Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science

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

    1. Sunlight reaching the Earth can heat the land, ocean, and atmosphere. Some of that sunlight is reflected back to space by the surface, clouds, or ice. Much of the sunlight that reaches Earth is absorbed and warms the planet.
    2. 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. Earth's climate is influenced by interactions involving the Sun, ocean, atmosphere, clouds, ice, land, and life. Climate varies by region as a result of local differences in these interactions.
    2. The interconnectedness of Earth's systems means that a significant change in any one component of the climate system can influence the equilibrium of the entire Earth system. Positive feedback loops can amplify these effects and trigger abrupt changes in the climate system. These complex interactions may result in climate change that is more rapid and on a larger scale than projected by current climate models.
  3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.

    1. Life - including microbes, plants, and animals and humans - is a major driver of the global carbon cycle and can influence global climate by modifying the chemical makeup of the atmosphere. The geologic record shows that life has significantly altered the atmosphere during Earth's history.
  4. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.

    1. The components and processes of Earth's climate system are subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the Universe. Therefore, the behavior of the climate system can be understood and predicted through careful, systematic study.
    2. 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.
  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
  6. Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.
    1. Melting of ice sheets and glaciers, combined with the thermal expansion of seawater as the oceans warm, is causing sea level to rise. Seawater is beginning to move onto low-lying land and to contaminate coastal fresh water sources and beginning to submerge coastal facilities and barrier islands. Sea-level rise increases the risk of damage to homes and buildings from storm surges such as those that accompany hurricanes.
    2. Climate plays an important role in the global distribution of freshwater resources. Changing precipitation patterns and temperature conditions will alter the distribution and availability of freshwater resources, reducing reliable access to water for many people and their crops. Winter snowpack and mountain glaciers that provide water for human use are declining as a result of global warming.

AAAS-Benchmarks for Science Literacy

    1. Systems

      • M2 (6-8) Thinking about things as systems means looking for how every part relates to others. The output from one part of a system (which can include material, energy, or information) can become the input to other parts. Such feedback can serve to control what goes on in the system as a whole.
      • M5 (6-8) Systems are defined by placing boundaries around collections of interrelated things to make them easier to study. Regardless of where the boundaries are placed, a system still interacts with its surrounding environment. Therefore, when studying a system, it is important to keep track of what enters or leaves the system.
      • H1 (9-12) A system usually has some properties that are different from those of its parts, but appear because of the interaction of those parts.