Atmospheric aerosols counteract the warming effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gases by an uncertain, but potentially large, amount. This in turn leads to large uncertainties in the sensitivity of climate to human perturbations, and therefore also in carbon cycle feedbacks and projections of climate change. In the future, aerosol cooling is expected to decline relative to greenhouse gas forcing, because of the aerosols' much shorter lifetime and the pursuit of a cleaner atmosphere. Strong aerosol cooling in the past and present would then imply that future global warming may proceed at or even above the upper extreme of the range projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
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C.D.J. was supported by the UK DEFRA Climate Prediction Program.
Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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