How well have climate models projected global warming?

Scientists have been making projections of future global warming using climate models of increasing complexity for the past four decades.

Climate models, driven by atmospheric physics and biogeochemistry, play an important role in our understanding of the Earth’s climate and how it will likely change in the future.

Carbon Brief has collected prominent climate model projections since 1973 to see how well they project both past and future global temperatures.

While some models projected less warming than we’ve experienced and some projected more, all showed surface temperature increases between 1970 and 2016 that were not too far off from what actually occurred, particularly when differences in assumed future emissions are taken into account.

How have past climate models fared?

While climate model projections of the past benefit from knowledge of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, volcanic eruptions and other radiative forcingsaffecting the Earth’s climate, casting forward into the future is understandably more uncertain. Climate models can be evaluated both on their ability to hindcast past temperatures and forecast future ones.

Hindcasts – testing models against past temperatures – are useful because they can control for radiative forcings. Forecasts are useful because models cannot be implicitly tuned to be similar to observations. Climate models are not fit to historical temperatures, but modellers do have some knowledge of observations that can inform their choice of model parameterisations, such as cloud physics and aerosol effects.

In the examples below, climate model projections published between 1973 and 2013 are compared with observed temperatures from five different organizations. The models used in the projections vary in complexity, from simple energy balance models to fully-coupled Earth System Models.

(Note, these model/observation comparisons use a baseline period of 1970-1990 to align observations and models during the early years of the analysis, which shows how temperatures have evolved over time more clearly.)

Sawyer, 1973

One of the first projections of future warming came from John Sawyer at the UK’s Met Office in 1973. In a paper published in Nature in 1973, he hypothesised that the world would warm 0.6° C between 1969 and 2000, and that atmospheric CO2 would increase by 25%. Sawyer argued for a climate sensitivity – how much long-term warming will occur per doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels – of 2.4° C, which is not too far off the best estimate of 3° C used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today.

Unlike the other projections examined in this article, Sawyer did not provide an estimated warming for each year, just an expected 2000 value. His warming estimate of 0.6° C was nearly spot on – the observed warming over that period was between 0.51° C and 0.56° C. He overestimated the year 2000’s atmospheric CO2 concentrations, however, assuming that they would be 375-400 ppm – compared to the actual value of 370 ppm.

Broecker, 1975

The first available projection of future temperatures due to global warming appeared in an article in Science in 1975 published by Columbia University scientist Prof. Wally Broecker. Broecker used a simple energy balance model to estimate what would happen to the Earth’s temperature if atmospheric CO2 continued to increase rapidly after 1975. Broecker’s projected warming was reasonably close to observations for a few decades, but recently has been considerably higher.

This is mostly due to Broecker overestimating how CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations would increase after his article was published. He was fairly accurate up to 2000, predicting 373 ppm of CO2 – compared to actual Mauna Loa observations of 370 ppm. In 2016, however, he estimated that CO2 would be 424 ppm, whereas only 404 ppm has been observed.

Broecker also did not take other greenhouse gases into account in his model. However, as the warming impact from methanenitrous oxide, and halocarbons has been largely cancelled out by the overall cooling influence of aerosols since 1970, this does not make that large a difference (though estimates of aerosol forcings have large uncertainties).

As with Sawyer, Broecker used an equilibrium climate sensitivity of 2.4° C per doubling of CO2. Broecker assumed that the Earth instantly warms up to match atmospheric CO2, while modern models account for the lag between how quickly the atmosphere and oceans warm up. (The slower heat uptake by the oceans is often referred to as the “thermal inertia” of the climate system.)


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