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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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How sensitive is our climate?

What the science says...

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Net positive feedback is confirmed by many different lines of evidence.

Climate Myth...

Climate sensitivity is low
"His [Dr Spencer's] latest research demonstrates that – in the short term, at any rate – the temperature feedbacks that the IPCC imagines will greatly amplify any initial warming caused by CO2 are net-negative, attenuating the warming they are supposed to enhance. His best estimate is that the warming in response to a doubling of CO2 concentration, which may happen this century unless the usual suspects get away with shutting down the economies of the West, will be a harmless 1 Fahrenheit degree, not the 6 F predicted by the IPCC." (Christopher Monckton)


Climate sensitivity is the estimate of how much the earth's climate will warm in response to the increased greenhouse effect if we double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  This includes feedbacks which can either amplify or dampen that warming.  This is very important because if it is low, as some climate 'skeptics' argue, then the planet will warm slowly and we will have more time to react and adapt.  If sensitivity is high, then we could be in for a very bad time indeed.

There are two ways of working out what climate sensitivity is. The first method is by modelling:

Climate models have predicted the least temperature rise would be on average 1.65°C (2.97°F) , but upper estimates vary a lot, averaging 5.2°C (9.36°F). Current best estimates are for a rise of around 3°C (5.4°F), with a likely maximum of 4.5°C (8.1°F).

The second method calculates climate sensitivity directly from physical evidence, by looking at climate changes in the distant past:

adapted fig 3a

Various paleoclimate-based equilibrium climate sensitivity estimates from a range of geologic eras.  Adapted from PALEOSENS (2012) Figure 3a by John Cook.

These calculations use data from sources like ice cores to work out how much additional heat the doubling of greenhouse gases will produce.  These estimates are very consistent, finding between 2 and 4.5°C global surface warming in response to doubled carbon dioxide.

It’s all a matter of degree

All the models and evidence confirm a minimum warming close to 2°C for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 with a most likely value of 3°C and the potential to warm 4.5°C or even more. Even such a small rise would signal many damaging and highly disruptive changes to the environment. In this light, the arguments against reducing greenhouse gas emissions because of climate sensitivity are a form of gambling. A minority claim the climate is less sensitive than we think, the implication being we don’t need to do anything much about it. Others suggest that because we can't tell for sure, we should wait and see.

In truth, nobody knows for sure quite how much the temperature will rise, but rise it will. Inaction or complacency heightens risk, gambling with the entire ecology of the planet, and the welfare of everyone on it.

Basic rebuttal written by GPWayne

Last updated on 1 August 2013 by gpwayne. View Archives

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Related Arguments

Further reading

Tamino posts a useful article Uncertain Sensitivity that looks at how positive feedbacks are calculated, explaining why the probability distribution of climate sensitivity has such a long tail.

There have been a number of critiques of Schwartz' paper:


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Comments 301 to 307 out of 307:

  1. I'll have a post on that paper next week, DSL. I wouldn't say they've constrained climate sensitivity - more accurately they showed that models with climate sensitivity below 3°C don't simulate cloud changes very well, so climate sensitivity is likely on the high end.
  2. dana1981 - Actually, it's that those models with low sensitivity don't simulate humidity changes very well, not clouds. They note that clouds are a more difficult phenomena to observe, too.

    Fasullo and Trenberth 2012 (described here) appears to be much in the same vein as Spencer and Braswell 2011, where they examined how climate models matched observations, although S&B 2011 was clearly refuted due to poor technique and the exclusion of models they themselves tested which refuted their conclusions.
  3. KR @302 - yes, to be precise Fasullo and Trenberth are looking at relative humidity changes in the subtropics, which are related to subtropical cloud formation. Anyway, more details in the post next week.
  4. I'll stand corrected, but in my book anything that narrows the range of "likely" is constraining. Would it be fair to say that we have less confidence in the lower sensitivity models now?
  5. DSL @304 - yes, the lower sensitivity models don't simulate subtropical humidity well, so they merit less confidence.
  6. Using a GCM to predict/verify sensitivity is flawed and hubris. We have a lot of known unknowns in the GCMs. They are not established science, but SWAGs.
    Assuming the climate is ever in equilibrium as the basis for a calculation is absurd. It is never, ever, in equilibrium. If it were, we would not see the changes that have occurred in the past.
    Until science has a better handle on clouds (and many other second-order feedbacks), any attempts to quantify sensitivity are relying on guessing about past events, but not on understanding why.
  7. Try reading the intermediate or advanced version of the article (or the appropriate chapter in the IPCC report). You will see that there are empirical studies of climate sensitivity. Read deeper into the papers and you will see that noone assumes climate is in equilibrium - the utility of term does not require it.

    Your comments on cloud feedbacks would have been justified for TAR but they are far better quantified now. Note also that models are doing a pretty good job of estimating temperature trends, even something as primitive as that used by the Broecker in 1975 ("Climatic change; are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?" Science, v 189, n 4201, p 460-3, 8 Aug. 1975") which got temp for 2010 better good.
  8. Hey, so I was linking your excellent version of Knutti and Hegerl graphic used in this post and noticed that it uses a potentially confusing notation both here and in the original paper.  The 90% confidence interval is labelled "very likely" and the 66% confidence interval is labelled as "likely."  That's sensible from a science perspective, but a bit confusing in that values from the 66% region are more likely to be the drawn values than those in the 66-90% interval.  Not sure there's any way to better label the figure, but I thougt I'd just put that out there to see if there's a less confusing way of doing so....

  9. Paul,

    The 90% interval is from 5% to 95% so it includes the 66% confidence interval.  Therefore it is more likely to occur since if the 66% occurs the 90% must also occur.

  10. Michael, I'm well aware of that.  My point is that if one didn't go digging through to the original article AND understand IPCC terminology AND frequentist statistics, the graph would seem to be confusing.  

    If it were labelled for example "66% confidence interval" and "90 % confidence interval" one wouldn't have to go chasing footnotes to understand it....


  11. Paul from VA @310.

    You are right that it is confusing, but because it is actually more confusing than you say, as it also refers to "the most likely value."

    The caption for Figure 4 (in the Advanced version of this post) says "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)." The original Knutti & Hegerl paper sort of copes with this by talking of "most like values" and "likely ... and very likely value ... ranges" (my emphasis) but I would consider this poor description for a Review Article where the audience is very likely less attuned to the underlying science and so more reliant on the actual descriptions presented. And at SkS the audience is even less steeped in the science (although it is an advanced level SkS post).

    The problem is also encountered in the other Knutti & Hegerl figure used in the advanced level post (SkS figure 6) where the terms "most likely warming" and "likely range" cope reasonably well. Yet if this is an advanced level post I would have thought the concept of a confidence interval would be preferable as suggested @ 310.

  12. Paul and MA,

    This discussion seems to me to come down to how useful the IPCC terms are in a scientific paper.  These terms have been discussed a lot beore and some people do not like them.  On the other hand, people also did not like using numbers before the IPCC adopted the current terms.  It seems to me extremely likely that the scientists reading the review paper are familiar with these terms, the paper is not intended for a lay audience.  Most of the users here at SkS are also familiar with these terms.  They are not perfect, but they are what we currently have.  I imagine that if we switched to new terms someone else would complain.  It is difficult to please everyone.

    Perhaps you could write a new post that explains things better?  Good explainations are always welcome.

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