IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

2.8 Utility of Radiative Forcing

The TAR and other assessments have concluded that RF is a useful tool for estimating, to a first order, the relative global climate impacts of differing climate change mechanisms (Ramaswamy et al., 2001; Jacob et al., 2005). In particular, RF can be used to estimate the relative equilibrium globally averaged surface temperature change due to different forcing agents. However, RF is not a measure of other aspects of climate change or the role of emissions (see Sections 2.2 and 2.10). Previous GCM studies have indicated that the climate sensitivity parameter was more or less constant (varying by less than 25%) between mechanisms (Ramaswamy et al., 2001; Chipperfield et al., 2003). However, this level of agreement was found not to hold for certain mechanisms such as ozone changes at some altitudes and changes in absorbing aerosol. Because the climate responses, and in particular the equilibrium climate sensitivities, exhibited by GCMs vary by much more than 25% (see Section 9.6), Ramaswamy et al. (2001) and Jacob et al. (2005) concluded that RF is the most simple and straightforward measure for the quantitative assessment of climate change mechanisms, especially for the LLGHGs. This section discusses the several studies since the TAR that have examined the relationship between RF and climate response. Note that this assessment is entirely based on climate model simulations.

2.8.1 Vertical Forcing Patterns and Surface Energy Balance Changes

The vertical structure of a forcing agent is important both for efficacy (see Section 2.8.5) and for other aspects of climate response, particularly for evaluating regional and vertical patterns of temperature change and also changes in the hydrological cycle. For example, for absorbing aerosol, the surface forcings are arguably a more useful measure of the climate response (particularly for the hydrological cycle) than the RF (Ramanathan et al., 2001a; Menon et al., 2002b). It should be noted that a perturbation to the surface energy budget involves sensible and latent heat fluxes besides solar and longwave irradiance; therefore, it can quantitatively be very different from the RF, which is calculated at the tropopause, and thus is not representative of the energy balance perturbation to the surface-troposphere (climate) system. While the surface forcing adds to the overall description of the total perturbation brought about by an agent, the RF and surface forcing should not be directly compared nor should the surface forcing be considered in isolation for evaluating the climate response (see, e.g., the caveats expressed in Manabe and Wetherald, 1967; Ramanathan, 1981). Therefore, surface forcings are presented as an important and useful diagnostic tool that aids understanding of the climate response (see Sections 2.9.4 and 2.9.5).