Monthly Archives: July 2005

What is Climate? Why Does it Matter How We Define Climate?

The title of this weblog is “Climate Science,” so the first thing we need to do is define “climate.” For many, the term refers to long-term weather statistics. However, on this blog we are adopting the definition that is provided in the 2005 National Research Council (NRC) report where the climate is the system consisting of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. Physical, chemical, and biological processes are involved in interactions among the components of the climate system. Figure 1-1 and 1-2 in the report illustrate this definition of climate very clearly. In the NRC report, climate forcings were extended beyond the radiative forcing of carbon dioxide to include the biogeochemical influence of carbon dioxide, but also a variety of aerosol forcings (see Table 2-2 in the report), nitrogen deposition, and land-cover changes. Each of these forcings has been determined to influence long-term weather statisitics as well as other aspects of the climate.

However, this concept of climate and its alterations by humans, has been generally ignored. The NRC report listed above certainly appears to have been incompletely missed by policymakers. As an example, at the G-8 meeting, the term “climate change” is used interchangably with “global warming.” However, the human influence on climate is much more complex and multi-dimensional than captured by the term “global warming” (see, for example,; and The term “global warming” is generally used to refer to an increase in the globally-averaged surface temperature in response to the increase of well-mixed greenhouse gases, particularly CO2.

If, however, we are interested in atmospheric and ocean circulation changes, which, afterall is what creates our weather, we need to focus on how humans are altering these circulations. Ocean heat content changes are the much more appropriate metric than a globally-averaged surface temperature when evaluating “global warming” in any case (

Thus it matters how we define climate and climate forcing ( By ignoring a number of the other first-order climate forcings, we are not properly addressing the threat we face in the future, but instead relying on the overly simplistic view of focusing on reductions in carbon dioxide emissions as the way to reduce our “dangerous intervention” in the climate. With respect to the changes of circulations, and therefore, weather, we need to identify and quantify the role of spatially heterogeneous climate forcings such as from aerosols and land-cover change, in addition to the influence of well-mixed greenhouse gases. These heterogeneous climate forcings could represent a more significant threat to our future climate system than the risk of an increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2.

Hopefully, this blog will stimulate discussion, as well as illuminate reasons why this broader perspective on climate variability and change has been mostly ignored.

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