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Issue 4, 2008
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Uncertainty in climate sensitivity: Causes, consequences, challenges

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Fossil fuels supply about 85% of the world's primary energy, and future use would not appear limited by availability of reserves, especially of coal. Rather, future use of fossil fuels will likely be limited by controls on the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that are agreed to by the nations of the world. The increase in atmospheric CO2 over the past 200 years, mainly from fossil fuel combustion, is confidently thought to have increased global temperatures and induced other changes in Earth's climate, with the prospect of much more severe consequences from projected future emissions. Limiting such changes in Earth's climate would place major constraints on the combustion of fossil fuels and/or the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. Developing effective and cost-effective strategies for limiting CO2 emissions requires the confident ability to project the changes in climate that would result from a given increase in atmospheric CO2. However, even the change in global mean surface temperature (GMST), the single most important index of climate change, that would result from a given increase in atmospheric CO2 remains uncertain to a factor of 2 or more, largely because of uncertainty in Earth's climate sensitivity, the change in GMST per change in radiative flux. This uncertainty in climate sensitivity, which gives rise to a comparable uncertainty in the shared global resource of the amount of fossil fuel that can be burned consonant with a given increase in global mean surface temperature, greatly limits the ability to effectively formulate strategies to limit climate change while meeting the world's future energy requirements. Key limits on determining climate sensitivity are the small change in downwelling longwave irradiance, less than one percent, that would give rise to changes in climate that reach the level of concern, the complexity of cloud processes and the difficulty of representing them in climate models, and limited understanding of the processes that control the radiative influences of atmospheric aerosols. A recent empirical calculation of Earth's climate sensitivity as the quotient of the relaxation time constant of GMST upon the effective heat capacity characterizing climate change on the multidecadal time scale points to a possible alternative approach to determining Earth's climate sensitivity. While improved knowledge of Earth's climate sensitivity is essential to development of optimal energy strategies, even for climate sensitivity at the low end of the range of present estimates, substantial reductions in CO2 emissions from their present values would be required to avert dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system that would otherwise occur well before the end of the present century.

Graphical abstract: Uncertainty in climate sensitivity: Causes, consequences, challenges

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Article information

18 Jun 2008
04 Aug 2008
First published
22 Aug 2008

Energy Environ. Sci., 2008,1, 430-453
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Uncertainty in climate sensitivity: Causes, consequences, challenges

S. E. Schwartz, Energy Environ. Sci., 2008, 1, 430
DOI: 10.1039/B810350J

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