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Problems in Assessing Human Contribution to Climate Change

Updated on October 24, 2011

Climate change refers to the changes in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over a prolonged period of time. It is a long-term change that could range from a few decades to millennium, and even to millions of years. Climate change is characterized by alteration in the average weather distribution, over a specific locale or something that could occur in a global scale. Generally known as global warming or anthropogenic global warming, climate change is a potential cause for natural imbalances that can possess catastrophic ramification.

Though there is no one ultimate source of climate change, there are varying contributory factors that could lead to global warming.


Climate Forcing

Climate forcing are contributing factors that affect changes in the climate. Such forcing processes include solar radiation. Since our sun is our primary source of energy, scientists have looked at the relation of deglaciation and solar irradiance as the cause of the heating of the earth’s atmosphere. But they found out that solar irradiance alone is not responsible for the violent fluctuations in temperature but may act as trigger to initiate the trend (Rapp 2008).

Another process that could influence prolonged changes in weather patterns are the orbital variations of the earth. Astronomers have discovered that there are changes in the earth’s orbit that in turn affects the distance between the sun and the earth. These changes in the orbital cycles in turn produces varying amount of solar energy that the earth receives. Elliptical orbit of the earth is associated with prolonged warm periods while ice ages are associated with circular orbits (Gabler et al 2009).

Third is plate tectonic or the process of the vertical and horizontal movement of the earth’s crust. Because the earth’s surface has direct contact with the atmosphere and the oceans, its evolving character has direct correlation with the “incoming and outgoing radiation, atmospheric circulation, ocean currents and the location of elevated terrain suitable for glaciers and ice sheets” (Gornitz 2009, p.784). Another way that plate tectonic affects climate change through its process is because it has control over geochemical cycling and ocean and atmospheric composition (Gornitz 2009).

Another contributing factor to climate change is volcanic activity because volcanic eruptions release particle effusions and gasses that affect atmospheric composition i.e. volcanic ash and sulphur-rich gasses. Strong volcanic eruptions could substantially affect the carbon dioxide composition of the atmosphere. The 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines have helped in significantly cooling down the earth’s atmosphere for instance (Letcher 2009).

Fifth, climate forcing is the ocean variability. Despite the very limited measurements and studies conducted with regards to understanding variability of ocean circulations and ocean processes, there are enough oceanographic evidence to suggest that the irregular distribution and flow of cold and warm sea water, combined with changes in the atmospheric pressures have long term effect in the redistribution of energy in the world’s oceans and even affects water salinity. This combined with transient climate events like El Niño could cause “regional level social disruption, economic loss, and environmental degradation around the world” (Kininmonth 2004, p.110). Thus, persistent anomalies would not allow for marine and other aquatic animals to fully adapt to the changes in ocean variability i.e. temperature, salinity, current flow (Kininmonth 2004).

Human Impact: Acid mine drainage causes severe environmental problems in the Rio Tinto, Spain.
Human Impact: Acid mine drainage causes severe environmental problems in the Rio Tinto, Spain. | Source

Problems in Assessing Human Contributory Factors

Despite the many climate forcing variables that could contribute to climate change, it is the human influence over the environment that is the greatest force of all. Human’s contribution to greenhouse gasses, particularly carbon dioxide emission have steadily increased since 1800, that produces a layer of thermal blanket in the atmosphere. This in turn has greater impact on the oceans—making them more acidic (Copp & Johnson 2004).

Human’s contribution to greenhouse gasses, particularly carbon dioxide far exceeds those of any volcanic activity. Primary causes for carbon dioxide emission includes changes in land use and agricultural activities (Copp & Johnson 2004) largely of which is attributed to power plant emitting carbon that is a by-product of burning coal to produce energy. Compared to burning natural gas, coal emits eighty percent more carbon. Another major source of carbon dioxide emission is burning gasoline of vehicles that attributes to the twenty percent of carbon that goes up in the atmosphere (Pew Center, n.d.). On the other hand, twenty five percent of the carbon emission is attributed to deforestation. Since plants uses carbon for photosynthesis to produce oxygen, less fauna would means more concentration of carbon dioxide in the air. Moreover, the process of deforestation itself emits heavy amount of carbon as people use large vehicles to cut down trees and clear the forests (National Geographic, n.d.).

Climate change coupled with the way humans use land and demographics have direct correlation to human health, settlements, and welfare. Furthermore, challenges presented by population growth, an aging population, migration patterns, and urban and coastal development will be affected by changes in temperature, precipitation, and extreme climate-related events. In the future, with continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity” (Gamble n.d.).

Human Impact: Interstate 10 and Interstate 45 near downtown Houston, Texas in the United States.
Human Impact: Interstate 10 and Interstate 45 near downtown Houston, Texas in the United States. | Source

Interdisciplinary Approach

Thus, simply looking at the way humans interact with the environment is a very myopic view of the contributory impact because there are other factors to consider such as economic, social, and cultural that are intertwined together that simply looking at the social environment and physical environment would not portray an accurate picture of the true degree to which humans have an influence on their environment.

For instance, a lot of researches on climate change have one single variable focus in mind. For example research study on climate variability and change only identifies the climate elements that are predominantly important to human systems—like precipitation and temperature, to determine how humans would be affected by the changes in the earth system. Global water cycle research on the other hand looks at the importance for a drinking water utility through studying how human activities and natural processes all contribute to the distribution and quality of water. It further looks at the effect that water cycle has, if any, on human systems. Researches on land-use and or land cover change aims at exploring the progressions that determine land cover and land use distribution at the local, regional, national, and global scale. It further delves into finding out how changes in land usage may affect socio-economic and environmental conditions on various levels. The global carbon cycle research on the other hand aims at identifying the “size, variability, and potential future changes to carbon reservoirs within the earth system”. Furthermore, various researches on ecosystems focuses on environmental changes caused by nature and human-induced and how these changes impact the structural and functional ability of specific ecosystem; it explores the options that community have to ensure the sustainability of these ecosystems despite of regional and global environmental changes. Lastly, the research on human contributions and responses focuses on the potential effects of climate change and variability on human health and welfare. The research also aims at identifying communities that are vulnerable or resilient to global climate change (Smith, Howe & Hendersen 2010).

Despite the valiant efforts of analyzing the human contributions to climate change, each research study on its own highlights a particular aspect that could contribute—either the impact of human-induced activities on the environment, on water, on health. But not one of these studies attempted to create an interdisciplinary study that would cut across academic disciplines to provide a more holistic understanding on human contribution to climate change. This brings us to another problem of assessment, lack of available data.

A climate change research focused on human dimensions should include in its studies the “potential technological, social, economic, and cultural drivers of global change, and how these and other aspects of human systems may affect adaptation and the consequences of change for society.” This research must be cross-cutting that it integrates and explores the impacts of climate changes in “atmospheric composition, climate, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, ecosystems, land use and land cover, and other global systems.” It should integrate information from different research elements—like infusing the various data gathered from independent researches, to be able to establish a baseline to gauge human interaction and reaction with the environment. The intricacies of the interrelation of various environmental stressors on human activities must also be studied more in-depth (US Climate Change Science Program 2003).

But more than creating a research study that focuses on human dimensions, there is a predominantly strong need to integrate the health, social, and economic data together with the environmental data. Such integration would mean an interdisciplinary approach that would likely include researchers whose fields of specialty are in physics, biology, social sciences—human geography and anthropology, and health disciplines to be able to collate the data and interpret them in a way that each aspects of the research is integrated with the findings of the research (US Climate Change Science Program 2003).

Limited Available Data and Standardized Measurement Tools

Despite the wealth of information derived from various researches, there is still limited available data that researchers could use to pursue a more in-depth study. Because climate change takes a prolong period of time that could span from a few decades to centuries, studying climate variability takes so much time that continuous open research would be very difficult. Furthermore, the focus of researches varies as new variables are identified. For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) first assessment report in 1990 finds that though there is natural greenhouse effect, it is being aggravated by human activity through greenhouse gasses emission; that temperatures are rising because of the effect of greenhouse gasses and that though all greenhouse gases emissions would be halted, the effect would still remain since it takes over a century for the environment to fully heal itself. On its second report released in 1995, IPCC was able to measure and determine the impact of climate change with more precision claiming that human have discernible influence over global climate. Sea levels are also measured as well as impacts of climate change on coastal erosion, heat stress, water supply, and the increased severity and frequency of extreme natural conditions. The third assessment, published in 2001 was more detailed than the previous reports that suggest that there is difficulty in assessment based on time alone. Besides updates on previous variables, it also included percentage confidence ranges that show where evidence levels are high or low (Verheyen 2005).

Lastly, tools to effectively measure climate change are also lacking. A standard system is yet to be put in place to effectively and uniformly measure and assess the human dimensions on climate change.


To ensure the survival of human and longevity of some type of biological system all that is required is to understand, anticipate, and apply (Cowie 2007). Understanding climate change and preserving some sort of ecosystem—not necessarily the location where human is takes research. It is only through in-depth research that we would get to understand the causes of climate change; how we could further suppress the impact of climate change; and what strategic planning—anticipation, must be put into place to minimize its impact to humans and the environment.

Thus, “a more integrated understanding of the complex interactions of human societies and the Earth system is essential if we are to identify vulnerable systems and pursue options that take advantage of opportunities and enhance resilience.” An interdisciplinary, multi-academic level research into human-environment interactions could provide the foundation for effectively assessing the human contributory factors to climate change (US Climate Change Science Program, 2003).

Despite difficulties in assessing the human factor that contributes to climate change, anticipating for the worse does have its wisdom. It makes humans more cautious and more mindful to their immediate environment. And lastly, application is putting into place the plans and policies to address the issues of concern.With proper research, planning, and implementation, despite the difficulties of assessing the human contributions to climate change, I think that solution is possible, and this issue could effectively be addressed—for our survival’s sake.

Reference List

Copp, RD & Johnson, S 2004, Direct and Indirect Human Contributions to Terrestrial Carbon Fluxes: a Workshop Summary, the National Academies Press, Washington D.C.

Cowie, J 2007, Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Gabler, RE, Petersen, JF, Trapasso, LM, & Sack, D 2009, Physical Geography, Brooks/ Cole Cengage Learning, California.

Gamble, JL n.d., Analysis of the Effects of Global Change on Human Health and Welfare and Human Systems, The U.S. Climate Change Science Program. Available from: <>. [08 March 2011].

Gornitz, V 2009, Encyclopedia of Paleoclimatology and Ancient Environments, Springer, Netherlands.

Kininmonth, W 2004, Climate Change: a Natural Hazard, William Kininmonth, United Kingdom.

Letcher, TV 2009, Climate Change: Observed Impacts on Planet Earth, Elsevier, Oxford.

National Geographic n.d., Effects of Global Warming. Available from: <>. [08 March 2011].

Pew Center n.d., Causes of Global Warming. Available from:<>. [08 March 2011].

Rapp, D 2008, Assessing Climate Change: Temperatures, Solar Radiation, and Heat Balance, Praxis Publishing, United Kingdom.

Smith, J, Howe, C & Hendersen, J 2010, Climate Change and Water: International Perspective on Mitigation and Adaptation, American Water Works Association, IWA Publishing, USA.

US Climate Change Science Program 2003, Human Contributions and Responses to Environmental Change. Available from: <>. [08 March 2011].

Verheyen, R 2005, Climate Change Damage and International Law: Prevention, Duties and State Responsibility, Koninklijke Brill NV, Netherlands.


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    • lee custodio profile image

      lee custodio 6 years ago

      @ road2hell: yes, we are the largest influence but we also have the POWER to change it for the better. :) thank you for an inspiring comment.

    • road2hell profile image

      road2hell 6 years ago from Linden, AB

      One of the best hubs written about climate change. You have covered the most important contributors to climate change, both natural and man-made. I fully agree with you the human element is the largest influence on climate change and reduction in our consumption of material goods and burning of fossil fuels will be essential.

    • lee custodio profile image

      lee custodio 6 years ago

      @itsmonkeyboy: i agree, a standardized measurement should be put in place that would take into consideration the general and specific conditions.


    • lee custodio profile image

      lee custodio 6 years ago

      @doc snow: thanks! will remember to always edit before publishing. will try to update the hub soon to include some of the info you provided. :)

    • itsmonkeyboy profile image

      itsmonkeyboy 6 years ago from London, UK

      Good hub, very interesting. I enjoyed the read as it's very informative and a subject that should be a lot more popular!

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 6 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      Thanks. Despite some editing issues, you've presented a lot of good information.

      One example of something that could have been edited a bit better:

      "Strong volcanic eruptions could substantially affect the carbon dioxide composition of the atmosphere. The 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines have helped in significantly cooling down the earth’s atmosphere for instance (Letcher 2009)."

      That gives the impression that Pinatubo's CO2 emissions were responsible for cooling the climate. Of course, it was the ash and sulfuric acid injected into the stratosphere that did that; Pinatubo's CO2 emissions--equal, it has been calculated, to about 3 days worth of humanity's--would have had a warming effect, had they been sizable enough to have an effect at all.

      Another example: you discuss the first three IPCC assessment reports, but not the fourth (current) report, referred to as AR4. It came out in 2007. AR5 is in process now, and will be out in a couple of years.

      All in all, though, a hub with a lot of solid information.