Education Outreach Program


Unit 3: How can we be certain human activities cause climate change?

How do we know current warming trends are not caused by natural variability? How do scientists forecast a warmer climate in the future caused by burning fossil fuels and other human activities? What do scientists mean when they talk about "uncertainty" or "attribution"? These are just some of the questions that you or your students may have about how climate scientists know what they know.

Workshop attendees consulting activity guidelinesLearning Objectives:

  1. Quantify the changes in greenhouse gases that have occurred and are attributable to humans. 
  2. Understand that many changes are related to human activities other than burning fossil fuels.
  3. Explain how a strong scientific consensus around human causes of climate change has emerged, including how alternative hypotheses have been rejected.

This module most closely relates with Human activities are impacting the climate system (Climate Literacy Principle 6). Also see Teaching About Principle 6 from CLEAN.

Carbon and other Greenhouse gases

Attributing Greenhouse Gas changes to Humans 

Dr. Pieter Tans is the head of the CarbonTracker program and Chief Scientist, Earth System Research Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He leads the global carbon dioxide monitoring program first established in the late 1950s by Charles David Keeling. In this video Dr. Tans discusses how CO2 and other greenhouse gases are monitored, the causes of the rising concentrations of these gases, and why they impact the climate system.       

ICEE: Attributing Greenhouse Gas changes to Humans from CIRES Education & Outreach on Vimeo.

Dr. Pieter Tans – Senior Scientist, NOAA's Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory (Powerpoint)



CLEAN collectionThe Climate Literacy Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN) has a number of high quality online resources that have been reviewed and annotated by experts relating to how scientists know human activities, particularly the increase in fossil fuel emissions and related carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, are impacting climate.

These include "Getting to the Core of Climate Change," which is a lab about evidence for past climate change as captured in ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, and the NASA "Why Is Climate Important?," in which students explore the carbon cycle and the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature.

Other activities: Ice Core activity – Habitable Planet Unit 12

Video: Sir David Attenborough: The Truth About Climate Change (2:44)