What is the greenhouse effect?

What is the greenhouse effect?

Humans have been interfering with the planet's energy balance, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels that add carbon dioxide to the air.

The greenhouse effect is the way in which heat is trapped close to Earth’s surface by “greenhouse gases.” These heat-trapping gases can be thought of as a blanket wrapped around Earth, keeping the planet toastier than it would be without them. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and water vapor. (Water vapor, which responds physically or chemically to changes in temperature, is called a “feedback.”) Scientists have determined that carbon dioxide’s warming effect helps stabilize Earth’s atmosphere. Remove carbon dioxide, and the terrestrial greenhouse effect would collapse. Without carbon dioxide, Earth’s surface would be some 33°C (59°F) cooler.

Greenhouse gases occur naturally and are part of our atmosphere’s makeup. For that reason, Earth is sometimes called the “Goldilocks” planet – its conditions are not too hot and not too cold, but just right to allow life (including us) to flourish. Part of what makes Earth so amenable is its natural greenhouse effect, which keeps the planet at a friendly 15 °C (59 °F) on average. But in the last century or so, humans have been interfering with the planet’s energy balance, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels that add carbon dioxide to the air. The level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has been rising consistently for decades and traps extra heat near Earth’s surface, causing temperatures to rise.

Without major action to reduce emissions, global temperature is on track to rise by 2.5 °C to 4.5 °C by 2100.

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Responding to climate change will involve a two-tier approach:

“Mitigation” – reducing the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere

“Adaptation” – learning to live with, and adapt to, the climate change that has already been set in motion. The key question is, what will our emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants be in the years to come?

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