How do scientists know climate change is happening?


Climate science was pioneered by many of the same scientists that laid the foundation for modern chemistry and physics. Human-driven climate change was predicted in the mid-1800s, but hard evidence of human-induced warming was not discovered until the late 20th century.

Source: NASA

After World War II, climate science received a jolt from an unlikely source: the U.S. military. The military became a major funder of scientific research because Cold War weapons depended on an intimate knowledge of earth science, such as nuclear weapons and heat seeking missiles. The weapons research inadvertently contributed to the collection of climate data. With unprecedented precision, scientists could measure gases and heat in the air. Over time, the data records helped connect pollution to increasing temperatures. Despite popular media reports of global cooling in the 1970s, it was never a mainstream view within the scientific community.

As scientists became more convinced of human-driven climate change, the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to inform governments about the science in 1988. This body is tasked with reviewing tens of thousands of scientific studies and synthesizing the findings into reports. Hundreds of the world’s top scientists — include those from MIT, Stanford and even ExxonMobil — work on publishing these reports every few years. To this day, they continue to release periodic updates on developments in climate science. The 2014 IPCC report was deemed the most comprehensive review of any scientific subject in human history. According to the report, the overwhelming scientific evidence shows that “human influence on the climate system is clear” and “has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute

“The planet is warming. The reason it’s warming is because we are pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

“The question today is no longer if climate change is happening, but how we can confront the social, economic and health challenges it presents.”

Alan Mulally, Former CEO of Ford

“The time for debating whether climate change is real has passed. It is time for a conversation about what we, as a society, intend to do to address it.”


The IPCC’s results are supported by observable changes today: more intense heat waves, shorter winters, and larger wildfires. These events are a result of complex interactions and feedbacks between greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, ocean, land, ice, and living things. NASA and MIT software models, based on complex mathematical formulas run on supercomputers, predict more warming and extreme weather if climate change pollution remains unchecked. In recent years, professionals from all sectors are seeing the impacts of climate change.

Medical professionals have observed public health consequences of climate change; the U.S. military has emerged as a vocal advocate for climate adaptation; and economic reports such as a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report have outlined the serious economic consequences associated with climate change.

How are climate & weather different?

Climate means the long term behavior of weather. Weather is local and short-term; climate describes the average weather for a region at a given time of year based on historical patterns. Climate change means the average temperature and precipitation is not following those old patterns.

Where is there scientific agreement?

The world’s leading scientific organizations, including MIT and NASA, agree that human-caused climate change is happening and just a few more degrees of warming will increase the risk of intense storms, sea level rise and other extreme weather events.

How much warming has happened?

People have caused about 1.5ºF of unnatural warming by putting greenhouse gases into the air since 1889. While it may not sound like much, the extra warming has been linked to some natural disasters such as wildfires in the U.S. and drought in the Mediterranean.

Reconstructing the past

Drawing from numerous sources of scientific and historical evidence, research efforts around the world have recreated past records of temperature and greenhouse gases. Scientists have determined that global carbon dioxide concentrations have approached record high levels that people have never experienced. They combine satellite data and other instrumental observations with ‘natural’ methods that approximate past climatic conditions, such as from ice cores, marine sediment, and tree rings. For example, scientists can link the carbon building up in our atmosphere back to fuels burned in our power plants and cars using subatomic “fingerprints”.

Piecing together clues like these, scientists identify human activity as the main contributor to recent climate change. Natural factors on the Earth’s climate, such as changes in the earth’s orbit and sun, cannot explain the recent rise in temperatures. Only the sudden increase in global carbon dioxide by people can plausibly explain the levels of observed warming.

Sources and Citations

  1. NASA, “Climate Change: Impacts”: www.climate.nasa.gov.
  2. MIT, “Climate Change: Impacts”: www.climate.nasa.gov.
  3. MIT, “Climate Change: Impacts”: www.climate.nasa.gov.


  1. Fred Hotchkins, NASA.