Climate, Change, and CO2: How Each Affects the Weather

Understanding Earth's Climate and What Changes Earth's Climate

July 20, 2018
Active Volcano

We see the weather change every day; weather is the condition of the atmosphere over relatively short periods of time, from seconds to a few years. Less apparent are changes in climate: Climate is the average and range of weather events over longer periods, from decades to centuries—or longer. 

Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.
–Mark Twain, American writer (1835–1910)

Earth’s Climate

In fact, Earth’s climate has been changing for more than a billion years. Slight shifts in Earth’s orbit, the activity of the Sun (such as observed in sunspot cycles, a factor in the Almanac’s weather forecasts) and volcanoes, the composition of the atmosphere, and even the frequency and magnitude of collisions with extraterrestrial objects have resulted in dramatic changes in Earth’s climate. These include several Ice Ages, when much of the planet was frozen, and several warm periods, during which tropical temperatures reached all the way to the poles.

Earth’s atmosphere acts to keep temperatures—and therefore, our weather—relatively steady: Our day-to-night temperature range is between about 10 and 30 degrees F. Compare this to the atmosphere-less Moon, where the temperature normally varies more than 500 degrees F between day and night! Lunar temperatures range from about 260°F during the day to minus 280°F at night.

Our Greenhouse 

Our planet’s climate and temperature stability occur because Earth’s atmosphere works in much the same way as the glass in a greenhouse. The glass allows sunlight to enter the greenhouse unimpeded, where it heats the air and ground within, yet the glass prevents the heat from leaving. So it is that sunlight heats Earth’s atmosphere and ground, yet the atmosphere prohibits a lot of the heat from escaping back into space. 

A diagram of the greenhouse effect, showing the flow of energy in watts per square meter. (14°C = 57°​​​​​​​F) Illustration by Robert A. Rohde. 

The gases in Earth’s atmosphere, our greenhouse, play a key role in maintaining this stability. Nearly 99 percent of our atmospheric gases consists of nitrogen and oxygen. However, it’s the other gases—ozone, water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide—that cause the greenhouse effect (the capture of heat in the atmosphere) in varying ways. 


Ozone is not a significant concern with regard to climate change. Scientists generally agree that it has stabilized in the atmosphere. Water vapor produces clouds, and their presence can increase temperatures (by blocking heat from escaping into space) or decrease temperatures (by blocking sunlight from reaching Earth), depending upon the altitude and thickness of the clouds. Some believe that methane released into the atmosphere by permafrost melt may, in the coming decades, cause an acceleration of warming; this would be significant.

Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is another story: It has received the most attention with regard to its effect in changing Earth’s climate.

Historically, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has varied from about 180 parts per million during Ice Ages to nearly 300 parts per million during the interglacial periods. However, since the late 1700s, which marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased; today, it is more than 400 parts per million, or about 0.04 percent of the atmosphere. 

What Changes Earth’s Climate

A substantial majority of scientists conclude the increase in carbon dioxide to be the driving force behind recent climate change. In particular, there is the fact that the 10 warmest years in millennia, averaged across the entire Earth, have all occurred since 1998, when CO2 presence has been at its highest. 

However, some scientists believe the increased carbon dioxide to be only a trace amount—a quantity too small to change Earth’s climate.

Many of the scientists find that the primary cause of the escalation of CO2 is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gasoline. What’s more, this majority believes that as carbon dioxide continues to increase, Earth’s temperature will continue to grow warmer, on average, and fundamental weather patterns will change, resulting in both more flooding and more droughts.

Detractors disagree, and often point to other relatively warm periods in history, such as the 1930s in the United States, as an indication that recent “warmest years” are part of Earth’s natural cycles.

Whichever view is correct, we can be certain that weather and climate will continue to change, and we will all experience the effects.

Did You Know?

Cataclysmic Change

About 66 million years ago, a comet or asteroid hit Earth near Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The impact, which had a force with more than a billion times the energy of an atomic bomb, sent so much soot into the atmosphere that it substantially reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface, thereby causing the average temperature to drop by nearly 50 degrees F for the next 30 years.

This dramatic cooling, combined with the diminished sunlight—which lessened the ability of plants and plankton to carry out photosynthesis—is believed to have caused the extinction of about three-quarters of all of the plant and animal species then on Earth, including nearly all of the dinosaurs.

However, the situation also provided opportunities. Mammals were the primary winners, evolving into new forms, including horses, whales, bats, and primates, with apes and then humans eventually becoming the dominant species.

Quantifying CO2

The first ongoing, real-time measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere were undertaken by Charles David Keeling at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii in 1958. He continued taking measurements until he died in 2005. At this time, supervision of the project was taken over by his son, Ralph, a professor of geochemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

These records represent the best known and most widely accepted atmospheric CO2 measurements. (Daily and historic records can be seen at

Today, measurements are also made at many other sites around the world, as well as by satellite. Historical CO2 levels from the past 800,000 years are estimated by measuring bubbles of air trapped in the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets.

What’s our air made of? See Bob’s post about the air we breathe!

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

Climate vs Weather

How many of you know that exactly 1/2 of the weather stations used to calculate global warming are non-exitent, virtual weather stations? That means that the specious stations DO NOT REPORT actual observations. They report “projected” temperatures. Example: If the nearest NWS or other certified station is reporting 32F at 8,000ft, the mountain above it has a “virtual weather station” that reports the temp at 12,000ft at 20F using the 3F per 1000ft standard. Problem: I commonly pass a known point 6 miles from here at 6,985ft and see a temp of 32F. We live at 7,399ft and when we get home, we are commonly at 26-27F. We are much colder than the virtual weather station would have reported. We should only be 1/2 degree less at 31.5F according to the virtual formula. Yet, we are at 25F-27F at home, a 5-7F discrepancy, reporting a warmth here that does not exist. Scientific data is data collected scientifically; not projections of what one thinks is occurring. If my anecdotal observations of such a deviation is projected across tens of thousands of virtual weather stations, then, at the very least, degree of confidence needs be lowered substantially. Arguably, all virtual stations should be excludec for one report that should become known as “Actual Data Based Report” and a separate report know as “Virtual, Blended, Non-Actual Report.” The latter is what we have now; a not real, factual data based report.

Further, “climate” happens over centuries, at least. “Weather” is what changes or varies over decades and years.

Climate, Change and CO2

The statement that 97% of scientists agree human-produced CO2 is changing climate is demonstrably false and without merit. John Cook's misleading statistical diatribe lacks any mathematical credibility, as anyone that has actually reviewed his nonsensical claims already knows, and for which he has been roundly criticized. In any event, hypothesis and theory are NOT corroborated by a show of hands, they are corroborated -- or not -- by the provision of scientific evidence.

I would add, ice core isotope analyses from GISP2 to Vostok directly refute the assertion modern temperatures are the highest in 1,000 years. Even if they were, said ice core analyses show modern average temperatures have been significantly exceeded on numerous occasions in terms of both heat and cooling during the past 10,000 years. In point of fact, the more recent warming trend really started 12,000 years ago when the planet mysteriously emerged from an ice age without the assistance of human-produced CO2...

Humans produce approximately 3% of the total CO2 in the atmosphere. The assertion this infinitesimally small percentage of CO2 is altering climate is not only questionable on its face, the assertion it solely responsible for altering climate is not corroborated by any definitive scientific evidence, whatsoever.

Yes, the climate is changing as is has for 4-billion years or so. That humans are changing the climate with 3% of the total CO2 in the atmosphere has not been affirmed in any way, shape, or form, which has been plainly borne out by the gross inaccuracies of virtually every climate model since 1979 that erroneously predicted vastly more warming than has occurred. Climate models that do not accurately reflect past temperatures are garbage and the IPCC is a vast repository of just such a garbage collection.

Your facts are wrong. The %

Your facts are wrong. The % of scientist who say we humans are not in charge of the climate is very high. The testing has been altered to fit an agenda. Being good stewards of this beautiful place given to us to call home is essential. Climate changes! Changes in our climate is the natural process of the universe.

Your facts are wrong The facts are correct. There are no actual scientists, looking at current data who do not understand that the climate is changing. My own garden and bird population reflect it.

Should have emphasized more...

I don't mind it talking about those disagreeing with climate change, but the writer should have emphasized that the majority that support it are 97% of all scientists, and the detractors are a tiny 3%.

Bias in Climate article

The writer, Michael Steinberg, was writing fairly balanced until..."Detractors disagree..."
Many intelligent people have not bought into the theory of climate change, as the facts do not support it. Those who disagree with the believers of climate change are not "detractors". The writer should really be more careful and use non-devisive wording.



When your side is only 3% of all scientists, you are a detractor. Period. You are the vast minority. You are on the wrong side. There is no decisiveness. There is right and wrong. 97/3 is not an argument. It is a fact.


I've spent most of my life in Florida and have seen first hand the indicators of rising sea levels, and I've been fortunate enough to travel extensively all over the planet. Some glaciers I saw when I was young and again when I got older have just about disappeared completely.
The signs of climate change are all around you IF you'll just pay attention, historic floods all up and down the East coast of the US and there isn't a hurricane to blame, and the historic numbers of wildfires in the West with no relief in sight. It's not even peak fire season yet.
The facts, proven by climatologists worldwide, are showing us that climate change is real. Michael Steinberg was being a nice guy when he labelled non-believers as "detractors," even intelligent people can be "ignorant" of new "realities."

Deforestation and climate changes

I see all these comments and they are all valid points. What I dont see or hear anymore is the fact that literally thousands of acres of CO2 eating forest are being cut down and slash burned daily. Yes now a lot of that is replanted, but those little baby trees do not use a 10th of the CO2 the mature trees used and the rain-forests, being cut down for mono cropping, produced loads of Oxygen for the atmosphere. Yes humans are contributing to the rise in CO2 but the truly significant ways are not the ones being broadcasted to the people through the media. Even those significant ones are not at the levels of other factors that are not controllable by the humans.

CO2 levels and humans.

People are saying that humans are the major cause of the increase in CO2 levels. But what about volcanoes, do they not put out far more CO2 in a single day, than we ever could ? There is at the very least, one volcano erupting somewhere on earth every minute of every day. How much difference would there be in all the various gas levels if there were no volcanoes ?


Great article, I would like to see more here of the same...with the Almanac's views more authentic I think. Fake new has me confused!
I tend to sit on the fence ...Evolution of the climate...rather than Human activity. But, I question the state of the Oceans based on Humans...i.e. plastic, other pollutants from industry etc.


Volcanoes put out 200 million tons of CO2 every year. Humans create 24 BILLION annually. That means volcanoes account for only 0.8% of all CO2 emissions in the world.

The idea of man-made climate

The idea of man-made climate change is a hoax and a fraud. The climate has been changing since the beginning of time. Remember the Ice Age? The mini-Ice Age? What happened to them; the climate changed.

Man-Made climate change.

I agree with you. I think 99% of there assumptions are just that, an educated guess, and 1% is fact. And that 1% of factual findings, are what they are trying to cram down our throats.
Scientific sources are saying that the Methane levels are so high because of all the cattle we humans have, and the gas they put off ( cow farts ). What about the millions of buffalo that were here before we were ? Didn't they fart ? Or are we not supposed to know or realize that.
The climate was constantly changing before we got here, and will be after we are long gone !

Bison / Cattle

"What about the millions of buffalo that were here before we were ? Didn't they fart ?" First off, it's burps. Secondly, no. They did not. It is the conditions cattle are raised in and what they are fed that causes them to emit methane.

And 1% fact? We KNOW average temperature on Earth has changed more in the last 100 years than the previous 9000 combined. We KNOW it is caused by CO2. We KNOW humans emit more CO2 than every other CO2 source on Earth combined and then some. How can you, after reading those three solid facts, that 97% of all scientists agree with, not conclude that humans are causing climate change?

I agree, man-made climate

I agree, man-made climate change is a hoax promoted by those (al gore) who are making millions of dollars by spreading this false research. We need to be good stewards of our beautiful plantet. We humans and our actions do not control the weather and neither does cow flatulation. This is in the God dept.

Anthropogenic Climate change

Actually, since the Little Ice age ended around 1715, no one 'remembers' it.
But, very true, there has been a natural flux in climate patterns since Earth's atmosphere was formed, such flux and dynamism is natural and expected. However, it's the height of foolishness to assume that the life forms on the Earth have no effect on the climate. Nor are any scientists trying to claim that this is the first time it has happened. Take the Carboniferous period, for example. Plants sabotaged their own perfect climate long before humans ever did: the atmosphere was chock-full of CO2, 800ppm I think (compared to today's 400ppm). The climate was hot and humid from all the greenhouse gases and plants LOVED it. They flourished, they ate that carbon dioxide right up, and spat out loads of oxygen in its place. Well, plants don't breath oxygen, do they? And nothing had yet evolved to turn it back into CO2 at the rate they were eating it. Thus, the climate changed against the plants' favor. O2 has a much lower heat-carrying capacity than CO2, glaciers started forming again, the air got dry, and bam, the carbon-rich plants died off providing us with all the yummy coal we have today.
So, if mere leafy greens can ruin their own perfect atmosphere, who's to say we can't? We as a species are very widespread and powerful and our development of carbon dioxide-emitting technology is growing faster than, again, anything else can evolve or develop to replace it.
Fortunately, we supposedly have a little more foresight than plants, and hopefully some regard for the continuation of our species. Can we reverse or place stasis upon the natural cosmic flux of our planet's climate? Definitely not. But we can meet nature halfway, understand our relationship with the natural world and live more sustainably, with more regard for our future as a species. Because we are, factually, observably, measurably, affecting our climate by contributing to the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.
Also, what on earth does any scientist have to gain by "pulling off" a climate change "hoax"? What do deniers have to gain by holding that kind of progress back?

TL;DR: The last 100 years

TL;DR: The last 100 years have seen the climate change 10 times faster than any other period in history.

Saying the climate has been changing since the beginning of time, in comparison to the last century is like racing a horse and a human.

In the last 11000 years, excluding 1900-2000, the average temperature on Earth changed by 1 degree (C).
The little ice age was from around 1300 to 1700 and, in those 400 years, the temperature changed by only 0.5 degrees.
Before that was the ice age, like you mentioned. Let's start 22000 years ago, around the time humans started doing human things. The Earth was around 4 degrees colder than today.
Over the next 4000 years, Earth gained 1 degree. Another 3000 years gave us another degree. It took 1000 years to gain one more degree. Then 2000 for another. And 1000 to get to where we were in the 1960s. We then gained 0.5 degrees over another 1000 years and held that for 6000 years until we lost 1 degree over 3000 years to get to the little ice age. So in summary, we gained 4 degrees over 12 THOUSAND years. Never changing by a degree faster than 1000 years.

Now we have 1900 to present. Where, in just 100 years, we have already gained 1.5 degrees. That's TEN TIMES FASTER than any other period in history.


Sign up for our email newsletter by entering your email address.

BONUS: You’ll also receive our Almanac Companion newsletter!

The Almanac Webcam

Chosen for You from The Old Farmer's Store