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Keywords:

  • global warming;
  • climate sensitivity;
  • greenhouse gases

Abstract

The global temperature increase over the last century and a half (∼ 0.8°C), and the last three decades in particular, is well outside of that which can be attributed to natural climate fluctuations. The increase of atmospheric CO2 over this period has been conclusively demonstrated to be a result largely of fossil fuel burning. The global mean temperature change that results in response to a sustained perturbation of the Earth's energy balance after a time sufficiently long for both the atmosphere and oceans to come to thermal equilibrium is termed the Earth's climate sensitivity. The purely radiative (blackbody) warming from a doubling of CO2 from its preindustrial level of 280 parts-per-million (ppm) to 560 ppm is ∼ 1.2°C; the actual warming that would result is considerably larger owing to amplification by climate feedbacks, including that owing to water vapor. Increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) levels are estimated to have contributed about +3.0 W m−2 perturbation (radiative forcing) to the Earth's energy balance. Particles (aerosols), on the whole, exert a cooling effect on climate, with a total forcing estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007)1 as −1.2 W m−2, a value that is subject to considerable uncertainty. If the actual magnitude of aerosol forcing is close to the low end of its estimated uncertainty range, then it offsets a considerably smaller fraction of the GHG forcing and the total net forcing is at the high end of its range, ∼ 2.4 W m−2; at the other extreme, if the actual aerosol cooling is at the high end of its range, then aerosol forcing is currently offsetting a major fraction of GHG forcing, and the total net forcing is only ∼ 0.6 W m−2. To explain the actual global increase in temperature of ∼ 0.8°C, these two extremes have major implications in terms of the Earth's climate sensitivity. Climate sensitivity is determined by the strength of feedbacks, of which cloud feedback is the most uncertain. That the Earth has warmed and that GHGs are responsible is unequivocal; the Earth's climate sensitivity and the effect of aerosols complicate answers to the question: how much warming and how soon? © 2011 American Institute of Chemical Engineers AIChE J, 2011