Frequently Asked Questions about Climate Change

Prepared by Richard B. Alley of Pennsylvania State University

The US National Academy of Science, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, numerous leading professional societies, and other groups have attested to the strong scientific evidence that human activities (especially burning of fossil fuels) are changing the composition of the atmosphere, that this is contributing to warming and other climate changes, that the changes so far are small compared to those expected under business as usual, that impacts of the climate changes on economies and ecosystems will be notable, and that mitigation and adaptation options exist. Here, in question-and-answer format, is a synopsis of some of the relevant science, with special attention to ice sheets.


Q1: Is climate changing?
A: Yes. Warming is shown by thermometers in the air, including those far from cities, thermometers taken aloft by balloons or looking down from space, thermometers placed in the ocean and in boreholes in rock, and by changes in where and when biological events happen and ice thaws.

Q2: Climate has always changed. What’s the big deal now?
A: Indeed, natural changes have happened, with continental drift changing atmospheric CO2 over tens of millions of years, wiggles in the orbit causing ice ages and CO2 changes over tens of thousands of years, and other natural changes. Earth and life are still here. If we didn’t have a special concern for humans, and for the other species that we know, climate change might not be a big deal.

Q3: So why blame the recent changes on us?
A: The human cause of rising CO2 is very clear—we know from oil-tanker shipments and coal trains how much fossil fuel is being burned, burning uses oxygen and the drop in oxygen is of the size expected to explain the burning (but with plenty of oxygen left to breathe), and other isotopic indicators agree that we are responsible for the rising CO2. The warming effect of CO2 has been known for over a century, and was clarified especially well by military research linked to world war II—the hot exhaust makes a target of a high-altitude bomber but must be viewed through the “haze” of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so the US military did a really good job of studying the interactions of gases and heat radiation. And, the warming now has the “fingerprint” of CO2—where and when the climate changed was following a natural pattern in the early part of the 20th century, but switched to a mostly human pattern more recently.

Q4: But isn’t the claim about human causes based on untested computer models?
A: No. Very simple, fundamental physics points to the human influence at least since the latter part of the 20th century—temperature has been rising as expected for CO2, at a time when satellites show that the sun has not been getting brighter, and other likely causes of climate change are similarly not contributing to warming. Computer models are used to provide additional support for the role of CO2 in warming, but those models are tested extensively, with the model-builders checking themselves many, many times and finding much skill. (“Do our models agree with fundamental physical law? When given simple problems for which we already know the answer, do our models get it correct? Do our models reproduce climate changes of the past, for times hotter and colder than the present, without “cheating” by “tuning” the model to give the right answer?”)

Q5: But aren’t the human-caused changes in climate small?
A: Yes. Although the recent warming is scientifically unequivocal, and has caused other changes in the Earth system noticed by many people, other people who are not paying close attention may not have noticed, and not every point on the planet has warmed. But, the planet is still warming from what we have done already (the ocean takes a while to heat up), and there is enough fossil fuel left to make a much bigger perturbation to the planet than what we have done so far, with much bigger warming expected as a result. We have just started down this path.

Q6: But what if you’re wrong, and the warming is natural?
A: If nature is causing warming, is that a reason to turn up the thermostat? The climate over the last century has moved a bit like a soccer ball in a game of five-year-olds, and while CO2 has been the most forceful kicker, sun and volcanoes and particles from smokestacks and other players have also moved the ball around the field, so it has taken a while for the scientists watching to gain confidence that CO2 is the prime mover. But under business as usual, CO2 is expected to grow in strength without a coupled increase in the strength of the other players. Let one of the five-year-olds grow to become a member of the US national soccer team while the rest of the kids stay the same size and strength, and you have much more confidence which way the ball will go. Let CO2 grow unchecked into the future, without beefing up any of the other players, and the influence of the CO2 will similarly grow.


Q7: Why all this excitement about the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets, when they are changing only a little bit?
A: Sea level has been rising just over an inch per decade recently, primarily because the recent warming is causing ocean water to expand, and mountain glaciers in Alaska, Patagonia, the Alps and elsewhere to melt. Although measurements show that the big ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are contributing to the sea-level rise, they are still not the major players. But, the ice sheets grossly dominate possible sea-level rise because they are so big. The little warming that has happened so far seems to have caused a little melting of the big ice sheets, so if more warming occurs, many people would like to know whether more sea-level rise will result.

Q8: Haven’t the ice sheets survived warming in the past?
A: Yes. The ice sheets have grown when the climate cooled, and shrunk when the climate warmed. For a little warming, the shrinkage seems to have been small; for too much warming, the Greenland ice sheet seems to have largely or completely disappeared, and even more warming seems to have done the same to parts or all of the Antarctic ice sheet. Unfortunately, just how much warming is “too much” remains unclear. We might reach a temperature this century that, if maintained, would melt the Greenland ice sheet and important parts of the Antarctic ice.

Q9: But won’t that melting take a long time?
A: Yes, although we don’t know how long. Drop an ice cube in a glass of tea, and unless you put the glass in the freezer, the ice cube is doomed, after a while. Too much warming, and Greenland’s ice will melt, but such a large “ice cube” will not melt quickly. However, Greenland and coastal Antarctica have also exhibited flow instabilities. At places including the Larsen B Ice Shelf along the Antarctic Peninsula, Pine Island Bay in West Antarctica, and Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, warming has caused shrinkage or break-up of floating extensions of the ice sheet called ice shelves, “unplugging” the not-yet-floating ice behind to flow faster (as much as eight-fold) to the sea to make icebergs. Although loss of the floating ice shelves did not raise sea level, the delivery of additional icebergs from the flow acceleration did raise sea level. In Greenland, additional meltwater has reached the bed of the ice sheet to lubricate faster flow that lowers more of the ice into warmer air. In considering these processes, the UN IPCC in 2007 wrote “understanding of these effects is too limited to… provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise”. (So, the IPCC did not somehow reduce their estimate of total sea-level rise.) Even so, losing an ice sheet is not expected in decades, although whether centuries or millennia, and how many of each, we just don’t know. Notice that the ongoing sea-level rise of just over an inch per decade contributes to coastal retreat (as do other processes), and that about three-quarters of the US coastline is estimated to be retreating. If Greenland were to melt in a millennium, it would add about 3 inches per decade on average, dominating the current sources of sea-level rise; were the larger Antarctic ice sheet to contribute as well, much larger rates are possible.

Q10: Are there tipping points for ice sheets?
A: Quite possibly. Transferring an ice cube from your freezer to your glass of iced tea is surely a tipping point for the ice cube; even if you take it out of the tea and put it back in the freezer, you won’t immediately have the whole ice cube again. Too warm, and an ice sheet melts unless you can get it back in the “freezer” in a hurry, and if the faster flow lowers the ice sheet, the cold central region will become warmer, favoring melting. Many times in the past, ice sheets have been well-behaved, changing slowly in response to changing climate, but sometimes large and rapid ice-sheet changes have occurred and huge ice sheets have disappeared completely.

Q11: What about all the uncertainties?
A: This is science, not revealed truth, so there are uncertainties. But, that often provides little comfort to people worried about large future changes. In many ways, the scientific evidence indicates that there is a central estimate of what will happen, that things could be a little better or or a little worse than the central estimate, or things could be a lot worse. We don’t expect an ice sheet to fall apart really rapidly, or for the meltwaters to greatly change the currents in the north Atlantic and bring drought to huge regions as happened during the warming from the last ice age, but while such events may be highly unlikely, they are not impossible. The estimates of how much warming we will get from a given amount of CO2 usually have a similar pattern—a central estimate, and the possibility of a little less, or a little more, or a lot more.

Q12: So where does that leave us?
A: The best available scientific evidence shows that human fossil-fuel burning and other activities are altering the composition of the air, causing warming, sea-level rise, and other climatic changes, and that human decisions will determine whether or not future changes are much larger than those that have already occurred.

For further information please contact one of the WAIS Working Group Members.