Beyond 2°C: redefining dangerous climate change for physical systems


  • Timothy M. Lenton

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
    Current affiliation:
    1. Present address: College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK
    • School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
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Most efforts to define a level of dangerous anthropogenic interference (DAI) with the climate system are framed in terms of global annual mean surface temperature change, with 2°C above preindustrial being the most widely accepted climate policy ‘target’. Yet, no actual large-scale threshold (or ‘tipping point’) in the climate system (of which there are probably several) has been clearly linked to 2°C global warming. Of those that can be indirectly linked to global temperature change, the dangerous levels are necessarily imprecise and vary, with estimates ranging from ∼1°C above preindustrial upwards. Some potential thresholds cannot be meaningfully linked to global temperature change, others are sensitive to rates of climate change, and some are most sensitive to spatial gradients of climate change. In some cases, the heterogeneous distributions of reflective (sulfate) aerosols, absorbing (black carbon) aerosols, and land use could be more dangerous than changes in globally well-mixed greenhouse gases. Hence, the framing of Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in terms of stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations (within a time frame), is too narrow to prevent some types of DAI. To address this, a reframed policy objective is proposed; to limit the overall magnitude, rate of change, and spatial gradients of anthropogenic radiative forcing, and resultant climate change, through restriction of emissions of anthropogenic aerosols, patterns of land use, and concentrations of short-lived, as well as long-lived, greenhouse gases. WIREs Clim Change 2011 2 451–461 DOI: 10.1002/wcc.107

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