Radiative forcing is the difference between incoming solar radiation and outgoing terrestrial radiation. . . the extent to which a factor alters the energy balance in the troposphere, the lowest level of the atmosphere, where almost all our weather takes place.
“The concept of radiative forcing is fairly straightforward. Energy is constantly flowing into the atmosphere in the form of sunlight that always shines on half of the Earth’s surface. Some of this sunlight (about 30 percent) is reflected back to space and the rest is absorbed by the planet. And like any warm object sitting in cold surroundings — and space is a very cold place — some energy is always radiating back out into space as invisible infrared light. Subtract the energy flowing out from the energy flowing in, and if the number is anything other than zero, there has to be some warming (or cooling, if the number is negative) going on.
“It’s as if you have a kettle full of water, which is at room temperature. That means everything is at equilibrium, and nothing will change except as small random variations. But light a fire under that kettle, and suddenly there will be more energy flowing into that water than radiating out, and the water is going to start getting hotter.
“In short, radiative forcing is a direct measure of the amount that the Earth’s energy budget is out of balance.”