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What is Climate change?

Climate change refers to a statistically significant variation in either the mean state of the climate or in its variability, persisting for an extended period (typically decades or longer). Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings, or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use.

The Earth is the only planet in our solar system that supports life. The complex process of evolution occurred on Earth only because of some unique environmental conditions that were present: water, an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and a suitable surface temperature.

Mercury and Venus, the two planets that lie between Earth and the sun, do not support life. This is because Mercury has no atmosphere and therefore becomes very hot during the day, while temperatures at night may reach -140 ºC. Venus, has a thick atmosphere which traps more heat than it allows to escape, making it too hot (between 150 and 450 ºC) to sustain life.
Only the Earth has an atmosphere of the proper depth and chemical composition. About 30% of incoming energy from the sun is reflected back to space while the rest reaches the earth, warming the air, oceans, and land, and maintaining an average surface temperature of about 15 ºC.

The chemical composition of the atmosphere is also responsible for nurturing life on our planet. Most of it is nitrogen (78%); about 21% is oxygen, which all animals need to survive; and only a small percentage (0.036%) is made up of carbon dioxide which plants require for photosynthesis.

The atmosphere carries out the critical function of maintaining life-sustaining conditions on Earth, in the following way: each day, energy from the sun (largely in the visible part of the spectrum, but also some in the ultraviolet, and infra red portions) is absorbed by the land, seas, mountains, etc. If all this energy were to be absorbed completely, the earth would gradually become hotter and hotter. But actually, the earth both absorbs and, simultaneously releases it in the form of infra red waves (which cannot be seen by our eyes but can be felt as heat, for example the heat that you can feel with your hands over a heated car engine). All this rising heat is not lost to space, but is partly absorbed by some gases present in very small (or trace) quantities in the atmosphere, called GHGs (greenhouse gases).

Greenhouse gases (for example, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapour, ozone), re-emit some of this heat to the earth's surface. If they did not perform this useful function, most of the heat energy would escape, leaving the earth cold (about -18 ºC) and unfit to support life.

However, ever since the Industrial Revolution began about 150 years ago, man-made activities have added significant quantities of GHGs to the atmosphere. The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have grown by about 31%, 151% and 17%, respectively, between 1750 and 2000 (IPCC 2001).

An increase in the levels of GHGs could lead to greater warming, which, in turn, could have an impact on the world's climate, leading to the phenomenon known as climate change. Indeed, scientists have observed that over the 20th century, the mean global surface temperature increased by 0.6 °C (IPCC 2001). They also observed that since 1860 (the year temperature began to be recorded systematically using a thermometer), the 1990's have been the warmest decade.
However, variations in temperature have also occurred in the past - the best known is the Little Ice Age that struck Europe in the early Middle Ages, bringing about famines, etc. It is therefore difficult to determine whether current observations of increasing temperature are due to natural variabilities or whether they have been forced by anthropogenic (man-made) activities.

Scientific studies and projections are further complicated by the fact that the changes in temperature that they have been observing do not occur uniformly over different layers of the lower atmosphere or even different parts of the earth.

The Earth's climate system constantly adjusts so as to maintain a balance between the energy that reaches it from the sun and the energy that goes from Earth back to space. This means that even a small rise in temperature could mean accompanying changes in cloud cover and wind patterns. Some of these changes may enhance the warming (positive feedback), while others may counteract it (negative feedback). Negative feedback (causing a cooling effect) may result from an increase in the levels of aerosols (small particles of matter or liquid that can be produced by natural or man-made activities). Positive feedback may result from an increase in water vapour (because of greater evaporation with temp rise), which itself is a GHG and can further add to the warming effect.

All the factors described above complicate the work of scientists who try to predict the fallout of climate change. Despite these uncertainties, the Third Assessment Report published by the IPCC states, 'there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities' (IPCC 2001).

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