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Uncertainty no excuse for procrastinating on climate change

Today we released research which reduces the range of uncertainty in future global warming. It does not alter the fact we will never be certain about how, exactly, the climate will change. We always have…

We’ll never know how much the globe will warm, but we have a pretty good idea: what are we waiting for? Luis Ramirez

Today we released research which reduces the range of uncertainty in future global warming. It does not alter the fact we will never be certain about how, exactly, the climate will change.

We always have to make decisions when there are uncertainties about the future: whether to take an umbrella when we go outside, how much to spend on insurance. International action on climate change is just one more decision that has to be made in an environment of uncertainty.

The most recent assessment of climate change made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 looked at what is known with high confidence about climate change, as well as uncertainties. It included projections of future global warming to the end of this century based on simulations from a group of complex climate models.

These models included a range of uncertainties, coming from natural variability of the climate and the representation of important processes in the models. But the models did not consider uncertainty from interactions with the carbon cycle - the way carbon is absorbed and released by oceans, plant life and soil. In order to allow for these uncertainties, the likely range of temperature change was expanded.

Our recent study has re-visited these results and tested an approach to reduce the range of uncertainty for future global warming. We wanted to calibrate the key climate and carbon cycle parameters in a simple climate model using historical data as a basis for future projections. We used observations of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations for the last 50 years to constrain the representation of the carbon cycle in the model. We also took the more common approach of using global atmospheric and ocean temperature variations to constrain the response of the climate system.

This led to a narrower range of projected temperature changes for a given set of greenhouse gas emissions. As a consequence, we have higher confidence in the projections. In other words, using both climate and carbon dioxide observations reduces the uncertainties in projections of global warming.

Figure 1. Global-mean temperature change for a business-as-usual emission scenario, relative to pre-industrial. Black line: median, shaded regions 67% (dark), 90% (medium) and 95% (light) confidence intervals. The sidebars are uncertainty ranges based on the IPCC likely range and best estimate (grey column) for 2090-2099 and our corresponding results (purple column) from the simple climate model (MAGICC); the black bars are the respective best estimates (modified from Nature Climate Change paper). Bodman & Karoly

We found that uncertainties in the carbon cycle are the second-largest contributor to the overall range of uncertainty in future global warming. The main contributor is climate sensitivity, a measure of how the climate responds to increases in greenhouse-gas concentrations.

Climate sensitivity has been discussed recently on The Conversation. A recent study by Alexander Otto of Oxford University and colleagues, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, also considered future global warming in the context of observations of global mean temperature change over the last decade.

Unlike that study, our results do not show lower climate sensitivity or lower mean projected global warming. Our study uses the same observed global atmospheric and ocean temperature data. But we also used observed carbon dioxide data and represented important additional processes in our simplified climate model, particularly the carbon cycle on the land and in the ocean and uncertainties in the climate forcing due to aerosols.

In our study, the reductions in uncertainty came from using the observations, the relationships between them and how these affect the parameters in the simple climate model. We found 63% of the uncertainty in projected warming was due to single sources, such as climate sensitivity, the carbon cycle components and the cooling effect of aerosols, while 37% of uncertainty came from the combination of these sources.

Once we reduced the uncertainty we found there is an increased risk of exceeding a lower temperature change threshold, but a reduced chance of exceeding a high threshold. That is, for business-as-usual emissions of greenhouse gases, exceeding 6°C global warming by 2100 is now unlikely, while exceeding 2°C is virtually certain.

These results reconfirm the need for urgent and substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions if the world is to avoid exceeding the global warming target of 2°C. Keeping warming below 2°C is necessary to minimise dangerous climate change.

It is unlikely that uncertainties in projected warming will be reduced substantially. Indeed, if you allow for population growth, levels of economic activity, growth in demand for energy and the means of producing that energy, overall uncertainty increases. We just have to accept that we will have to manage the risks of global warming with the knowledge we have. We may not know exactly how much and by when average temperatures change, but we know they will. This is an experiment we probably don’t want to make with the only planet we have to live on.