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Energy budget constraints on climate sensitivity in light of inconstant climate feedbacks

Abstract

Global energy budget constraints1,2,3 suggest an equilibrium climate sensitivity around 2 °C, which is lower than estimates from palaeoclimate reconstructions4, process-based observational analyses5,6,7, and global climate model simulations8,9. A key assumption is that the climate sensitivity inferred today also applies to the distant future. Yet, global climate models robustly show that feedbacks vary over time, with a strong tendency for climate sensitivity to increase as equilibrium is approached9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18. Here I consider the implications of inconstant climate feedbacks for energy budget constraints on climate sensitivity. I find that the long-term value of climate sensitivity is, on average, 26% above that inferred during transient warming within global climate models, with a larger discrepancy when climate sensitivity is high. Moreover, model values of climate sensitivity inferred during transient warming are found to be consistent with energy budget observations1,2,3, indicating that the models are not overly sensitive. Using model-based estimates of how climate feedbacks will change in the future, in conjunction with recent energy budget constraints1,19, produces a current best estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity of 2.9 °C (1.7–7.1 °C, 90% confidence). These findings suggest that climate sensitivity estimated from global energy budget constraints is in agreement with values derived from other methods and simulated by global climate models.

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Figure 1: Inconstancy of feedbacks in CMIP5 abrupt CO2 quadrupling and 1% yr−1 CO2 ramping simulations.
Figure 2: Relationship between ECS and ECSinfer for CMIP5 models, and comparison with energy budget constraints from ref. 1 (top) and refs 1,19 (bottom).
Figure 3: Probability density functions of ECSinfer and ECS derived from energy budget constraints from ref. 1 and refs 1,19, and comparison with CMIP5 models.

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Acknowledgements

The author thanks T. Andrews, J. Bloch-Johnson, A. Donohoe, P. Forster, R. Knutti, C. Proistosescu, G. Roe and M. Rugenstein for enlightening discussions.

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Correspondence to Kyle C. Armour.

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Armour, K. Energy budget constraints on climate sensitivity in light of inconstant climate feedbacks. Nature Clim Change 7, 331–335 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3278

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