacts from global climate change. If warming exceeds 2 to 3°C (3.6 to 5.4°F) over the next century, the consequences of the negative impacts are likely to be much greater than the consequences of the positive impacts.

National Science Education Standards

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Changes in Environments

  • Changes in environments can be natural or influenced by humans. Some changes are good, some are bad, and some are neither good nor bad. Pollution is a change in the environment that can influence the health, survival, or activities of organisms, including humans.

Content Standard C: Life Science

Organisms and Their Environments

  • All organisms cause changes in the environment where they live. Some of these changes are detrimental to the organism or other organisms, whereas others are beneficial.
  • Humans depend on their natural and constructed environments. Humans change environments in ways that can be either beneficial or detrimental for themselves and other organisms.

The Interdependence of Organisms

  • The atoms and molecules on the earth cycle among the living and nonliving components of the biosphere.
  • Living organisms have the capacity to produce populations of infinite size, but environments and resources are finite. This fundamental tension has profound effects on the interactions between organisms.
  • Human beings live within the world's ecosystems. Increasingly, humans modify ecosystems as a result of population growth, technology, and consumption. Human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, atmospheric changes, and other factors is threatening current global stability, and if not addressed, ecosystems will be irreversibly affected.

Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science

Geochemical Cycles

  • Movement of matter between reservoirs is driven by the earth's internal and external sources of energy. These movements are often accompanied by a change in the physical and chemical properties of the matter. Carbon, for example, occurs in carbonate rocks such as limestone, in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas, in water as dissolved carbon dioxide, and in all organisms as complex molecules that control the chemistry of life.

AAAS-Benchmarks for Science Literacy

    1. Issues in Technology

      • 3C (3-5) #6 Because of their ability to invent tools and processes, people have an enormous effect on the lives of other living things.
      • 3C (9-12) #4 The human species has a major impact on other species in many ways: reducing the amount of the earth's surface available to those other species, interfering with their food sources, changing the temperature and chemical composition of their habitats, introducing foreign species into their ecosystems, and altering organisms directly through selective breeding and genetic engineering.

    1. Interdependence of Life

      • 5D (3-5) #4 Changes in an organism's habitat are sometimes beneficial to it and sometimes harmful.
      • 5D (9-12) #2 Like many complex systems, ecosystems tend to have cyclic fluctuations around a state of rough equilibrium. In the long run, however, ecosystems always change when climate changes or when one or more new species appear as a result of migration or local evolution.
      • 5D (9-12) #3 Human beings are part of the earth's ecosystems. Human activities can, deliberately or inadvertently, alter the equilibrium in ecosystems.

    1. Processes that Shape the Earth

      • 4C (6-8) #7 Human activities, such as reducing the amount of forest cover, increasing the amount and variety of chemicals released into the atmosphere, and intensive farming, have changed the earth's land, oceans, and atmosphere. Some of these changes have decreased the capacity of the environment to support some life forms.

    1. Global Interdependence

      • 7G (6-8) #5 The global environment is affected by national policies and practices relating to energy use, waste disposal, ecological management, manufacturing, and population.
      • 12 D (5-8) #1 Organize information in simple tables and graphs and identify relationships they reveal.
      • 12D (9-12) #7 Use tables, charts, and graphs in making arguments and claims in oral, written, and visual presentations.