Scientists have known about the greenhouse effect since 1824, when Joseph Fourier calculated that the Earth would be much colder if it had no atmosphere. This natural greenhouse effect is what keeps the Earth’s climate livable. Without it, the Earth’s surface would be an average of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius) cooler.
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.