U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



In: Climate Science Special Report: A Sustained Assessment Activity of the U.S. Global Change Research Program [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA (2017), pp. 652-663.


U.S. government work.


In this appendix, we present a brief overview of the methodologies and methodological issues for detection and attribution of climate change. Attributing an observed change or an event partly to a causal factor (such as anthropogenic climate forcing) normally requires that the change first be detectable (Hegerl et al. 2010). A detectable observed change is one which is determined to be highly unlikely to occur (less than about a 10% chance) due to internal variability alone, without necessarily being ascribed to a causal factor. An attributable change refers to a change in which the relative contribution of causal factors has been evaluated along with an assignment of statistical confidence (e.g., Bindoff et al. 2013; Hegerl et al. 2010).

As outlined in Bindoff et al. (2013), the conceptual framework for most detection and attribution studies consists of four elements: 1) relevant observations; 2) the estimated time history of relevant climate forcings (such as greenhouse gas concentrations or volcanic activity); 3) a modeled estimate of the impact of the climate forcings on the climate variables of interest; and 4) an estimate of the internal (unforced) variability of the climate variables of interest—that is, the changes that can occur due to natural unforced variations of the ocean, atmosphere, land, cryosphere, and other elements of the climate system in the absence of external forcings. The four elements above can be used together with a detection and attribution framework to assess possible causes of observed changes.