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How The IPCC Heats Up Climate Predictions

Marcel Crok, The State of the Climate

The IPCC has given the world a prognosis which it knows is overly pessimistic.

The AR5 Synthesis Report has been published with all the usual rhetorics such as that we have only so much years left to act. Readers here know that my interest with regard to AR5 has been climate sensitivity. So let’s just shortly review what happened in the field of climate sensitivity between the Synthesis Report (SYR) of AR4 (2007) and that of AR5 (2014). Let’s focus on the SPM because this is what is supposed to be the most policy relevant information.

The SYR SPM of AR4 mentions “climate sensitivity” seven times:

For GHG emissions scenarios that lead to stabilisation at levels comparable to SRES B1 and A1B by 2100 (600 and 850 ppm CO2-eq; category IV and V), assessed models project that about 65 to 70% of the estimated global equilibrium temperature increase, assuming a climate sensitivity of 3°C, would be realised at the time of stabilisation. [Figure SPM.8 on page 12]

The timing and level of mitigation to reach a given temperature stabilisation level is earlier and more stringent if climate sensitivity is high than if it is low. [page 20]

Global average temperature increase above pre-industrial at equilibrium, using ‘best estimate’ climate sensitivity [Table SPM.6 on page 20]

The best estimate of climate sensitivity is 3°C. [note d of table SPM.6 on page 20]

Equilibrium sea level rise is for the contribution from ocean thermal expansion only and does not reach equilibrium for at least many centuries. These values have been estimated using relatively simple climate models (one low-resolution AOGCM and several EMICs based on the best estimate of 3°C climate sensitivity) and do not include contributions from melting ice sheets, glaciers and ice caps. [note f of table SPM.6 on page 20]

The right-hand panel shows ranges of global average temperature change above pre-industrial, using (i) ‘best estimate’ climate sensitivity of 3°C (black line in middle of shaded area), (ii) upper bound of likely range of climate sensitivity of 4.5°C (red line at top of shaded area) (iii) lower bound of likely range of climate sensitivity of 2°C (blue line at bottom of shaded area). [Caption of figure SPM.11 on page 21]

Impacts of climate change are very likely to impose net annual costs, which will increase over time as global temperatures increase. Peer-reviewed estimates of the social cost of carbon23 in 2005 average US$12 per tonne of CO2, but the range from 100 estimates is large (-$3 to $95/tCO2). This is due in large part to differences in assumptions regarding climate sensitivity, response lags, the treatment of risk and equity, economic and non-economic impacts, the inclusion of potentially catastrophic losses and discount rates. [page 22]

Climate sensitivity is a key uncertainty for mitigation scenarios for specific temperature levels. [page 22]

Summarised: climate sensitivity and its uncertainties is highly relevant for the amount of future warming. The best estimate for climate sensitivity is 3°C, the lower bound is 2°C and the upper bound is 4.5°C. 

The full AR4 Synthesis report mentions climate sensitivity 13 times. It for example said:

Progress since the TAR enables an assessment that climate sensitivity is likely to be in the range of 2 to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C.


Now straigth to the AR5 Synthesis Report SPM. It mentions this highly relevant parameter (according to AR4) … zero times! Not a word about it. The full Synthesis report does mention it four times. For example on page SYR-23 we read:

Climate system properties that determine the response to external forcing have been estimated both from climate models and from analysis of past and recent climate change. The equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) is likely in the range 1.5 °C–4.5 °C, extremely unlikely less than 1 °C, and very unlikely greater than 6 °C.

Now what has happened in the past seven years that climate sensitivity disappeared from the SPM of the Synthesis Report? Has it become irrelevant? Of course not. Climate sensitivity is all over the Synthesis Report because the models used to project the future climate have a climate sensitivity of about 3.5°C on average. So in all its projections IPCC assumes climate sensitivity is still >3°C. It’s there as some sort of hidden assumption.

Why not say so then? Well, exactly this assumption, that the model climate sensitivity is about 3.5°C, has been seriously challenged in the past few years in the scientific literature. The Lewis/Crok report A Sensitive Matter (published in March of this year) gave all the details about new observationally based studies that indicate the climate sensitivity is relatively low with best estimate values of between 1.5 and 2°C. Considerably lower than the 3.5°C climate sensitivity of the models.

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