Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science

  1. The Sun is the primary source of energy for Earth's climate system.
    1. When Earth emits the same amount of energy as it absorbs, its energy budget is in balance, and its average temperature remains stable.
  2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.
    1. The amount of solar energy absorbed or radiated by Earth is modulated by the atmosphere and depends on its composition. Greenhouse gases—such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane—occur naturally in small amounts and absorb and release heat energy more efficiently than abundant atmospheric gases like nitrogen and oxygen. Small increases in carbon dioxide concentration have a large effect on the climate system.
    2. The abundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is controlled by biogeochemical cycles that continually move these components between their ocean, land, life, and atmosphere reservoirs. The abundance of carbon in the atmosphere is reduced through seafloor accumulation of marine sediments and accumulation of plant biomass and is increased through deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels as well as through other processes.
  3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate.
    1. The presence of small amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere warms Earth's surface, resulting in a planet that sustains liquid water and life.
  4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes.
    1. Natural processes driving Earth's long-term climate variability do not explain the rapid climate change observed in recent decades. The only explanation that is consistent with all available evidence is that human impacts are playing an increasing role in climate change. Future changes in climate may be rapid compared to historical changes.
  5. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.
    1. Environmental observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system. From the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the Sun, instruments on weather stations, buoys, satellites, and other platforms collect climate data. To learn about past climates, scientists use natural records, such as tree rings, ice cores, and sedimentary layers. Historical observations, such as native knowledge and personal journals, also document past climate change.
    2. Scientists have conducted extensive research on the fundamental characteristics of the climate system and their understanding will continue to improve. Current climate change projections are reliable enough to help humans evaluate potential decisions and actions in response to climate change.
  6. Human activities are impacting the climate system.
    1. The overwhelming consensus of scientific studies on climate indicates that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the latter part of the 20th century is very likely due to human activities, primarily from increases in greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.
    2. Emissions from the widespread burning of fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Because these gases can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years before being removed by natural processes, their warming influence is projected to persist into the next century.
    3. Human activities have affected the land, oceans, and atmosphere, and these changes have altered global climate patterns. Burning fossil fuels, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere, reducing the amount of forest cover, and rapid expansion of farming, development, and industrial activities are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and changing the balance of the climate system.
    4. Scientists and economists predict that there will be both positive and negative impacts from global climate change. If warming exceeds 2 to 3°C (3.6 to 5.4°F) over the next century, the consequences of the negative impacts are likely to be much greater than the consequences of the positive impacts.

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National Science Education Standards

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Changes in Environments

Content Standard C: Life Science

Organisms and Their Environments

The Interdependence of Organisms

Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science

Geochemical Cycles

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A Framework for K-12 Science Education

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Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practices

  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  3. Model with mathematics.
  4. Use appropriate tools strategically.
  5. Attend to precision.

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