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In 1895, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius discovered that humans could enhance the greenhouse effect by making carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. He kicked off 100 years of climate research that has given us a sophisticated understanding of global warming.

Levels of greenhouse gases have gone up and down over the Earth’s history, but they had been fairly constant for the past few thousand years. Global average temperatures had also stayed fairly constant over that time—until the past 150 years. Through the burning of fossil fuels and other activities that have emitted large amounts of greenhouse gases, particularly over the past few decades, humans are now enhancing the greenhouse effect and warming Earth significantly, and in ways that promise many effects, scientists warn.

Aren’t temperature changes natural?

Human activity isn’t the only factor that affects Earth’s climate. Volcanic eruptions and variations in solar radiation from sunspots, solar wind, and the Earth’s position relative to the sun also play a role. So do large-scale weather patterns such as El Niño.

But climate models that scientists use to monitor Earth’s temperatures take those factors into account. Changes in solar radiation levels as well as minute particles suspended in the atmosphere from volcanic eruptions, for example, have contributed only about two percent to the recent warming effect. The balance comes from greenhouse gases and other human-caused factors, such as land use change.

The short timescale of this recent warming is singular as well. Volcanic eruptions, for example, emit particles that temporarily cool the Earth’s surface. But their effect lasts just a few years. Events like El Niño also work on fairly short and predictable cycles. On the other hand, the types of global temperature fluctuations that have contributed to ice ages occur on a cycle of hundreds of thousands of years.

For thousands of years now, emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere have been balanced out by greenhouse gases that are naturally absorbed. As a result, greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures have been fairly stable, which has allowed human civilization to flourish within a consistent climate.