Carbon Dioxide and Climate Change

The climate of the Earth is constantly changing, in response to changes in the incoming solar radiation, the patterns of the continents, the amount of dust in the atmosphere, the chemical composition of the atmosphere and many other factors.

One of the factors which is thought to affect surface temperatures is the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a ‘greenhouse gas’. This means that it does not reflect much incoming solar radiation, but it does strongly absorb outgoing, long wave, thermal radiation, re-emitting it back towards the surface and warming the atmosphere.

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have been increasing in the past 200 years or so since the Industrial Revolution began. The source is mainly the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) – for transport, industry, electricity or heat. The rest is due to land use change, such as deforestation.

Global annual average temperature measured over land and oceans. Red bars indicate temperatures above and blue bars indicate temperatures below the 1901-2000 average temperature. The black line shows atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in parts per million. Source: NOAA

Scientists are still uncertain exactly how the Earth-climate system will respond to such changes in carbon dioxide and other changes to the composition of the atmosphere.