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Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change

Abstract

Paleoclimate data help us assess climate sensitivity and potential human-made climate effects. We conclude that Earth in the warmest interglacial periods of the past million years was less than 1°C warmer than in the Holocene. Polar warmth in these interglacials and in the Pliocene does not imply that a substantial cushion remains between today’s climate and dangerous warming, but rather that Earth is poised to experience strong amplifying polar feedbacks in response to moderate global warming. Thus, goals to limit human-made warming to 2°C are not sufficient—they are prescriptions for disaster. Ice sheet disintegration is nonlinear, spurred by amplifying feedbacks. We suggest that ice sheet mass loss, if warming continues unabated, will be characterized better by a doubling time for mass loss rate than by a linear trend. Satellite gravity data, though too brief to be conclusive, are consistent with a doubling time of 10 years or less, implying the possibility of multimeter sea level rise this century. Observed accelerating ice sheet mass loss supports our conclusion that Earth’s temperature now exceeds the mean Holocene value. Rapid reduction of fossil fuel emissions is required for humanity to succeed in preserving a planet resembling the one on which civilization developed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Paleoanthropological evidence of Homo sapiens in Africa dates to about 200,000 years ago, i.e., over two glacial cycles. Earlier human-like populations, such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus, date back at least 2,000,000 years, but, as is clear from Fig. 1a, even the human-like species were present only during the recent time of ice ages.

  2. 2.

    CO2 climate forcing is approximately logarithmic because its absorption bands saturate as CO2 amount increases. An equation for climate forcing as a function of CO2 amount is given in Table 1 of Hansen et al. (2000).

  3. 3.

    One adjustment accounts for estimated glacial–interglacial change of the source region for the water vapor that forms the snowflakes (Vimeux et al. 2002). The source location depends on sea ice extent. This correction reduces interglacial warmth and thus reduces the discrepancy with the calculated interglacial temperatures in Fig. 4a.

    Another adjustment accounts for change of ice sheet thickness (Masson-Delmotte et al. 2010). This adjustment increases the fixed-altitude temperature in the warmest interglacials. The correction is based on ice sheet models, which yield a greater altitude for the central part of the ice sheet, even though sea level was higher in these interglacials and thus ice sheet volume was smaller. This counterintuitive result is conceivable because snowfall is greater during warmer interglacials, which could make the central altitude greater despite the smaller ice sheet volume. But note that the correction is based on ice sheet models that may be “stiffer” than real-world ice sheets.

  4. 4.

    Indian and Pacific Ocean temperatures in Fig. 5 are derived from forams that lived in the upper ocean, as opposed to benthic forams used to obtain global deep ocean temperature. The eastern Pacific temperature in Fig. 5b is the average for two locations, north and south of the equator, which are shown individually by Hansen et al. (2006).

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Acknowledgments

We thank referee (Dana Royer) for helpful suggestions, Gerry Lenfest (Lenfest Foundation), Lee Wasserman (Rockefeller Family Foundation), Stephen Toben (Flora Family Foundation) and NASA program managers Jack Kaye and David Considine for research support, and Gavin Schmidt, Pushker Kharecha, Richard Alley, Christopher Barnet, Peter Barrett, Phil Blackwood, John Breithaupt, Tim Dean, Bruce Edwards, J. Gathright, Michael Le Page, Robert Maginnis, Jon Parker, Tom Parrett, Les Porter, Warwick Rowell, Ken Schatten, Colin Summerhayes, and Bart Verheggen for comments on a draft version of this chapter.

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Hansen, J.E., Sato, M. (2012). Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change. In: Berger, A., Mesinger, F., Sijacki, D. (eds) Climate Change. Springer, Vienna. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-7091-0973-1_2

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