Human influences on climate change

Anthropogenic factors are human activities that change the environment and influence climate. In some cases the chain of causality is direct and unambiguous while in others it is less clear. Various hypotheses for human-induced climate change have been debated for many years, though it is important to note that the scientific debate has moved on from scepticism, as there is scientific consensus on climate change that human activity is beyond reasonable doubt as the main explanation for the current rapid changes in the world’s climate. Consequently in politics, the debate has largely shifted onto ways to reduce human impact and adapt to change that is already ‘in the system.’

The biggest factor of present concern is the increase in CO2 levels due to emissions from fossil fuel combustion, followed by aerosols (particulate matter in the atmosphere), which exert a cooling effect, and cement manufacture. Other factors, including land use, ozone depletion, animal agriculture and deforestation, also affect climate.

Fossil fuels
Beginning with the industrial revolution in the 1880s and accelerating ever since, the human consumption of fossil fuels has elevated CO2 levels from a concentration of 280 ppm to 387 ppm today. These increasing concentrations are projected to reach a range of 535 to 983 ppm by the end of the 21st century. It is known that carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher now than at any time in the last 750,000 years. Along with rising methane levels, these changes are anticipated to cause an increase of 1.4–5.6 °C between 1990 and 2100.

Land use
Prior to widespread fossil fuel use, humanity’s largest effect on local climate is likely to have resulted from land use. Irrigation, deforestation, and agriculture fundamentally change the environment. For example, they change the amount of water going into and out of a given location. They also may change the local albedo by influencing the ground cover and altering the amount of sunlight that is absorbed. For example, there is evidence to suggest that the climate of Greece and other Mediterranean countries was permanently changed by widespread deforestation between 700 BC and 1 AD (the wood being used for shipbuilding, construction and fuel), with the result that the modern climate in the region is significantly hotter and drier, and the species of trees that were used for shipbuilding in the ancient world can no longer be found in the area. An assessment of conterminous U.S. biomass burning speculated that the approximate 8 fold
reduction in Wildland Fire Emissions (aerosols) from the preindustrial era to present caused by land use changes and land management decisions may have had a regional warming affect if not for fossil fuel burning emission increases occurring concurrently.

In modern times, a 2007 Jet Propulsion Laboratory study found that the average temperature of California has risen about 2 degrees over the past 50 years, with a much higher increase in urban areas. The change was attributed mostly to extensive human development of the landscape.