What We Know about Climate Change, updated edition (The MIT Press) | Kerry Emanuel

Summary of: What We Know about Climate Change, updated edition (The MIT Press)
By: Kerry Emanuel

Final Recap

As the summary of Kerry Emanuel’s ‘What We Know about Climate Change’ reaches its end, the key takeaways emphasize the prevailing scientific agreement that human activity has significantly impacted the concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Facing the undeniable consequences of global warming, such as rising sea levels and severe weather events, society must consider and implement a combination of mitigative, adaptive, and geo-engineering solutions to address these imminent challenges. While scientists, engineers, and economists can formulate options, the responsibility ultimately falls on society to decide on and deploy the best combination of strategies to diminish the impact of global warming. Our future, and the future of generations to come, will depend on the decisive action we take today to combat climate change.


Dive into the summary of the updated edition of ‘What We Know about Climate Change’ by Kerry Emanuel, a respected resource on the potential consequences and complex influences of human activities on Earth’s climate system. Find detailed insights into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) reported findings, and learn how greenhouse gases, climate noise, mitigation, adaptation, and geo-engineering play a role in the ongoing debate on global warming. Explore the challenges facing our planet as we grapple with the ever-increasing effects of human activity on our climate, and uncover the roadblocks we must overcome as we strive to take meaningful action to protect our environment and future generations.

Climate Change – A Consensus Among Scientists

Climate scientists have reached a broad consensus that human activities are responsible for increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, leading to potentially catastrophic consequences in terms of global warming. This is evidenced by hardheaded scientific research and verifiable data. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues periodic reports that summarize the current scientific knowledge about global warming, which most climate scientists do not dispute. These reports highlight that the average surface temperature of the Earth is about 1.2oF [0.67oC] hotter than it was from 1920 to 2010, and that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide are increasing in the atmosphere due to human activity. Arctic sea ice has decreased by 15% to 20% since measurements began in 1978, while sea levels have risen by approximately four inches in the past 60 years. Moreover, the ocean has become approximately 30% more acidic since the industrial era began, endangering the aquatic food chain. If left unaddressed, gas emissions will lead to an increase of global mean temperature by 2.5oF to 9oF [1.39oC to 5oC] during the next century, leading to a variety of hazardous consequences, including floods, droughts, and extreme hurricanes, affecting millions of people. While most climate scientists agree with these findings, not all of them do, but most believe that human activity has significantly contributed to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, particularly since the 1970s.

Paleoclimatology: Insights into Earth’s Climate Shifts

Paleoclimatology, the study of ancient climates, reveals that the Earth’s climate oscillates between relatively mild weather periods and “snowball” periods every 10,000 to 20,000 years and 100,000 years, respectively. Research suggests that routine oscillations of the Earth’s orbit that change the distribution of sunlight with latitude may cause periodic ice ages. The burning of fossil fuels has elevated carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, leading to ocean acidification, which is now viewed as a major concern. Even minor changes in sunlight distribution can impact the climate significantly, according to paleoclimatologists.

Understanding the Greenhouse Effect

The greenhouse effect is a process in which radiation from the sun is absorbed by certain atmospheric elements like water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane. These gases then emit infrared radiation, warming the Earth’s surface. Clouds also play an important role in this process by reflecting sunlight back into space, cooling the planet. As water vapor increases due to warming, it generates more water vapor in the atmosphere and traps additional heat, which could make the Earth as hot as Venus. Scientists believe that life has preserved the planet’s climate by evolving it to its current state. A rise in cyanobacteria brought oxygen into the atmosphere, and since then, life has always had a direct impact on the climate. The tolerably warm conditions we enjoy today are thanks to greenhouse gases and clouds that make up only a small portion of the atmosphere. The author argues that our failure to mitigate away from fossil fuels owes as much to government interference in free markets as to excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. Paleoclimatology uses physical and chemical evidence from the geologic record to deduce changes in the Earth’s climate over time.

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