Parallèlement aux travaux menés par Manabe et Wetherald, l’administration Carter commande un rapport à l’Académie des Sciences américaine pour évaluer l’impact des activités humaines sur l’équilibre climatique. La coordination de l’étude est confiée à Jule Charney, un grand météorologue américain qui travaille alors au prestigieux MIT sur les courants marins et la formation des ouragans. 

Les résultats de l’étude coordonnée par Jules Charney sont publiés en juillet 1979, sous le titre “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment”. Ses auteurs rappellent tout d’abord que la concentration atmosphérique de CO2 a augmenté de 20 ppm entre 1958 et 1979. Puis, en supposant que le taux d’émissions soit maintenu constant, ils projettent que la température de surface globale augmentera de 2 à 3.5°C d’ici la fin du XIXe siècle. Le rapport détaille ensuite les impacts climatiques tels que le phénomène d’amplification polaire, c’est-à-dire l’accélération du réchauffement aux Pôles en raison de la disparition du manteau neigeux, l’intensification du cycle hydrologique… Cette dernière pourrait mener à une augmentation de la concentration en vapeur d’eau laquelle, par effet de serre, pourrait amplifier le réchauffement global. Les auteurs mettent enfin l’accent sur les incertitudes qui demeurent vis-à-vis de l’impact de certains processus physiques sur les variations de la température globale, tels que le stockage et le transport de chaleur par les océans ou l’effet des nuages. Pour ces processus, les auteurs du rapports soulignent que des recherches plus approfondies seront nécessaires.

Extraits de l’article “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment”. National Research Council. 1979. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press

“We have examined the principal attempts to simulate the effects of increased atmospheric CO2 on climate. In doing so, we have limited our considerations to the direct climatic effects of steadily rising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and have assumed a rate of CO2 increase that would lead to a doubling of airborne concentrations by some time in the first half of the twenty-first century. […] Such a rate is consistent with observations of CO2 increases in the recent past and with projections of its future sources and sinks. However, we have not examined anew the many uncertainties in these projections, such as their implicit assumptions with regard to the workings of the world economy and the role of the biosphere in the carbon cycle. These impose an uncertainty beyond that arising from our necessarily imperfect knowledge of the manifold and complex climatic system of the earth. When it is assumed that the CO2 content of the atmosphere is doubled and statistical thermal equilibrium is achieved, the more realistic of the modeling efforts predict a global surface warming of between 2°C and 3.So C, with greater increases at high latitudes. This range reflects both uncertainties in physical understanding and inaccuracies arising from the need to reduce the mathematical problem to one that can be handled by even the fastest available electronic computers. It is significant, however, that none of the model calculations predicts negligible warming. The primary effect of an increase of CO2 is to cause more absorption of thermal radiation from the earth’s surface and thus to increase the air temperature in the troposphere. A strong positive feedback mechanism is the accompanying increase of moisture, which is an even more powerful absorber of terrestrial radiation. We have examined with care all known negative feedback mechanisms, such as increase in low or middle cloud amount, and have concluded that the oversimplifications and inaccuracies in the models are not likely to have vitiated the principal conclusion that there will be appreciable warming. The known negative feedback mechanisms can reduce the warming, but they do not appear to be so strong as the positive moisture feedback. We estimate the most probable global warming for a doubling of CO2 to be near 3°C with a probable error of ± I.5°C […].”

“One of the major uncertainties has to do with the transfer of the increased heat into the oceans. It is well known that the oceans are a thermal regulator, warming the air in winter and cooling it in summer […].It seems to us quite possible that the capacity of the deeper oceans to absorb heat has been seriously underestimated […]. If this is so, warming will proceed at a slower rate until these intermediate waters are brought to a temperature at which they can no longer absorb heat […].”

“The warming will be accompanied by shifts in the geographical distributions of the various climatic elements such as temperature, rainfall, evaporation and soil moisture. The evidence is that the variations in these anomalies with latitude, longitude, and season will be at least as great as the globally averaged changes themselves, and it would be misleading to predict regional climatic changes on the basis of global or zonal averages alone. At present, we cannot simulate accurately the details of regional climate and thus cannot predict the locations and intensities of regional climate changes with confidence. This situation may be expected to improve gradually as greater scientific understanding is acquired and faster computers are built. To summarize, we have tried but have been unable to find any overlooked or underestimated physical effects that could reduce the currently estimated global warmings due to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 to negligible proportions or reverse them altogether. However, we believe it quite possible that the capacity of the intermediate waters of the oceans to absorb heat could delay the estimated warming by several decades. It appears that the warming will eventually occur, and the associated regional climatic changes so important to the assessment of socioeconomic consequences may well be significant, but unfortunately the latter cannot yet be adequately projected. “