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

TS.5.1 Understanding Near-Term Climate Change

Knowledge of the climate system together with model simulations confirm that past changes in greenhouse gas concentrations will lead to a committed warming (see Box TS.9 for a definition) and future climate change. New model results for experiments in which concentrations of all forcing agents were held constant provide better estimates of the committed changes in atmospheric variables that would follow because of the long response time of the climate system, particularly the oceans. {10.3, 10.7}

Previous IPCC projections of future climate changes can now be compared to recent observations, increasing confidence in short-term projections and the underlying physical understanding of committed climate change over a few decades. Projections for 1990 to 2005 carried out for the FAR and the SAR suggested global mean temperature increases of about 0.3°C and 0.15°C per decade, respectively.[10] The difference between the two was due primarily to the inclusion of aerosol cooling effects in the SAR, whereas there was no quantitative basis for doing so in the FAR. Projections given in the TAR were similar to those of the SAR. These results are comparable to observed values of about 0.2°C per decade, as shown in Figure TS.26, providing broad confidence in such short-term projections. Some of this warming is the committed effect of changes in the concentrations of greenhouse gases prior to the times of those earlier assessments. {1.2, 3.2}

Global Mean Warming: Model Projections Compared with Observations

Figure TS.26

Figure TS.26. Model projections of global mean warming compared to observed warming. Observed temperature anomalies, as in Figure TS.6, are shown as annual (black dots) and decadal average values (black line). Projected trends and their ranges from the IPCC First (FAR) and Second (SAR) Assessment Reports are shown as green and magenta solid lines and shaded areas, and the projected range from the TAR is shown by vertical blue bars. These projections were adjusted to start at the observed decadal average value in 1990. Multi-model mean projections from this report for the SRES B1, A1B and A2 scenarios, as in Figure TS.32, are shown for the period 2000 to 2025 as blue, green and red curves with uncertainty ranges indicated against the right-hand axis. The orange curve shows model projections of warming if greenhouse gas and aerosol concentrations were held constant from the year 2000 – that is, the committed warming. {Figures 1.1 and 10.4}

Committed climate change (see Box TS.9) due to atmospheric composition in the year 2000 corresponds to a warming trend of about 0.1°C per decade over the next two decades, in the absence of large changes in volcanic or solar forcing. About twice as much warming (0.2°C per decade) would be expected if emissions were to fall within the range of the SRES marker scenarios. This result is insensitive to the choice among the SRES marker scenarios, none of which considered climate initiatives. By 2050, the range of expected warming shows limited sensitivity to the choice among SRES scenarios (1.3°C to 1.7°C relative to 1980–1999) with about a quarter being due to the committed climate change if all radiative forcing agents were stabilised today. {10.3, 10.5, 10.7}

Sea level is expected to continue to rise over the next several decades. During 2000 to 2020 under the SRES A1B scenario in the ensemble of AOGCMs, the rate of thermal expansion is projected to be 1.3 ± 0.7 mm yr–1, and is not significantly different under the A2 or B1 scenarios. These projected rates are within the uncertainty of the observed contribution of thermal expansion for 1993 to 2003 of 1.6 ± 0.6 mm yr–1. The ratio of committed thermal expansion, caused by constant atmospheric composition at year 2000 values, to total thermal expansion (that is the ratio of expansion occurring after year 2000 to that occurring before and after) is larger than the corresponding ratio for global average surface temperature. {10.6, 10.7}

Box TS.9: Committed Climate Change

If the concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols were held fixed after a period of change, the climate system would continue to respond due to the thermal inertia of the oceans and ice sheets and their long time scales for adjustment. ‘Committed warming’ is defined here as the further change in global mean temperature after atmospheric composition, and hence radiative forcing, is held constant. Committed change also involves other aspects of the climate system, in particular sea level. Note that holding concentrations of radiatively active species constant would imply that ongoing emissions match natural removal rates, which for most species would be equivalent to a large reduction in emissions, although the corresponding model experiments are not intended to be considered as emission scenarios. {FAQ 10.3}

The troposphere adjusts to changes in its boundary conditions over time scales shorter than a month or so. The upper ocean responds over time scales of several years to decades, and the deep ocean and ice sheet response time scales are from centuries to millennia. When the radiative forcing changes, internal properties of the atmosphere tend to adjust quickly. However, because the atmosphere is strongly coupled to the oceanic mixed layer, which in turn is coupled to the deeper oceanic layer, it takes a very long time for the atmospheric variables to come to an equilibrium. During the long periods where the surface climate is changing very slowly, one can consider that the atmosphere is in a quasi-equilibrium state, and most energy is being absorbed by the ocean, so that ocean heat uptake is a key measure of climate change. {10.7}

  1. ^  See IPCC First Assessment Report, Policymakers Summary, and Second Assessment Report, Technical Summary, Figure 18.