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

TS.4.5 Climate Response to Radiative Forcing

Specification of a likely range and a most likely value for equilibrium climate sensitivity[8] in this report represents significant progress in quantifying the climate system response to radiative forcing since the TAR and an advance in challenges to understanding that have persisted for over 30 years. A range for equilibrium climate sensitivity – the equilibrium global average warming expected if CO2 concentrations were to be sustained at double their pre-industrial values (about 550 ppm) – was given in the TAR as between 1.5°C and 4.5°C. It has not been possible previously to provide a best estimate or to estimate the probability that climate sensitivity might fall outside that quoted range. Several approaches are used in this assessment to constrain climate sensitivity, including the use of AOGCMs, examination of the transient evolution of temperature (surface, upper air and ocean) over the last 150 years and examination of the rapid response of the global climate system to changes in the forcing caused by volcanic eruptions (see Figure TS.25). These are complemented by estimates based upon palaeoclimate studies such as reconstructions of the NH temperature record of the past millennium and the LGM. Large ensembles of climate model simulations have shown that the ability of models to simulate present climate has value in constraining climate sensitivity. {8.1, 8.6, 9.6, Box 10.2}

Cumulative Distributions of Climate Sensitivity

Figure TS.25

Figure TS.25. Cumulative distributions of climate sensitivity derived from observed 20th-century warming (red), model climatology (blue), proxy evidence (cyan) and from climate sensitivities of AOGCMs (green). Horizontal lines and arrows mark the boundaries of the likelihood estimates defined in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Uncertainty Guidance Note (see Box TS.1). {Box 10.2, Figures 1 and 2}

Analysis of models together with constraints from observations suggest that the equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely to be in the range 2°C to 4.5°C, with a best estimate value of about 3°C. It is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C. Values substantially higher than 4.5°C cannot be excluded, but agreement with observations is not as good for those values. Probability density functions derived from different information and approaches generally tend to have a long tail towards high values exceeding 4.5°C. Analysis of climate and forcing evolution over previous centuries and model ensemble studies do not rule out climate sensitivity being as high as 6°C or more. One factor in this is the possibility of small net radiative forcing over the 20th century if aerosol indirect cooling effects were at the upper end of their uncertainty range, thus cancelling most of the positive forcing due to greenhouse gases. However, there is no well-established way of estimating a single probability distribution function from individual results taking account of the different assumptions in each study. The lack of strong constraints limiting high climate sensitivities prevents the specification of a 95th percentile bound or a very likely range for climate sensitivity. {Box 10.2}

There is now increased confidence in the understanding of key climate processes that are important to climate sensitivity due to improved analyses and comparisons of models to one another and to observations. Water vapour changes dominate the feedbacks affecting climate sensitivity and are now better understood. New observational and modelling evidence strongly favours a combined water vapour-lapse rate[9] feedback of around the strength found in General Circulation Models (GCMs), that is, approximately 1 W m–2 per degree global temperature increase, corresponding to about a 50% amplification of global mean warming. Such GCMs have demonstrated an ability to simulate seasonal to inter-decadal humidity variations in the upper troposphere over land and ocean, and have successfully simulated the observed surface temperature and humidity changes associated with volcanic eruptions. Cloud feedbacks (particularly from low clouds) remain the largest source of uncertainty. Cryospheric feedbacks such as changes in snow cover have been shown to contribute less to the spread in model estimates of climate sensitivity than cloud or water vapour feedbacks, but they can be important for regional climate responses at mid- and high latitudes. A new model intercomparison suggests that differences in radiative transfer formulations also contribute to the range. {3.4, 8.6, 9.3, 9.4, 9.6, 10.2, Box 10.2}

Improved quantification of climate sensitivity allows estimation of best estimate equilibrium temperatures and ranges that could be expected if concentrations of CO2 were to be stabilised at various levels based on global energy balance considerations (see Table TS.5). As in the estimate of climate sensitivity, a very likely upper bound cannot be established. Limitations to the concept of radiative forcing and climate sensitivity should be noted. Only a few AOGCMs have been run to equilibrium under elevated CO2 concentrations, and some results show that climate feedbacks may change over long time scales, resulting in substantial deviations from estimates of warming based on equilibrium climate sensitivity inferred from mixed layer ocean models and past climate change. {10.7}

Table TS.5. Best estimate, likely ranges and very likely lower bounds of global mean equilibrium surface temperature increase (°C) over pre-industrial temperatures for different levels of CO2-equivalent radiative forcing, as derived from the climate sensitivity.

Equilibrium CO2–eq (ppm) Temperature Increase (°C) 
Best Estimate Very Likely Above Likely in the Range 
350 1.0 0.5 0.6–1.4 
450 2.1 1.0 1.4–3.1 
550 2.9 1.5 1.9–4.4 
650 3.6 1.8 2.4–5.5 
750 4.3 2.1 2.8–6.4 
1000 5.5 2.8 3.7–8.3 
1200 6.3 3.1 4.2–9.4 

Agreement among models for projected transient climate change has also improved since the TAR. The range of transient climate responses (defined as the global average surface air temperature averaged over a 20-year period centred at the time of CO2 doubling in a 1% yr–1 increase experiment) among models is smaller than the range in the equilibrium climate sensitivity. This parameter is now better constrained by multi-model ensembles and comparisons with observations; it is very likely to be greater than 1°C and very unlikely to be greater than 3°C. The transient climate response is related to sensitivity in a nonlinear way such that high sensitivities are not immediately manifested in the short-term response. Transient climate response is strongly affected by the rate of ocean heat uptake. Although the ocean models have improved, systematic model biases and limited ocean temperature data to evaluate transient ocean heat uptake affect the accuracy of current estimates. {8.3, 8.6, 9.4, 9.6, 10.5}

  1. ^  See the Glossary for a detailed definition of climate sensitivity.
  2. ^  The rate at which air temperature decreases with altitude.