I’m always searching for better and simpler ways to explain the reason why I believe climate researchers have overestimated the sensitivity of our climate system to increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.
What follows is a somewhat different take than I’ve used in the past. In the following cartoon, I’ve illustrated 2 different ways to interpret a hypothetical (but realistic) set of satellite observations that indicate (1) warming of 1 degree C in global average temperature, accompanied by (2) an increase of 1 Watt per sq. meter of extra radiant energy lost by the Earth to space.
The ‘consensus’ IPCC view, on the left, would be that the 1 deg. C increase in temperature was the cause of the 1 Watt increase in the Earth’s cooling rate. If true, that would mean that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide by late in this century (a 4 Watt decrease in the Earth’s ability to cool) would eventually lead to 4 deg. C of global warming. Not good news.
But those who interpret satellite data in this way are being sloppy. For instance, they never bother to investigate exactly WHY the warming occurred in the first place. As shown on the right, natural cloud variations can do the job quite nicely. To get a net 1 Watt of extra loss you can (for instance) have a gain of 2 Watts of forcing from the cloud change causing the 1 deg. C of warming, and then a resulting feedback response to that warming of an extra 3 Watts.
The net result still ends up being a loss of 1 extra Watt, but in this scenario, a doubling of CO2 would cause little more than 1 deg. C of warming since the Earth is so much more efficient at cooling itself in response to a temperature increase.
Of course, you can choose other combinations of forcing and feedback, and end up deducing just about any amount of future warming you want. Note that the major uncertainty here is what caused the warming in the first place. Without knowing that, there is no way to know how sensitive the climate system is.
And that lack of knowledge has a very interesting consequence. If there is some forcing you are not aware of, you WILL end up overestimating climate sensitivity. In this business, the less you know about how the climate system works, the more fragile the climate system looks to you. This is why I spend so much time trying to separately identify cause (forcing) and effect (feedback) in our satellite measurements of natural climate variability.
As a result of this inherent uncertainty regarding causation, climate modelers are free to tune their models to produce just about any amount of global warming they want to. It will be difficult to prove them wrong, since there is as yet no unambiguous interpretation of the satellite data in this regard. They can simply assert that there are no natural causes of climate change, and as a result they will conclude that our climate system is precariously balanced on a knife edge. The two go hand-in-hand.
Their science thus enters the realm of faith. Of course, there is always an element of faith in scientific inquiry. Unfortunately, in the arena of climate research the level of faith is unusually high, and I get the impression most researchers are not even aware of its existence.