533 When Will We Be Committed to Crossing Critical Temperature Thresholds?

Tuesday, 9 January 2018
Exhibit Hall 3 (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
Cristian Proistosescu, Univ. of Washington, Seattle, WA; and K. Armour, G. H. Roe, and P. Huybers

The zero-emissions climate commitment is a key metric for science and policy. It is the future warming we face given only to-date emissions, independent of future human influence on climate. Assuming a sudden cessation of emissions, future global temperature change depends on (i) the atmospheric lifetimes of aerosols and greenhouse gases (GHGs), and (ii) the physical climate response to radiative forcing (Armour and Roe 2011). The cooling effect of aerosols diminishes within weeks; GHG concentrations get drawn down on timescales ranging from months to millennia; and ocean heat uptake diminishes as climate equilibrates with the residual CO2 forcing. Whether global temperature increases, stays stable, or declines following emission cessation depends on these competing factors. There is substantial uncertainty in the zero-emissions commitment due to a combination of (i) correlated uncertainties in aerosol radiative forcing and climate sensitivity, (ii) uncertainty in the atmospheric lifetime of CO2, and (iii) uncertainty in how climate sensitivity will evolve in the future.
Here we quantify climate commitment in a Bayesian framework of an idealized model constrained by observations of global warming and energy imbalance, combined with estimates of global radiative forcing. At present, our committed warming is 1.2°C (median), with a ~25% chance that it already exceeds 1.5°C and a ~5% chance that it exceeds 2°C; the range comes primarily from uncertainty in the degree to which aerosols currently mask GHG forcing. We further quantify how climate commitment, and its uncertainty, changes with emissions scenario and over time. Under high emissions (RCP8.5), we will reach a >50% risk of a 2°C zero-emission climate commitment by the year 2035, about two decades before that temperature would be reached if emissions continued unabated. Committed warming is substantially reduced for lower-emissions scenarios, depending on the mix of aerosol and GHG mitigation. For the next few decades the primary uncertainty in climate commitment comes from correlated uncertainties in aerosol forcing and climate sensitivity; later in the century it comes from uncertainties in the carbon cycle (setting the lifetime and residual concentration of CO2) and in how climate sensitivity changes over time.
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