A letter to the editor of the Economist from Professor Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research stated the following:

The IPCC’s range on sensitivity is supported by, but not merely based on, models. It is deeply rooted in physics. Quantum physics and thermodynamics, the same physical laws that underlie the functioning of our computers and power plants, yield a baseline climate sensitivity of about 3°C. This is based on the facts that carbon dioxide, water vapour and methane absorb infra-red; a warmer atmosphere holds more water; and ice and snow melt under warming.

Do quantum physics and thermodynamics yield a baseline climate sensitivity of about 3°C?

  • possible duplicate of Are the IPCC climate change models overestimating sensitivity to carbon dioxide?
    – rjzii
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:14
  • @RobZ I was trying to focus on the very specific issue of how much climate prediction is physics (or physical chemistry) and how much is model estimation of feedbacks. I think this is a distinct question that can be answered independently from the question about whether models get the answer right, not least because this question is focussed on the stuff that everyone should agree on regardless of model estimates. So it isn't about whether models are right which is the subject of your other answer.
    – matt_black
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 21:25
  • @EnergyNumbers It may deserve an edit to clarify what I wanted to ask, though I think some readers are being obtuse and obfuscatory in the way they interpret what I asked. The issue I wanted to clarify is what simple physical chemistry would suggest is the climate sensitivity as distinct from the values that require complex modelling assumptions. Even denialists should agree that atmospheric CO2 has some effect; the issue is how big that effect is versus the (more contentious) degree of feedback from other factors in models.
    – matt_black
    Commented May 3, 2013 at 22:56
  • @EnergyNumbers Fair clarification, I may be reading something into his words. His core claim, though, remains that a 3 degree sensitivity emerges directly from physics which is not the same as saying it needs complex models with assumptions that are not dependent on physics.
    – matt_black
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 18:42
  • @EnergyNumbers Go ahead. I'm happy for you to try. I suspect our perspectives don't agree much but I'll happily accept any modifications that make it a better question without changing the essence.
    – matt_black
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 21:46

4 Answers 4


Very few people disagree with the basic fact that the greenhouse gas CO2 warms the climate, but without some kind of positive feedback mechanism, it doesn’t add very much: around 1°C-1.2°C per doubling of CO2.

The statement is correct, but very misleading. In the absence of the climate system's feedbacks, the climate sensitivity is 1 to 1.2 deg C for each doubling of CO2 (per the IPCC). However, the impact of feedbacks is greater than the direct impact of increased CO2. This can be seen without relying on climate models by looking at the powerful temperature cycles of historical ice ages (or glacial-to-interglacial transitions). These cycles are caused by variations in the Earth's orbit, which only produce a small change in incident radiation. See here for example. Without climate feedbacks, it would take a much greater change in solar output, or an enormous change in CO2 concentration, to cause an ice age. Chris Colose of Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison provides a good explanation of feedback effects:

To put this in perspective, it would take about five doublings of CO2 or a 7% increase in the total solar radiation hitting the Earth to produce the magnitude of climate change typical of glacial-to-interglacial transitions.

Thus it is clear - without relying on models - that the feedback effect must be greater than the direct effect, or else there could never have been ice ages.

The phrase "without some kind of positive feedback mechanism" gives the impression that scientists think there's an alternate mechanism that drives their projected temperatures higher. Climate sensitivity without feedbacks can be calculated fairly accurately on a single sheet of paper, (see here for example) and the result will be approximately 1 deg C. But the result is not relevant to anything, because the real world has many feedbacks; that's why the focus in climate science over the past several decades has been understanding the feedbacks and quantifying their effects. Most of them are well understood, their net effect is overwhelmingly positive (i.e. they amplify temperature fluctuations), and of course they are all based on physics, as demonstrated by Chris Colose.

According to James Hansen, the best source of information about feedbacks is not models, but paleoclimate data:s

Models are imperfect and we will never be sure that they include all important processes. Fortunately, Earth's history provides a remarkably rich record of how our planet responded to climate forcings in the past. Paleoclimate records yield, by far, our most accurate assessment of climate sensitivity and climate feedbacks.

Hansen calculates the climate sensitivity in various units, and expresses it as 2 to 4 degrees C for a doubling of CO2:

The empirical fast-feedback climate sensitivity that we infer from the LGM-Holocene comparison is thus 5°C/6.5 W/m2 ~ 3⁄4 ± 1⁄4 °C per W/m2 or 3 ± 1°C for doubled CO2. The fact that ice sheet and GHG boundary conditions are actually slow climate feedbacks is irrelevant for the purpose of evaluating the fast-feedback climate sensitivity.

This empirical climate sensitivity incorporates all fast response feedbacks in the real- world climate system, including changes of water vapor, clouds, aerosols, aerosol effects on clouds, and sea ice. In contrast to climate models, which can only approximate the physical processes and may exclude important processes, the empirical result includes all processes that exist in the real world – and the physics is exact.

Water vapor provides a great example of climate feedbacks. Because it absorbs infrared radiation very well, water vapor is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Also, warmer air holds more water vapor. So, suppose temperature increases because of higher CO2; the atmosphere will hold more water vapor, which will cause it to absorb more solar radiation, causing it to heat up still further. Calculating the impact of the CO2 while disregarding the water vapor feedback would be a significant underestimation for no good reason. Other positive climate feedbacks are also well known to climatologists, such as changes in reflectivity due to melting of snow and ice, release of CO2 from ocean water because of increasing ocean temperatures, and release of methane from melting permafrost.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 13:54

François Gervais of the Physics Department at François Rabelais University in Tours, France wrote in 2014 that the anthropogenic contribution to global warming upon the present trend is 0.1°C in the absence of climate feedbacks.

He arrived at this number by finding the present rate of anthropogenic carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere and applying a simplified physics calculation to the temperature based on radiation.

Gervais' estimate of the rate of anthropogenic carbon dioxide increase is based on two methods, which he claims to support each other: the C13/C12 ratio and also the change in annual average atmospheric CO2 concentration, after subtracting annual fluctuations of up to 600% increase.

Gervais' radiation model is an analysis of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide's contribution to earth's total infrared radiation using data from satellite-based infrared spectrometers.

  • The full article is paywalled, so I don't know what Gervais would estimate is the climate sensitivity to a doubling of CO2. Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 21:29
  • It's not clear to me what Gervais is estimating. Is 0.1°C his estimate of the present-day warming due to current CO2 levels, but disregarding feedbacks? The comments about CO2 suggest that his estimate of the anthropogenic contribution to the CO2 concentration may be different from the accepted value. Can you provide more details about his assumptions and conclusions?
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 3:18

I've been reading more and more climate denialists pointing to the lack of rise in the past ten years, and claiming it as evidence that the theory of climate change is flawed and previous 100+ years of trend is a fluke.

This real meaning of this temperature plateau is explained in a 2011 articel from the International Business Times

However, these periods would likely last only about a decade or so, and warming would then resume. This study illustrates one reason why global temperatures do not simply rise in a straight line.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research gives a good summary of various issues. In particular, their FAQ directly addresses the ten year plateau:

It’s important to note that models are not the only reason why scientists are concerned about climate change. For more than a century—long before many recent advances in science, and long before computer models—we’ve known that increased greenhouse gases could produce a global temperature increase. Observations of the last century of climate, including those from instruments and from the behavior of ice and plants, concur that the planet is warming.

Harvard News also explains:

The primary driver of the warming hole is the aerosol pollution — these small particles,” says Leibensperger. “What they do is reflect incoming sunlight, so we see a cooling effect at the surface.”-climate-change/:

The point of the articles is that the ten year period of non-warming is a direct result of various atmospheric emissions associated with global warming. The result of this is that if in the future emissions are reduced, global warming trend lines will continue to increase for a lengthy period of time, and in fact increase much faster once those "blocking" factors created by emissions are curtailed. Additionally, it means that this 'hidden' warming value will result in a larger temperature overall increase than current temperatures are measuring would indicate.

  • 1
    Welcome to Skeptics! It isn't clear from your answer alone what position you are taking. (Are you saying the notion of Global Warming is flawed, or that you've been reading about that claim?) Also, please provide a brief summary or quote from each source, to make it easier to understand what they are saying and to protect against linkrot.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 2:30
  • @matt, I see that Daniel has addressed the main supporting argument used in the opening quote (i.e. the existence of a plateau). I'm not sure he's addressed the actual claim though (that 'climate sensitivity', however that is defined, is 1°C-1.2°C per doubling). Are you satisfied with this approach?
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 3:45
  • 1
    This is an interesting, if flawed, summary of what some climate scientists have said about the recent temperature record after the event (would have been more convincing, btw, if they said the same thing ten years ago.) But it is irrelevant to the question I asked which is not about the recent record or climate predictions but was about the piece of theory that even climate denialists would not disagree with: what is the effect of CO2 in the absence of feedback. I should downvote but I don't want to discourage you.
    – matt_black
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 8:08
  • @matt_black Maybe you should try trimming the quotes you use to only cover the parts that you're asking about? I, personally, was enraged by the Economist attempting to make any sort of climate claim about a tiny ten year period, but I refrained from responding because it wasn't the main thrust of your question; clearly, Daniel has fallen into the trap. This has happened before in your questions, it's something you should watch out for when citing potentially inflammatory sources.
    – Tacroy
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 16:09
  • @Tacroy Fair point on the distracting parts, but context matters and it is hard to make a call. On the point that the Economist is being inflammatory: I don't agree at all, I think they were giving a fair summary of the current state of knowledge (but that is food for another question!)
    – matt_black
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 21:59

From the IPCC's AR5 summary report "No best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given because of a lack of agreement on values across assessed lines of evidence and studies." I'm not a physicist, nor I suspect is anyone else here, but this change in reporting would seem to indicate a lack of confidence in the actual impact of additional atmospheric CO2 on the climate.

  • 3
    The quote is a footnote on a bullet point that reads "...Equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely in the range 1.5C to 4.5C (high confidence), extremely unlikely less than 1C (high confidence) and unlikely greater than 6C (medium confidence) [footnote here]. The lowere temperature of the assessed likely range is thus less than the 2C in the AR4, but the upper limit is the same. This assessment reflects improved understanding, the extended temperature record in the atmosphere and ocean and new estimates of radiative forcing", which contradicts Bob's conclusion of a "lack of confidence".
    – user18604
    Commented Nov 20, 2013 at 17:14
  • 2
    That is one interpretation, Dikran. Another is that the models have clearly not worked very well and that there must be a reason for, as Gavin Schmidt put it, the "failure of models to match real world". The most plausible reason would seem to be, to quote Gavin Schmidt again, "erroneous assumptions" regarding the climate sensitivity of CO2. And the AR5 footnote is not, in fact, really nothing new. You can’t go from an AR4 section dedicated to climate sensitivity (9.6.2) to the AR5 statement and reasonably claim that nothing has really changed. It has.
    – Bob
    Commented Nov 20, 2013 at 17:37
  • 3
    Bob, the only change is that the lower limit of the confidence interval has been reduced from 2C to 1.5C, and that is pretty much it. To say that this means they are "not so sure about the climate sensitivity of CO2" is simply an overstatement. Note that climate sensitivity is pretty much the same whatever the source of the forcing, whether it is solar, CO2, aersols etc. As to the quote from Schmidt, I rather doubt the rest of the quote would suggest that climate sensitivity was one of the "erroneous assumptions" that he had in mind, can you supply the full quote?
    – user18604
    Commented Nov 20, 2013 at 17:46
  • 3
    @matt_black If you can give an example of a peer-reviewed journal paper that supports your position, I would be interested to read it. Pointing out the methodological flaws in Mann's original paper is insufficient as similar results have been constructed using a variety of statistical methodologies since then (including by Mann himself), to which those criticisms do not apply.
    – user18604
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 12:03
  • 3
    @matt_black & bob, sorry I am not impressed by ad-hominems (i.e. attacks on the source of an argument rather than on its content). The climate debate is chock full of that kind of thing and all it does is stifle productive discussion of the science.
    – user18604
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 9:36

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