dations regarding what steps must be taken and what strategies must be adopted in response … including the science and technology challenges thereof.” This report is part of the resulting study, called America’s Climate Choices (see Foreword). In the chapters that follow, this report reviews what science has learned about climate change and its causes and consequences across a variety of sectors. The report also identifies scientific advances that could improve understanding of climate change and the effectiveness of actions taken to limit the magnitude of future climate change or adapt to its impacts. Finally, the report identifies the activities and tools needed to make these scientific advances and the physical and human assets needed to support these activities (see Appendix B for the detailed statement of task). Companion reports provide information and advice on Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change (NRC, 2010c), Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change (NRC, 2010a), and Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change (NRC, 2010b).
Climate science, like all science, is a process of collective learning that proceeds through the accumulation of data; the formulation, testing, and refinement of hypotheses; the construction of theories and models to synthesize understanding and generate new predictions; and the testing of hypotheses, theories, and models through experiments or other observations. Scientific knowledge builds over time as theories are refined and expanded and as new observations and data confirm or refute the predictions of current theories and models. Confidence in a theory grows if it survives this rigorous testing process, if multiple lines of evidence lead to the same conclusion, or if competing explanations can be ruled out.
In the case of climate science, this process of learning extends back more than 150 years, to mid-19th-century attempts to explain what caused the ice ages, which had only recently been discovered. Several hypotheses were proposed to explain how thick blankets of ice could have once covered much of the Northern Hemisphere, including changes in solar radiation, atmospheric composition, the placement of mountain ranges, and volcanic activity. These and other ideas were tested and debated by the scientific community, eventually leading to an understanding (discussed in detail in Chapter 6) that ice ages are initiated by small recurring variations in Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This early scientific interest in climate eventually led scientists working in the late 19th century to recognize that carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs have a profound effect on the Earth’s temperature. A Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius was the first to hypothesize that the burning of fossil fuels, which releases CO2, would eventually lead to global warming. This was the beginning of a more than