How sensitive is our climate?Climate sensitivity is the estimate of how much the earth's climate will warm in response to the increased greenhouse effect if we double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This includes feedbacks which can either amplify or dampen that warming. This is very important because if it is low, as some climate 'skeptics' argue, then the planet will warm slowly and we will have more time to react and adapt. If sensitivity is high, then we could be in for a very bad time indeed.
There are two ways of working out what climate sensitivity is. The first method is by modelling:
Climate models have predicted the least temperature rise would be on average 1.65°C (2.97°F) , but upper estimates vary a lot, averaging 5.2°C (9.36°F). Current best estimates are for a rise of around 3°C (5.4°F), with a likely maximum of 4.5°C (8.1°F).
The second method calculates climate sensitivity directly from physical evidence, by looking at climate changes in the distant past:
Various paleoclimate-based equilibrium climate sensitivity estimates from a range of geologic eras. Adapted from PALEOSENS (2012) Figure 3a by John Cook.
These calculations use data from sources like ice cores to work out how much additional heat the doubling of greenhouse gases will produce. These estimates are very consistent, finding between 2 and 4.5°C global surface warming in response to doubled carbon dioxide.
It’s all a matter of degree
All the models and evidence confirm a minimum warming close to 2°C for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 with a most likely value of 3°C and the potential to warm 4.5°C or even more. Even such a small rise would signal many damaging and highly disruptive changes to the environment. In this light, the arguments against reducing greenhouse gas emissions because of climate sensitivity are a form of gambling. A minority claim the climate is less sensitive than we think, the implication being we don’t need to do anything much about it. Others suggest that because we can't tell for sure, we should wait and see.
In truth, nobody knows for sure quite how much the temperature will rise, but rise it will. Inaction or complacency heightens risk, gambling with the entire ecology of the planet, and the welfare of everyone on it.
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