Earth system climate sensitivity (ESS) is the long-term (>10³ year) response of global surface temperature to doubled CO₂ that integrates fast and slow climate feedbacks. ESS has energy policy implications because global temperatures are not expected to decline appreciably for at least 10³ year, even if anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions drop to zero. We report provisional ESS estimates of 3 °C or higher for some of the Cretaceous and Cenozoic based on paleo-reconstructions of CO₂ and temperature. These estimates are generally higher than climate sensitivities simulated from global climate models for the same ancient periods (approximately 3 °C). Climate models probably do not capture the full suite of positive climate feedbacks that amplify global temperatures during some globally warm periods, as well as other characteristic features of warm climates such as low meridional temperature gradients. These absent feedbacks may be related to clouds, trace greenhouse gases (GHGs), seasonal snow cover, and/or vegetation, especially in polar regions. Better characterization and quantification of these feedbacks is a priority given the current accumulation of atmospheric GHGs.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.