Projected warming from Hansen, et al., 1981 (fast growth–thick black line–and slow growth–thin grey line). Graphic: Carbon Brief

By Zeke Hausfather
5 October 2017

(CarbonBrief) – Scientists have been making projections of future global warming using climate models of increasing complexity for the past four decades.

These models, driven by atmospheric physics and biogeochemistry, play an important role in our understanding of the Earth’s climate and how it will likely change in the future.

Carbon Brief has collected prominent climate model projections since 1973 to see how well they project both past and future global temperatures, as shown in the animation below.

While some models projected less warming than we’ve experienced and some projected more, all showed surface temperature increases between 1970 and 2016 that were not too far off from what actually occurred, particularly when differences in assumed future emissions are taken into account.

How have past climate models fared?

While climate model projections of the past benefit from knowledge of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, volcanic eruptions and other radiative forcings affecting the Earth’s climate, casting forward into the future is understandably more uncertain. Climate models can be evaluated both on their ability to hindcast past temperatures and forecast future ones.

Hindcasts – testing models against past temperatures – are useful because they can control for radiative forcings. Forecasts are useful because models cannot be implicitly tuned to be similar to observations. Climate models are not fit to historical temperatures, but modellers do have some knowledge of observations that can inform their choice of model parameterisations, such as cloud physics and aerosol effects.

In the examples below, climate model projections published between 1973 and 2013 are compared with observed temperatures from five different organizations. The models used in the projections vary in complexity, from simple energy balance models to fully-coupled Earth System Models. […]

Hansen et al, 1981

NASA’s Dr James Hansen and colleagues published a paper in 1981 that also used a simple energy balance model to project future warming, but accounted for thermal inertia due to ocean heat uptake. They assumed a climate sensitivity of 2.8C per doubling CO2, but also looked at a range of 1.4-5.6C per doubling. […]

Conclusion

Climate models published since 1973 have generally been quite skillful in projecting future warming. While some were too low and some too high, they all show outcomes reasonably close to what has actually occurred, especially when discrepancies between predicted and actual CO2 concentrations and other climate forcings are taken into account. [more]

Analysis: How well have climate models projected global warming?

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