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Keywords:

  • greenhouse effect;
  • carbon dioxide;
  • water vapor

[1] The relative contributions of atmospheric long-wave absorbers to the present-day global greenhouse effect are among the most misquoted statistics in public discussions of climate change. Much of the interest in these values is however due to an implicit assumption that these contributions are directly relevant for the question of climate sensitivity. Motivated by the need for a clear reference for this issue, we review the existing literature and use the Goddard Institute for Space Studies ModelE radiation module to provide an overview of the role of each absorber at the present-day and under doubled CO2. With a straightforward scheme for allocating overlaps, we find that water vapor is the dominant contributor (∼50% of the effect), followed by clouds (∼25%) and then CO2 with ∼20%. All other absorbers play only minor roles. In a doubled CO2 scenario, this allocation is essentially unchanged, even though the magnitude of the total greenhouse effect is significantly larger than the initial radiative forcing, underscoring the importance of feedbacks from water vapor and clouds to climate sensitivity.