Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science

  1. The Sun is the Primary Source of Energy for the Earth's Climate System
    1. Sunlight reaching the Earth can heat the land, ocean, and atmosphere. Some of that sunlight is reflected back to space by the surface, clouds, or ice. Much of the sunlight that reaches Earth is absorbed and warms the planet.
    2. The tilt of Earth's axis relative to its orbit around the Sun results in predictable changes in the duration of daylight and the amount of sunlight received at any latitude throughout a year. These changes cause the annual cycle of seasons and associated temperature changes.
    3. Gradual changes in Earth's rotation and orbit around the Sun change the intensity of sunlight received in our planet's polar and equatorial regions. For at least the last 1 million years, these changes occurred in 100,000-year cycles that produced ice ages and the shorter warm periods between them.
    4. A significant increase or decrease in the Sun's energy output would cause Earth to warm or cool. Satellite measurements taken over the past 30 years show that the Sun's energy output has changed only slightly and in both directions. These changes in the Sun's energy are thought to be too small to be the cause of the recent warming observed on Earth.
  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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. Growing evidence shows that changes in many physical and biological systems are linked to human- caused global warming. Some changes resulting from human activities have decreased the capacity of the environment to support various species and have substantially reduced ecosystem biodiversity and ecological resilience.

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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. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  4. Model with mathematics.
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
  6. Attend to precision.
  7. Look for and make use of structure.
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

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