Climate commitment in an uncertain world

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Abstract

[1] Climate commitment—the warming that would still occur given no further human influence—is a fundamental metric for both science and policy. It informs us of the minimum climate change we face and, moreover, depends only on our knowledge of the natural climate system. Studies of the climate commitment due to CO2 find that global temperature would remain near current levels, or even decrease slightly, in the millennium following the cessation of emissions. However, this result overlooks the important role of the non-CO2 greenhouse gases and aerosols. This paper shows that global energetics require an immediate and significant warming following the cessation of emissions as aerosols are quickly washed from the atmosphere, and the large uncertainty in current aerosol radiative forcing implies a large uncertainty in the climate commitment. Fundamental constraints preclude Earth returning to pre-industrial temperatures for the indefinite future. These same constraints mean that observations are currently unable to eliminate the possibility that we are already beyond the point where the ultimate warming will exceed dangerous levels. Models produce a narrower range of climate commitment, but undersample observed forcing constraints.

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