Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change

Conference paper


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.


Climate Sensitivity Surface Albedo Climate Feedback Climate Forcings Global Temperature Change 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



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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© Springer-Verlag Wien 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth InstituteNew YorkUSA

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