Missing The Major Point Of “What Is Climate Sensitivity”

There is a post by Zeke on Blackboard titled  Agreeing [See also the post on Climate Etc  Agreeing(?)].

Zeke starts the post with the text

“My personal pet peeve in the climate debate is how much time is wasted on arguments that are largely spurious, while more substantive and interesting subjects receive short shrift.”

I agree with this view, but conclude that Zeke is missing a fundamental issue. 

 Zeke writes

“Climate sensitivity is somewhere between 1.5 C and 4.5 C for a doubling of carbon dioxide, due to feedbacks (primarily water vapor) in the climate system…”

The use of the terminology “climate sensitivity” indicates an importance of the climate system to this temperature range that does not exist. The range of temperatures of  “1.5 C and 4.5 C for a doubling of carbon dioxide” refers to a global annual average surface temperature anomaly that is not even directly measurable, and its interpretation is even unclear, as we discussed in the paper

Pielke Sr., R.A., C. Davey, D. Niyogi, S. Fall, J. Steinweg-Woods, K. Hubbard, X. Lin, M. Cai, Y.-K. Lim, H. Li, J. Nielsen-Gammon, K. Gallo, R. Hale, R. Mahmood, S. Foster, R.T. McNider, and P. Blanken, 2007: Unresolved issues with the assessment of multi-decadal global land surface temperature trends. J. Geophys. Res., 112, D24S08, doi:10.1029/2006JD008229.

This view of a surface temperature anomaly expressed by “climate sensitivity” is grossly misleading the public and policymakers as to what are the actual climate metrics that matter to society and the environment. A global annual average surface temperature anomaly is almost irrelevant for any climatic feature of importance. 

Even with respect to the subset of climate effects that is referred to as global warming, the appropriate climate metric is heat changes as measured in Joules (e.g. see). The  global annual average surface temperature anomaly is only useful to the extent it correlates with the global annual average climate system heat anomaly [most of which occurs within the upper oceans].  Such heating, if it occurs, is important as it is one component (the “steric component”) of sea level rise and fall.

For other societally and environmentally important climate effects, it is the regional atmospheric and ocean circulations patterns that matter. An accurate use of the terminology “climate sensitivity” would refer to the extent that these circulation patterns are altered due to human and natural climate forcings and feedbacks. As discussed in the excellent post on Judy Curry’s weblog

Spatio-temporal chaos

finding this sensitivity is a daunting challenge.

I have proposed  definitions which  could be used to advance the discussion of what we “agree on”, in my post

The Terms “Global Warming” And “Climate Change” – What Do They Mean?

As I wrote there

Global Warming is an increase in the heat (in Joules) contained within the climate system. The majority of this accumulation of heat occurs in the upper 700m of the oceans.

Global Cooling is a decrease in the heat (in Joules) contained within the climate system. The majority of this accumulation of heat occurs in the upper 700m of the oceans.

Global warming and cooling occur within each year as shown, for example, in Figure 4 in

Ellis et al. 1978: The annual variation in the global heat balance of the Earth. J. Geophys. Res., 83, 1958-1962.

Multi-decadal global warming or cooling involves a long-term imbalance between the global warming and cooling that occurs each year.

Climate Change involves any alteration in the  climate system , which is schematically illustrated  in the figure below (from NRC, 2005)

which persists for an (arbitrarily defined) long enough time period.

 Shorter term climate change is referred to as climate variability.  An example of a climate change is if a growing season 20 year average  of 100 days was reduced by 10 days in the following 20 years.  Climate change includes changes in the statistics of weather (e.g. extreme events such as droughts, land falling hurricanes, etc), but also include changes in other climate system components (e.g. alterations in the pH of the oceans, changes in the spatial distribution of malaria carrying mosquitos, etc).

The recognition that climate involves much more than global warming and cooling is a very important issue. We can have climate change (as defined in this weblog post) without any long-term global warming or cooling.  Such climate change can occur both due to natural and human causes.”

It is within this framework of definitions that Zeke and Judy should solicit feedback in response to their recent posts.  I recommend a definition of “climate sensitivity” as

Climate Sensitivity is the response of the statistics of weather (e.g. extreme events such as droughts, land falling hurricanes, etc), and other climate system components (e.g. alterations in the pH of the oceans, changes in the spatial distribution of malaria carrying mosquitos, etc) to a climate forcing (e.g. added CO2, land use change, solar output changes, etc).  This more accurate definition of climate sensitivity is what should be discussed rather than the dubious use of a global annual average surface temperature anomaly for this purpose.

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