Review Article | Published:

Palaeoclimate constraints on the impact of 2 °C anthropogenic warming and beyond


Over the past 3.5 million years, there have been several intervals when climate conditions were warmer than during the pre-industrial Holocene. Although past intervals of warming were forced differently than future anthropogenic change, such periods can provide insights into potential future climate impacts and ecosystem feedbacks, especially over centennial-to-millennial timescales that are often not covered by climate model simulations. Our observation-based synthesis of the understanding of past intervals with temperatures within the range of projected future warming suggests that there is a low risk of runaway greenhouse gas feedbacks for global warming of no more than 2 °C. However, substantial regional environmental impacts can occur. A global average warming of 1–2 °C with strong polar amplification has, in the past, been accompanied by significant shifts in climate zones and the spatial distribution of land and ocean ecosystems. Sustained warming at this level has also led to substantial reductions of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, with sea-level increases of at least several metres on millennial timescales. Comparison of palaeo observations with climate model results suggests that, due to the lack of certain feedback processes, model-based climate projections may underestimate long-term warming in response to future radiative forcing by as much as a factor of two, and thus may also underestimate centennial-to-millennial-scale sea-level rise.

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Change history

  • 18 July 2018

    In the version of this Review Article originally published, ref. 10 was mistakenly cited instead of ref. 107 at the end of the sentence: “This complexity of residual ice cover makes it likely that HTM warming was regional, rather than global, and its peak warmth thus had different timing in different locations.” In addition, for ref. 108, Scientific Reports was incorrectly given as the publication name; it should have been Scientific Data. These errors have now been corrected in the online versions.


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Financial support of the PAGES Warmer World Integrative Activity workshop by the Future Earth core project PAGES (Past Global Changes) and the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, is gratefully acknowledged. Additional funding by PAGES was provided to the plioVAR, PALSEA 2, QUIGS, the 2k network, C-peat, Global Paleofire 2 and OC3 PAGES working groups contributing to the Integrated Activity (see for an overview of all former and active PAGES working groups). We thank N. Rosenbloom for creating Fig. 2.

Author information

The content of this paper is the result of a PAGES workshop taking place in Bern, Switzerland, in April 2017, which most of the authors attended. All authors contributed to the literature assessment and the discussion of the results. H.F., K.J.M. and A.C.M. developed the concept of the paper and compiled the paper with support by all co-authors. All co-authors contributed to the discussion of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Hubertus Fischer or Katrin J. Meissner or Alan C. Mix.

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  2. Supplementary Tables

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  3. Supplementary Table 6

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Fig. 1: Changes in global climate and radiative forcing over the last 4 Myr.
Fig. 2: Model–data comparison of climate changes in the future and during the LIG.
Fig. 3: Impacts and responses of components of the Earth system.