Maximum warming occurs about one decade after carbon dioxide emission

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Kate Ricke and Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington, DC, United States
There has been a long tradition of estimating the amount of climate change that would result from various carbon dioxide emission or concentration scenarios but there has been relatively little quantitative analysis of how long it takes to feel the consequences of an individual carbon dioxide emission. Using conjoined results of recent carbon-cycle and physical-climate model intercomparison projects, we find the median time between an emission and maximum warming is 10.1 years, with a 90% probability range of 6.6 to 30.7 years.

We evaluate uncertainties in timing and amount of warming, partitioning them into three contributing factors: carbon cycle, climate sensitivity and ocean thermal inertia. To characterize the carbon cycle uncertainty associated with the global temperature response to a carbon dioxide emission today, we use fits to the time series of carbon dioxide concentrations from a CO2-impulse response function model intercomparison project’s 15 ensemble members (1). To characterize both the uncertainty in climate sensitivity and in the thermal inertia of the climate system, we use fits to the time series of global temperature change from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 5 (CMIP5; 2) abrupt4xco2 experiment’s 20 ensemble’s members separating the effects of each uncertainty factors using one of two simple physical models for each CMIP5 climate model. This yields 6,000 possible combinations of these three factors using a standard convolution integral approach.

Our results indicate that benefits of avoided climate damage from avoided CO2 emissions will be manifested within the lifetimes of people who acted to avoid that emission. While the relevant time lags imposed by the climate system are substantially shorter than a human lifetime, they are substantially longer than the typical political election cycle, making the delay and its associated uncertainties both economically and politically significant.


1. Joos F et al. (2013) Carbon dioxide and climate impulse response functions for the computation of greenhouse gas metrics: a multi-model analysis. Atmos Chem Phys 13:2793–2825.

2. Taylor KE, Stouffer RJ, Meehl GA (2011) An Overview of CMIP5 and the Experiment Design. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 93:485–498.