A detailed look at climate sensitivity - Debunking the dangerous anti-science fantasy of the 'lukewarmers'

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Sun, 09/19/2010 - 21:44.

From Climate Progress - A detailed look at climate sensitivity - Debunking the dangerous anti-science fantasy of the 'lukewarmers'

The amount of warming we are going to subject our children  and countless future generations to depends primarily on three factors:

  1. The sensitivity of the climate to fast feedbacks like sea ice and water vapor (how much warming you get if  we only double CO2 emissions to 560 ppm and there are no major “slow” feedbacks).  We know the fast feedbacks are strong by themselves (see Study: Water-vapor feedback is “strong and positive,” so we face “warming of several degrees Celsius” and detailed analysis below).
  2. The real-world slower (decadal) feedbacks, such as tundra melt (see Science: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores destabilizing and venting and links at the end).
  3. The actual CO2 concentration level we are likely to hit, which is far beyond 550 ppm (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm … the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories are being realised” — 1000 ppm).

Given that the anti-science, pro-pollution forces  seem to be  succeeding in their fight to keep us on our current emissions path, it’s no surprise that multiple recent analyses conclude that we face a temperature rise that is far, far beyond dangerous:


And this  is all consistent with the best recent analyses of  paleoclimate data (see Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5° to 10°F warmer and seas were 75 to 120 feet higher — “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm”).

There is a small group of  self-proclaimed “lukewarmers” who don’t know the scientific literature well or are just outright  anti-science disinformers.  They assert,  despite all the science to the contrary, that the sensitivity of the climate to fast feedbacks is very low.  They then blindly  ignore factors #2 and #3 above in order to claim total warming  this century will be maybe 1°C — or  2°C at most — no big deal, according to this dangerously confused and/or misguided group.

Skeptical Science has a good post on this, A detailed look at climate sensitivity,” that I am reprinting in its entirety below.

Note:  Everything that follows is from Skeptical Science, until the italicized line beginning with my initials, JR.

Some global warming ’skeptics’ argue that the Earth’s climate sensitivity is so low that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 will result in a surface temperature change on the order of 1°C or less, and that therefore global warming is nothing to worry about. However, values this low are inconsistent with numerous studies using a wide variety of methods, including (i) paleoclimate data, (ii) recent empirical data, and (iii) generally accepted climate models.

Climate sensitivity describes how sensitive the global climate is to a change in the amount of energy reaching the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere (a.k.a. a radiative forcing).  For example, we know that if the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere doubles from the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million  by volume (ppmv) to 560 ppmv, this will cause an energy imbalance by trapping more outgoing thermal radiation in the atmosphere, enough to directly warm the surface approximately 1.2°C.  However, this doesn’t account for feedbacks, for example ice melting and making the planet less reflective, and the warmer atmosphere holding more water vapor (another greenhouse gas).

Climate sensitivity is the amount the planet will warm when accounting for the various feedbacks affecting the global climate.  The relevant formula is:

dT = λ*dF

Where ‘dT’ is the change in the Earth’s average surface temperature, ‘λ’ is the climate sensitivity, usually with units in Kelvin or degrees Celsius per Watts per square meter (°C/[W m-2]), and ‘dF’ is the radiative forcing, which is discussed in further detail in the Advanced rebuttal to the ‘CO2 effect is weak’ argument.

Climate sensitivity is not specific to CO2

A common misconception is that the climate sensitivity and temperature change in response to increasing CO2 differs from the sensitivity to other radiative forcings, such as a change in solar irradiance.  This, however, is not the case.  The surface temperature change is proportional to the sensitivity and radiative forcing (in W m-2), regardless of the source of the energy imbalance.

In other words, if you argue that the Earth has a low climate sensitivity to CO2, you are also arguing for a low climate sensitivity to other influences such as solar irradiance, orbital changes, and volcanic emissions.  Thus when arguing for low climate sensitivity, it becomes difficult to explain past climate changes.  For example, between glacial and interglacial periods, the planet’s average temperature changes on the order of 6°C (more like 8-10°C in the Antarctic).  If the climate sensitivity is low, for example due to increasing low-lying cloud cover reflecting more sunlight as a response to global warming, then how can these large past climate changes be explained?

ice core temps

Figure 1: Antarctic temperature changes over the past 450,000 years as measured from ice cores

What is the possible range of climate sensitivity?

The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report summarized climate sensitivity as “likely to be in the range 2 to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C. Values substantially higher than 4.5°C cannot be excluded, but agreement of models with observations is not as good for those values.”

Individual studies have put climate sensitivity from a doubling of CO2 at anywhere between 0.5°C and 10°C; however, as a consequence  of increasingly better data, it appears that the extreme higher and lower values are very unlikely.  In fact, as climate science has developed and advanced over time , estimates have converged around 3°C.  A summary of recent climate sensitivity studies can be found here.

A study led by Stefan Rahmstorf concluded “many vastly improved models have been developed by a number of climate research centers around the world. Current state-of-the-art climate models span a range of 2.6–4.1°C, most clustering around 3°C” (Rahmstorf 2008).  Several studies have put the lower bound of climate sensitivity at about 1.5°C,on the other hand, several others have found that a sensitivity higher than 4.5°C can’t be ruled out.

A 2008 study led by James Hansen found that climate sensitivity to “fast feedback processes” is 3°C, but when accounting for longer-term feedbacks (such as ice sheet
disintegration, vegetation migration, and greenhouse gas release from soils, tundra or ocean), if atmospheric CO2 remains at the doubled level, the sensitivity increases to 6°C based on paleoclimatic (historical climate) data.

What are the limits on the climate sensitivity value?


The main limit on the sensitivity value is that it has to be consistent with paleoclimatic data.  A sensitivity which is too low will be inconsistent with past climate changes – basically if there is some large negative feedback which makes the sensitivity too low, it would have prevented the planet from transitioning from ice ages to interglacial periods, for example.  Similarly a high climate sensitivity would have caused more and larger past climate changes.

One recent study examining the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (about 55 million years ago), during which the planet warmed 5-9°C, found that “At accepted values for the climate sensitivity to a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration, this rise in CO2 can explain only between 1 and 3.5°C of the warming inferred from proxy records” (Zeebe 2009).  This suggests that climate sensitivity may be higher than we currently believe, but it likely isn’t lower.

Recent responses to large volcanic eruptions

Climate scientists have also attempted to estimate climate sensitivity based on the response to recent large volcanic eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991.  Wigley et al. (2005) found:

“Comparisons of observed and modeled coolings after the eruptions of Agung, El Chichón, and Pinatubo give implied climate sensitivities that are consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) range of 1.5–4.5°C. The cooling associated with Pinatubo appears to require a sensitivity above the IPCC lower bound of 1.5°C, and none of the observed eruption responses rules out a sensitivity above 4.5°C.”

Similarly, Forster et al. (2006) concluded as follows.

“A climate feedback parameter of 2.3 +/- 1.4 W m-2 K-1 is found. This corresponds to a 1.0–4.1 K range for the equilibrium warming due to a doubling of carbon dioxide”

Other Empirical Observations

Gregory et al. (2002) used observed interior-ocean temperature changes, surface temperature changes measured since 1860, and estimates of anthropogenic and natural radiative forcing of the climate system to estimate its climate sensitivity.  They found:

“we obtain a 90% confidence interval, whose lower bound (the 5th percentile) is 1.6 K. The median is 6.1 K, above the canonical range of 1.5–4.5 K; the mode is 2.1 K.”

Examining Past Temperature Projections

In 1988, NASA climate scientist Dr James Hansen produced a groundbreaking study in which he produced a global climate model that calculated future warming based on three different CO2 emissions scenarios labeled A, B, and C (Hansen 1988).   Now, after more than 20 years, we are able to review Hansen’s projections.

Hansen’s model assumed a rather high climate sensitivity of 4.2°C for a doubling of CO2.  His Scenario B has been the closest to reality, with the actual total radiative forcing being about 10% higher than in this emissions scenario.  The warming trend predicted in this scenario from 1988 to 2010 was about 0.26°C per decade whereas the measured temperature increase over that period was approximately 0.18°C per decade, or about 40% lower than Scenario B.

Therefore, what Hansen’s models and the real-world observations tell us is that climate sensitivity is about 40% below 4.2°C, or once again, right around 3°C for a doubling of atmospheric CO2.

Probabilistic Estimate Analysis

Annan and Hargreaves (2009) investigated various probabilistic estimates of climate sensitivity, many of which suggested a “worryingly high probability” (greater than 5%) that the sensitivity is in excess of than 6°C for a doubling of CO2.  Using a Bayesian statistical approach, this study concluded that

“the long fat tail that is characteristic of all recent estimates of climate sensitivity simply disappears, with an upper 95% probability limit…easily shown to lie close to 4°C, and certainly well below 6°C.”

Annan and Hargreaves concluded that the climate sensitivity to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 is probably close to 3°C, it may be higher, but it’s probably not much lower.



Figure 2: Probability distribution of climate sensitivity to a doubling of atmospheric CO2

Summary of these results

Knutti and Hegerl (2008) presents a comprehensive, concise overview of our scientific understanding of climate sensitivity.  In their paper, they present a figure which neatly encapsulates how various methods of estimating climate sensitivity examining different time periods have yielded consistent results, as the studies described above show.  As you can see, the various methodologies are generally consistent with the range of 2-4.5°C, with few methods leaving the possibility of lower values, but several unable to rule out higher values.

sensitivity summary

Figure 3: Distributions and ranges for climate sensitivity from different lines of evidence. The circle indicates the most likely value. The thin colored bars indicate very likely value (more than 90% probability). The thicker colored bars indicate likely values (more than 66% probability). Dashed lines indicate no robust constraint on an upper bound. The IPCC likely range (2 to 4.5°C) and most likely value (3°C) are indicated by the vertical grey bar and black line, respectively.

What does all this mean?

According to a recent MIT study, we’re currently on pace to reach this doubled atmospheric CO2 level by the mid-to-late 21st century.

Figure 4: Projected decadal mean concentrations of CO2.  Red solid lines are median, 5%, and 95% for the MIT study, the dashed blue line is the same from the 2003 MIT projection.

So unless we change course, we’re looking at a rapid warming over the 21st century.  Most climate scientists agree that a 2°C warming is the ‘danger limit’.   Figure 5 shows temperature rise for a given CO2 level. The dark grey area indicates the climate sensitivity likely range of 2 to 4.5°C.

key global warming impacts
Figure 5: Relation between atmospheric CO2 concentration and key impacts associated with equilibrium global temperature increase. The most likely warming is indicated for climate sensitivity 3°C (black solid). The likely range (dark grey) is for the climate sensitivity range 2 to 4.5°C. Selected key impacts (some delayed) for several sectors and different temperatures are indicated in the top part of the figure.If we manage to stabilize CO2 levels at 450 ppmv (the atmospheric CO2 concentration as of 2010 is about 390 ppmv), according to the best estimate, we have a probability of less than 50% of meeting the 2°C target. The key impacts associated with 2°C warming can be seen at the top of Figure 5. The tight constraint on the lower limit of climate sensitivity indicates we’re looking down the barrel of significant warming in future decades.

As the scientists at RealClimate put it,

“Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8°C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier.”

This post is the Advanced version (written by dana1981) of the skeptic argument “Climate sensitivity is low“. Note: a Basic version is on its way and should be published shortly.

– Posted by dana1981 at 10:35 AM

JR:  A number of major studies looking at paleoclimate data come to the same conclusion. Here are three:

Scientists analyzed data from a major expedition to retrieve deep marine sediments beneath the Arctic to understand the Paleocene Eocene thermal maximum, a brief period some 55 million years ago of “widespread, extreme climatic warming that was associated with massive atmospheric greenhouse gas input.” This 2006 study, published in Nature (subs. req’d), found Artic temperatures almost beyond imagination–above 23°C (74°F)–temperatures more than 18°F warmer than current climate models had predicted when applied to this period. The three dozen authors conclude that existing climate models are missing crucial feedbacks that can significantly amplify polar warming.

A second study, published in Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d), looked at temperature and atmospheric changes during the Middle Ages. This 2006 study found that the effect of amplifying feedbacks in the climate system–where global warming boosts atmospheric CO2 levels–”will promote warming by an extra 15 percent to 78 percent on a century-scale” compared to typical estimates by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The study notes these results may even be “conservative” because they ignore other greenhouse gases such as methane, whose levels will likely be boosted as temperatures warm.

The third study, published in Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d), looked at temperature and atmospheric changes during the past 400,000 years. This study found evidence for significant increases in both CO2 and methane (CH4) levels as temperatures rise. The conclusion: If our current climate models correctly accounted for such “missing feedbacks,” then “we would be predicting a significantly greater increase in global warming than is currently forecast over the next century and beyond”–as much as 1.5°C warmer this century alone.

What are these “missing feedbacks” in the global carbon cycle?

The best evidence is that the climate is now being driven by amplifying feedbacks — see, most notably:

And there are emerging signs that some  carbon sinks are saturating and indeed  at grave risk of becoming sources:

It is  also worth pointing out that it is possible that climate sensitivity is on the high side (or that  amplifying feedbacks are on the high side).   If so, we  risk  very high warming  much faster than virtually anyone realizes:

Bottom Line:  The “lukewarmer” assertion that  climate impacts this century are likely to be  insignificant or mild is a  dangerous delusion that is based on wishful thinking (or  intentional disinformation), not science.