How do Human Activities Contribute to Climate Change and How do They Compare with Natural Influences?

Published: 23rd November 2012 19:09Last Updated: 14th July 2016 10:43
This material is extracted from the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section of the Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Working Group 1 (see full reference below).  

Human activities contribute to climate change by causing changes in Earth’s atmosphere in the amounts of greenhouse gases, aerosols (small particles), and cloudiness. The largest known contribution comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide gas to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases and aerosols affect climate by altering incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared (thermal) radiation that are part of Earth’s energy balance. Changing the atmospheric abundance or properties of these gases and particles can lead to a warming or cooling of the climate system. Since the start of the industrial era (about 1750), the overall effect of human activities on climate has been a warming influence. The human impact on climate during this era greatly exceeds that due to known changes in natural processes, such as solar changes and volcanic eruptions.

FAQ 2.1, Figure 1. Atmospheric concentrations of important long-lived greenhouse gases over the last 2,000 years. Increases since about 1750 are attributed to human activities in the industrial era. Concentration units are parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb), indicating the number of molecules of the greenhouse gas per million or billion air molecules, respectively, in an atmospheric sample.

FAQ 2.1, Figure 2. Summary of the principal components of the radiative forcing of climate change. All these radiative forcings result from one or more factors that affect climate and are associated with human activities or natural processes as discussed in the text. The values represent the forcings in 2005 relative to the start of the industrial era (about 1750). Human activities cause significant changes in long-lived gases, ozone, water vapour, surface albedo, aerosols and contrails. The only increase in natural forcing of any significance between 1750 and 2005 occurred in solar irradiance. Positive forcings lead to warming of climate and negative forcings lead to a cooling. The thin black line attached to each coloured bar represents the range of uncertainty for the respective value.


IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment, Report of the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Further resources

For a more detailed explanation of the answer please see the original IPCC FAQ document at: