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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...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate Advanced

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)

At-a-glance

Climate sensitivity is of the utmost importance. Why? Because it is the factor that determines how much the planet will warm up due to our greenhouse gas emissions. The first calculation of climate sensitivity was done by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896. He worked out that a doubling of the concentration of CO2 in air would cause a warming of 4-6oC. However, CO2 emissions at the time were miniscule compared to today's. Arrhenius could not have foreseen the 44,250,000,000 tons we emitted in 2019 alone, through energy/industry plus land use change, according to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of 2022.

Our CO2 emissions build up in our atmosphere trapping more heat, but the effect is not instant. Temperatures take some time to fully respond. All natural systems always head towards physical equilibrium but that takes time. The absolute climate sensitivity value is therefore termed 'equilibrium climate sensitivity' to emphasise this.

Climate sensitivity has always been expressed as a range. The latest estimate, according to AR6, has a 'very likely' range of 2-5oC. Narrowing it down even further is difficult for a number of reasons. Let's look at some of them.

To understand the future, we need to look at what has already happened on Earth. For that, we have the observational data going back to just before Arrhenius' time and we also have the geological record, something we understand in ever more detail.

For the future, we also need to take feedbacks into account. Feedbacks are the responses of other parts of the climate system to rising temperatures. For example, as the world warms up. more water vapour enters the atmosphere due to enhanced evaporation. Since water vapour is a potent greenhouse gas, that pushes the system further in the warming direction. We know that happens, not only from basic physics but because we can see it happening. Some other feedbacks happen at a slower pace, such as CO2 and methane release as permafrost melts. We know that's happening, but we've yet to get a full handle on it.

Other factors serve to speed up or slow down the rate of warming from year to year. The El Nino-La Nina Southern Oscillation, an irregular cycle that raises or lowers global temperatures, is one well-known example. Significant volcanic activity occurs on an irregular basis but can sometimes have major impacts. A very large explosive eruption can load the atmosphere with aerosols such as tiny droplets of sulphuric acid and these have a cooling effect, albeit only for a few years.

These examples alone show why climate change is always discussed in multi-decadal terms. When you stand back from all that noise and look at the bigger picture, the trend-line is relentlessly heading upwards. Since 1880, global temperatures have already gone up by more than 1oC - almost 2oF, thus making a mockery of the 2010 Monckton quote in the orange box above.

That amount of temperature rise in just over a century suggests that the climate is highly sensitive to human CO2 emissions. So far, we have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by 50%, from 280 to 420 ppm, since 1880. Furthermore, since 1981, temperature has risen by around 0.18oC per decade. So we're bearing down on the IPCC 'very likely' range of 2-5oC with a vengeance.

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!


Further details

Climate sensitivity is the estimate of how much the earth's climate will warm in response to the increased greenhouse effect if we manage, against all the good advice, to double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This includes feedbacks that can either amplify or dampen the warming. If climate sensitivity is low, as some climate 'skeptics' claim (without evidence), 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. Feeling lucky? Let's explore.

Sensitivity is expressed as the range of temperature increases that we can expect to find ourselves within, once the system has come to equilibrium with that CO2 doubling: it is therefore often referred to as Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity, hereafter referred to as ECS.

There are two ways of working out the value of climate sensitivity, used in combination. One involves modelling, the other calculates the figure directly from physical evidence, by looking at climate changes in the distant past, as recorded for example in ice-cores, in marine sediments and numerous other data-sources.

The first modern estimates of climate sensitivity came from climate models. In the 1979 Charney report, available here, two models from Suki Manabe and Jim Hansen estimated a sensitivity range between 1.5 to 4.5°C. Not bad, as we will see. Since then further attempts at modelling this value have arrived at broadly similar figures, although the maximum values in some cases have been high outliers compared to modern estimates. For example Knutti et al. 2006 entered different sensitivities into their models and then compared the models with observed seasonal responses to get a climate sensitivity range of 1.5 to 6.5°C - with 3 to 3.5°C most likely.

Studies that calculate climate sensitivity directly from empirical observations, independent of models, began a little more recently. Lorius et al. 1990 examined Vostok ice core data and calculated a range of 3 to 4°C. Hansen et al. 1993 looked at the last 20,000 years when the last ice age ended and empirically calculated a climate sensitivity of 3 ± 1°C. Other studies have resulted in similar values although given the amount of recent warming, some of their lower bounds are probably too low. More recent studies have generated values that are more broadly consistent with modelling and indicative of a high level of understanding of the processes involved.

More recently, and based on multiple lines of evidence, according to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (2021), the "best estimate of ECS is 3°C, the likely range is 2.5°C to 4°C, and the very likely range is 2°C to 5°C. It is virtually certain that ECS is larger than 1.5°C". This is unsurprising since just a 50% rise in CO2 concentrations since 1880, mostly in the past few decades, has already produced over 1°C of warming. Substantial advances have been made since the Fifth Assessment Report in quantifying ECS, "based on feedback process understanding, the instrumental record, paleoclimates and emergent constraints". Although all the lines of evidence rule out ECS values below 1.5°C, it is not yet possible to rule out ECS values above 5°C. Therefore, in the strictly-defined IPCC terminology, the 5°C upper end of the very likely range is assessed to have medium confidence and the other bounds have high confidence.

 IPCC AR6 assessments that equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) is likely in the range 2.5°C to 4.0°C.

Fig. 1: Left: schematic likelihood distribution consistent with the IPCC AR6 assessments that equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) is likely in the range 2.5°C to 4.0°C, and very likely between 2.0°C and 5.0°C. ECS values outside the assessed very likely range are designated low-likelihood outcomes in this example (light grey). Middle and right-hand columns: additional risks due to climate change for 2020 to 2090. Source: IPCC AR6 WGI Chapter 6 Figure 1-16.

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°C or even more. These are not small rises: they would signal many damaging and highly disruptive changes to the environment (fig. 1). In this light, the arguments against reducing greenhouse gas emissions because of "low" climate sensitivity are a form of gambling. A minority claim the climate is less sensitive than we think, the implication being that as a consequence, 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. Both such stances are nothing short of stupid. Inaction or complacency in the face of the evidence outlined above severely heightens risk. It is gambling with the entire future ecology of the planet and the welfare of everyone on it, on the rapidly diminishing off-chance of being right.

Last updated on 12 November 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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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:

Denial101x videos

Here is a related lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial

Additional video from the MOOC

Expert interview with Steve Sherwood

Comments

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Comments 101 to 125 out of 201:

  1. RW1 - To use a database like HITRAN, you set up your parameters (in whatever spectral software you are using, such as JavaHAWKS) for two different conditions, run it twice, and look at the differences between the outputs. The output of interest is the summed energy radiated from the atmosphere given a particular surface temperature and atmospheric mix. The difference between them (~3.6 W/m^2 for doubling CO2 with HITRAN data, 3.7 for more up to date models) is the difference in total radiated energy - outgoing energy. Not isotropic radiation from a particular level of the atmosphere, but the difference in total emissions. Changes in atmosphere modify the emissivity of the Earth, as per the Stefan–Boltzmann law; the amount of thermal radiation emitted at any particular temperature. And that leads to imbalances with incoming sunlight that result in climate changes as energy accumulates or leaves. It's as simple as that - what is the sum difference between radiated powers after an atmospheric change. That 3.6/3.7 Watts is the integrated difference in total radiation going out to space at a particular temperature - which is the very definition of "radiative imbalance".
  2. RW1 - you are asking for documentation of what is implicit in the equations. Lets see if I can attempt it. At heart of equations, you consider a small slice of atmosphere. It has radiation from in from below, (from surface and lower layers) and from above (from upper layers in atmosphere). The equations capture absorption, transmission, emission (in ALL directions - which of course is the inputs to layers above and below) for a given gas composition, P,T. The integral of all the layers is what then allows you to calculate what comes out of the top. All the interaction is captured. You know it correct because the model results agree with empirical measurement. Science of doom explains the textbook.
  3. scaddenp, I'm not finding the information and/or documentation I'm looking for to verify the claims made by you and KR. You are saying the 3.7 W/m^2 increase is not the reduction in the atmospheric window?
  4. Sigh. The Science of Doom takes you through text book. Is that documentation enough? The problem seems to be that you are looking for a statement that doesnt exist because it would make no sense. The way real physics is done is bears little relationship to way you are trying to approach it. We are trying desperately to show why that is. As far as I can see you either: a/ study the physics b/ see that since model matches measurement so model must be right. I am guess that are ignoring the textbook, SoD, papers, because they dont relate to George White's "logic" and you search in vain for an analogous treatment. However, this is the right way to do it. I'm beyond my power to help you further.
  5. My goodness, the answer is yes or no. You are claiming the 3.7 W/m^2 does NOT represent the reduction in the atmospheric window, right? (This is what I'm assuming you're saying). I do not find this information in the stuff you've referenced, and I've continued to search online to no avail. What we are talking about here represents a fairly simple thing. I sent an email to one of the links from the source you referenced to inquire: SpectralCalc.com Hopefully they will respond.
  6. Rahmstorf 2008, linked in the Advanced version of this post, gives 3.7 W/m^2 as an undisputed figure for CO2 forcing. Without any feedbacks, a doubling of CO2 (which amounts to a forcing of 3.7 W/m2) would result in 1°C global warming, which is easy to calculate and is undisputed. ... consensus holds that a doubling of CO2 causes a radiative forcing of 3.7 W/m2, which in equilibrium would cause 3°C±1.5°C of global warming.
  7. muon - the issue is does "reduction in the atmospheric window" mean the same thing to RW1 as I think it means. You can say yes, but I suspect that RW1 then has corollary from that shows a very different understanding.
  8. scaddenp - Yeah, I thought that was a peculiar phrase, which seems to add an unnecessary layer of complication. All I did was point to the link, as it seemed (in #105) that he couldn't find it. How he chooses to interpret this particular 3.7 W/m^2 is up to him, although both KR and you have made it very clear.
  9. I believe the "atmospheric window" issue is tied (again) to George White - he believes the window of IR going straight to space is >90 W/m^2, whereas Trenberth estimates 40 W/m^2, and asserts that all greenhouse gas effects operate by narrowing that window. He seems to neglect lapse rate and GHG concentration effects raising the altitude (and dropping the temperature) of emission, and in addition argues that the 90 W/m^2 represents a limiting band on GHG effects. RW1 - The models operate by calculating upwards and downwards emissions from all levels of the atmosphere, and the 3.7 W/m^2 represents all the effects: band broadening due to higher GHG concentrations, band deepening due to higher effective altitudes of emission to space, higher reemission to the ground, etc. So the answer to your question is partially, although not readily picked out of the other effects.
  10. The problem of getting your "physics" from George White instead of from a textbook. Is George untroubled by lack of match with empirical data?
  11. KR, My question isn't related to what the number for the window is. scaddenp, No, the problem is no one is answering my question.
  12. @ #111 "No, the problem is no one is answering my question. Or perhaps its just not the answer you want to hear.
  13. RW1 - "You are saying the 3.7 W/m^2 increase is not the reduction in the atmospheric window? " Hmm, but we have this rather odd expression about "reduction in the atmosphere window". What does this mean? KR identifies it with a GW idea. Can you phrase the question in a way that we can understand, and preferably makes physical sense?
  14. scaddenp, I'll break it down into a series of separate small questions: 1. Do you agree that some of the emitted surface infrared power passes through the atmosphere unabsorbed by GHGs or clouds? 2. Do agree that the remainder is absorbed by the atmosphere? 3. Does the 3.7 W/m^2 of 'radiative forcing' represent a reduction in the atmospheric window of 3.7 W/m^2? 4. Does the 3.7 W/m^2 of 'radiative forcing' represent an increase of 3.7 W/m^2 in the amount of infrared absorbed by the atmosphere. My understanding is your answer to 1 & 2 is YES and your answer to 3 & 4 is NO. Is this correct?
  15. RW1 - The answers to your four questions are "Yes, ~40 W/m^2", "Yes, although a fair amount of energy also goes into the atmosphere via convection and latent heat (~20%)", "Only partially", and "Almost, it's the amount prevented from leaving via various effects - more absorption and higher/colder emissions". Sorry, but these are obviously important questions for you, and I would be doing a disservice by giving un-nuanced answers.
  16. KR, The actual number for the atmospheric window is irrelevant to the particular question at hand here. Whether it's 40 W/m^2 or 90 W/m^2 - it doesn't matter, nor do I care. The estimated 3.7 W/m^2 from 2xCO2 either represents a reduction in the atmospheric window or not. The fact you seem to be side stepping this fundamental question is quite revealing. It's a ridiculously simple and straightforward question with a simple yes or no answer. I can see no one here is interested in getting to bottom of this, so it appears like I'll have to do some more searching around and figure out for myself.
  17. RW1 - "The estimated 3.7 W/m^2 from 2xCO2 either represents a reduction in the atmospheric window or not." Wrong. It's partially a reduction in the "window", and partially a reduction, a drop in the intensity, in the GHG bands - the ones already inhibited by the presence of greenhouse gases. Not yes or now, but "in part". As GHG concentration rises, the effective emission altitude goes higher and higher in the troposphere, and hence (due to the lapse rate) comes out of colder and colder GHG's. They emit less than warmer lower GHG's - the additional altitude means that the repeated reduction in IR transmission as part gets emitted up (to higher levels) and parts down attenuate the IR levels. That and widening bands, the reduction of the window, combine to provide the 3.7 W/m^2 effect from doubling CO2. That is why I gave a nuanced answer, one that actually answered your question without conveying incorrect information. It's not A or B - it's both.
  18. KR, Let's take this one question at a time. What does the atmospheric window represent? Please define it for me.
  19. KR (RE: 117), Then the answer is no. What's so hard to understand here? I'm trying to find specifically where the disagreement lies. This is pretty basic stuff.
  20. RW1 - actually that's what I dont understand. What do you mean by "atmosphere window"? A clearer understanding of that might illuminate this.
  21. By 'atmospheric window', I'm referring to the amount of the emitted surface power that passes through the atmosphere completely unabsorbed by GHGs or clouds.
  22. RW1 - The answer is not "no", it is "in part". I've (repeatedly) clearly answered your question - narrowing of the atmospheric window is part of the 3.7 W/m^2, and deepening of the intercepted bands due to higher effective emission altitude is also part of the 3.7 W/m^2. It's not an either/or question!
  23. RW1: By 'atmospheric window', I'm referring to the amount of the emitted surface power that passes through the atmosphere completely unabsorbed by GHGs or clouds. How do you distinguish what is surface emitted from other emitted sources. And why do you use the word "power"? What is power?
  24. RW1: 1) When physicists refer to "the atmospheric window" they refer to a portion of the spectrum in which radiation is not absorbed, so radiation can pass through that "window" without appreciable loss or distortion. The atmosphere has several windows - one at the frequencies of visible light, another in the IR spectrum, and still others in the radio spectrum. 2) One of the atmospheric windows in the IR spectrum is in that range of frequencies where the majority of the surfaces IR radiation is emited. As a result, about 40 w/m^2 of IR radiation escapes to space without being absorbed by any atmospheric components (except clouds, if present). 3) Increasing CO2, O3 or H2O content into the atmosphere, or introducing novel GHG can narrow this window slightly, but the effect is very small. 4) Outside of the atmospheric window, IR radiation from the Earth's surface is entirely absorbed by GHGs; but 5) Those GHGs then emit radiation at the same frequency at an intensity that depends on their temperature. The IR radiation emitted towards space by GHGs is then absorbed by higher GHGs, which in turn emit radiation at an intensity depending on their temperature, which is in turn absorbed and so on until the atmosphere is thin enough for the upward emitted radiation to escape to space. 6) Because the radiation outside the atmospheric window that escapes to space is emitted high in the atmosphere, it is emitted by gases that are much cooler than the surface. Therefore, that radiation has a much lower intensity, ie, transmits much less energy than the radiation emitted from the surface at the same frequency. The difference between the energy that is radiated to space outside of the atmospheric window and the energy originally radiated from the surface at those same frequencies is the fundamental basis of the green house effect. 7) If you increase the concentration of a GHG, then the altitude at which radiation from that GHG will effectively escape to space will increase. Because the altitude has increased, the temperature of the radiating gas is lower, so the total energy radiated is also lower. 8) If you double the CO2 concentration, the atmospheric window will narrow slightly as the absorption band of CO2 widens. This does not mean no IR radiation will escape in the frequencies where the absorption band widens - it just means that the IR radiation in those frequencies will come from a higher, ergo cooler, ergo less energetic altitude, reducing the total IR energy escaping in that frequency band by about a third. 9) At the same time, IR in the frequencies of the previously existing absorption band will come from slightly higher in the atmosphere, and therefore carry less energy (because the emitting CO2 is colder). 10) The combination of these two effects will reduce the total energy leaving the atmosphere by 3.7 w/m^2 That is the full and complete answer to your questions (given space limits). It has been given to you ad nauseum above but you refuse to hear the answer because it is not framed according to the frankly fallacious model of the Green House effect used by George White. However, we cannot ignore the physics and give you answers that only make sense if framed in terms of George White's fallacious physics. If you try frame your question in terms of the actual physics, however, you will find you have already been answered repeatedly.
  25. " And why do you use the word "power"? What is power?". It's the surest sign that you are dealing with someone who has got their education from George White. This incorrect usage has been pointed out to RW1 before.

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