Climate Forcings: Sun Reflects Off Snow
Incoming solar energy has only a fraction of the radiative forcing effect of man-made greenhouse gases

What Are Climate Forcings?

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In this article we deal with “climate forcings” ( also known as “radiative forcings“, or “climate drivers“) and the singular term “climate forcing“, which means something slightly different.

In climate science, the term “climate forcing” (singular) is a clunky way of describing the degree to which Earth’s climate is warming or cooling.

For example, suppose Earth receives 100 units of solar energy (in the form of sunlight) from the sun. And suppose that Earth radiates 90 units of this energy back into space. The difference between the two – 10 units – is called Earth’s radiative forcing, which in this case is a positive RF.

If the Earth received 90 units and radiated 100 units back into space, the planet would have a negative RF (minus 10).

The factors that have a direct effect on either incoming or outgoing solar energy are called “climate forcings” (plural) or “climate drivers”.

Climate change caused by global warming is now a scientific fact which is accepted by roughly 97 percent of all publishing climate scientists. 1 2 But what is causing this warming process? The answer is: climate forcings, or radiative forcings. To understand how these forcings work, let’s take a look at the science behind them.

What Is The Earth’s Energy Budget?

Diagram: Earth's Energy Budget
The Earth’s Energy Budget. Shows the various kinds of energy, light and heat, that enters and leaves the Earth system. Image: © NASA

The Earth receives a continuous amount of solar energy (sunlight) from the Sun. Some of this energy (about 29 percent) is reflected back to space; some (about 23 percent) is absorbed by the atmosphere; while the rest (about 48 percent) is absorbed at the surface of the Earth. 3

At the same time, in keeping with the laws of physics, the Earth and its atmosphere radiate energy back into space, which results in a rough balance between energy received and energy lost. This two-way flow of incoming and outgoing energy is known as Earth’s energy balance (or budget). For global temperature to remain stable over long periods of time, energy received and energy lost must be roughly equal. Scientists call this state of balance “radiative equilibrium”.

What Is Radiative Forcing?

“Radiative forcing” (also called climate forcing), is the difference between the amount of solar energy received by the Earth and the energy that is radiated back into space. 4 To put it another way, the difference between incoming and outgoing energy is known as a planet’s radiative forcing (RF). It can be positive or negative. Thus “positive radiative forcing” is when Earth receives more incoming energy than it radiates to space. The net gain of energy causes the planet to heat up. Conversely, “negative radiative forcing” is when Earth radiates more energy back into space than it receives from the sun. The net loss of energy causes the planet to cool.

Numerous studies of changes in Earth’s climate have reiterated the importance of global mean surface temperature as the primary index for climate change. Radiative forcing provides a way to measure and compare the contributions of different factors that influence surface temperature, although the integration of paleoclimate proxies with climate modeling is critical to improving the understanding of climate dynamics. 5 In any event, there is a nearly linear relationship between radiative forcing and global mean surface temperature in general research models. In practice, radiative forcing is relatively easy to calculate, uncomplicated to use in policy applications, detectable from space, and logically inferable from changes in ocean heat content. All in all, it is a highly useful metric for climate change study and research.

What Are Climate Forcings? 

“Climate forcings” (also called “radiative forcings”) are the factors that disturb Earth’s radiative equilibrium, and cause changes to the planet’s climate system, thus forcing temperatures to rise or fall. They are commonly divided into human-induced or natural climate forcings, as follows:

Natural Climate Forcings

  • Solar Radiation. The sun’s light and energy sustains all life on our planet. Variations in the amount or intensity of incoming solar energy have an immediate impact on Earth’s climate. These are usually caused by Milankovitch cycles – variations in Earth’s orbital eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession.
Pinatubo volcano eruption in 1991 - dust ash
During the cataclysmic eruption of the Philippine volcano Mount Pinatubo, on June 15, 1991, the ash cloud rose 40 kilometers (25 miles) into the atmosphere and satellites tracked it several times around the globe. Volcanoes are one of the biggest natural contributors to the sulfur cycle and to atmospheric aerosols. Other sources include: partially combusted carbon from forest fires, mineral dust whipped off the desert floor by strong winds and sea-salt blown upwards from ocean waves. Photo © Dave Harlow, USGS
  • Volcanic Activity. Large volcanic eruptions, such as those of Mount Pinatubo (1991), Krakatau (1883) and Tambora (1815), inject large quantities of sulfur gases into the stratosphere, producing an aerosol haze which reflects incoming sunlight back into space. This leads to a significant cooling effect on climate. Pinatubo, for instance, decreased global mean temperature by about 0.5°C. 6

Human Induced Climate Forcings

  • Greenhouse Gases (GHGs). These heat-trapping gases – chiefly, carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O) and the family of chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons – are emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, or by other industrial processes. Concentrations of these GHGs accumulate in the lower atmosphere where they trap heat rising from the Earth’s surface. Although this so-called greenhouse effect is a naturally occurring, phenomenon, which keeps Earth’s temperature at a cozy 15 degrees Celsius, the massive amounts of GHGs being emitted by humans has unbalanced the system, and has led to a rapid increase in temperatures around the world. See also: Global Temperature Projections For 2100.
  • Aerosols. These are tiny airborne particles of dust, smoke, and soot. Sulfate aerosols, which are discharged from burning coal, biomass, and other industrial processes, tend to cool the Earth. However, according to the UNFCC, they remain in the atmosphere for only a short time, compared to greenhouse gases. 7 Another potent but short-lived climate pollutant is black carbon – the sooty black particles given off by petrol and diesel engines and coal-fired power stations – which has a warming (and a cooling) effect.

A “forcing value” can be calculated for each of these factors for the period 1750-present. (See Fig 2. further down.)

In its Fourth Assessment Report (2007), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states: “Radiative forcing is a measure of the influence a factor has in altering the balance of incoming and outgoing energy in the Earth-atmosphere system and is an index of the importance of the factor as a potential climate change mechanism. 8

Radiative Forcings Since 1750

Taking into account all positive and negative climate forcings as well as all interactions between climatic factors, the total net increase in surface energy due to human activity since 1750, is 2.29 watts per square metre. 9

IPCC's AR5 Pathways Diagram
IPCC’s AR5 Representative Concentration Pathways used for projecting climate change to 2100. Image: © Efbrazil (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Direct, Indirect & Non-Radiative Forcings

Radiative forcings can be further classified into direct, indirect and non-radiative types. Direct radiative forcings have a direct effect on Earth warming/cooling (example: an increase in sunlight). Indirect radiative forcings first affect climate system components which then cause warming/cooling.

An example is the emission of aerosols (caused by nature’s volcanoes or human factories) that speed up cloud formation leading to both greater sunlight reflection (cooling) and a greater greenhouse effect (cooling). Nonradiative forcings do not directly involve warming (example: evapotranspiration from man-made agricultural irrigation). 10 11 (See also: How Do Clouds Affect Climate?)

What Are Climate Drivers?

The term “climate drivers” is just another term for “climate forcings”. It describes those mechanisms or phenomena that influence global warming or cooling. Historically, the three critical influences have been: (a) Milankovitch cycles, involving small variations in the shape of Earth’s orbit and its axis of rotation, leading to changes in the solar radiation reaching the planet; (b) volcanic eruptions; and (c) meteorite collisions with Earth.

All three were (and are) naturally occurring events over which we had (and have) no control. However, none of these climate drivers are relevant to the present climate crisis, which is being driven by something entirely man-made. 12 13 14

What Is The Main Climate Driver Today?

The main driver of Earth’s recent warming is the increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and is entirely man-made. 15 It is the only factor that has changed significantly in the last 100 years. For example, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has increased from pre-industrial times by more than 48 percent, from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 415 ppm in May 2019, probably the highest level in 3 million years. Methane concentrations have increased from 722 parts per billion (ppb) to 1866 ppb by 2019 – an increase of 250 percent and the highest level for 800,000 years. Nitrogen oxide (N2O) levels have increased by 22 percent from 270 ppb to 330 ppb in 2017. 16

Graph Showing Relative Importance Of Radiative Forcings, or Drivers

Radiative Forcings Drivers

The graph above clearly demonstrates, greenhouse gases have by far and away the greatest sustained effect on the climate system. Conversely, note the small influence of solar irradiance changes since 1880. In addition, aerosol emissions from volcanic eruptions also have a strong, cooling effect, although it is very short term.

Climate Feedbacks

In addition to the main climate drivers, there are a number of secondary influences known as climate feedbacks. These are internal climate processes that amplify or dampen the climate response to a specific forcing. Examples include: the increase in atmospheric water vapor (leading to a greater greenhouse effect) triggered by the warming effect of rising carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, in accordance with the Clausius-Clapeyron equation.

Negative & Positive Climate Feedbacks

Two slightly more straightforward feedbacks are the thawing of permafrost and the burning of (say) Arctic wildfires. They are triggered as follows: global warming thaws out permafrost in the Arctic tundra, which results in the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, where it causes more warming. In the case of wildfires, rising temperatures create tinder dry conditions in forests which are then ignited by lightning. The burning trees release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which causes more warming. In both cases, the initial warming is amplified by the feedback.

Sustained drought and higher than normal temperatures, caused by the effect of global warming on the Indian Ocean Dipole and the Southern Annular Mode, were responsible for the devastating Australian bushfires 2019-2020, which released an estimated 830 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, further stoking the greenhouse effect.

How High Will Radiative Forcing Be In The Future?

IPCC scientists have created four possible scenarios that can be employed in climate models in order to predict future climate patterns. Each scenario is based on specific greenhouse gas emissions and differing climate change mitigation strategies. The scenarios, called “Representative Concentration Pathways” (RCPs), are each named after the amount of radiative forcing (RF) they lead to in 2100, relative to 1750. 17

  • RCP 8.5 shows what happens in the absence of any global plan of climate action. It predicts very high greenhouse gas emissions resulting in CO2 concentration levels of 940 parts per million (ppm) by 2100. The scenario leads to global warming of between 2.6°C and 4.8°C (possibly as high as 5.5°C), with massive sea level rise and catastrophic effects on the planet’s biosphere.
  • RCP 6.0 demonstrates an intermediate scenario, in which emissions peak around 2080, then decline. Reductions in greenhouse gases are achieved via modest climate change mitigation strategies. Atmospheric CO2 levels rise less rapidly than in RCP8.5, but still reach 660 ppm by 2100 before stabilizing shortly afterwards. By 2100, RCP6.0 is projected to lead to global warming of up to 3.1°C.
  • RCP 4.5 represents another in-between scenario in which emissions peak around 2040, then decline. Curiously, concentrations of CO2 are a little higher than those of RCP6.0 until after mid-century, but emissions peak earlier (around 2040), and reach 540 ppm by 2100. RCP4.5 leads to warming of up to 2.6°C.
  • RCP 2.6 is the most rigorous of all the scenarios, and aims to limit global warming to below 2°C. It assumes that atmospheric carbon dioxide peaks at about 440 ppm around 2050, followed by a slow decline to around 400 ppm by the end of the century. The success of RCP2.6 is dependent upon global cooperation among all CO2 emitters, as well as the application of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. It leads to warming of between 0.3°C and 1.7°C. 18

Questions and Answers About Earth’s Climate

For popular questions and answers on all aspects of our climate emergency, see: 50 FAQs About Global Warming and 50 Climate Change FAQs.


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