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Attribution of recent climate change

Attribution of recent climate change is the effort to scientifically demonstrate which mechanisms are responsible for observed changes in the Earth's climate. 

The endeavor centers on the observed changes over the last century and in particular over the last 50 years, when observations are best and human influence greatest.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluded that, "Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations." The report defines "very likely" as a greater than 90% probability and represents the consensus of the scientific community. Over the past 150 years human activities have released increasing quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

This has led to increases in mean global temperature or global warming.

Other human effects are relevant—for example, sulphate aerosols are believed to lead to cooling—and natural factors also contribute.

According to the historical temperature record of the last century, the Earth's near-surface air temperature has risen around 0.74 ± 0.18 °Celsius (1.3 ± 0.32 °Fahrenheit). An important question in current climate change research is over attribution of climate change to either natural/internal or human factors over the period of the instrumental record—from about 1860, and especially over the last 50 years.

In the 1995 second assessment report (SAR) the IPCC made the widely quoted statement that "The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate".

The phrase "balance of evidence" was used deliberately to suggest the (English) common-law standard of proof required in civil as opposed to criminal courts: not as high as "beyond reasonable doubt".

In 2001 the third assessment report (TAR) upgraded this by saying "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities".

The 2007 fourth assessment report (AR4) report strengthened this and noted, "Discernible human influences now extend to other aspects of climate, including ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns.". 

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