Climate warming during the course of the twenty-first century is projected to be between 1.0 and 3.7 °C depending on future greenhouse gas emissions, based on the ensemble-mean results of state-of-the-art Earth System Models (ESMs). Just how reliable are these projections, given the complexity of the climate system? The early history of climate research provides insight into the understanding and science needed to answer this question. We examine the mathematical quantifications of planetary energy budget developed by Svante Arrhenius (1859–1927) and Guy Stewart Callendar (1898–1964) and construct an empirical approximation of the latter, which we show to be successful at retrospectively predicting global warming over the course of the twentieth century. This approximation is then used to calculate warming in response to increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases during the twenty-first century, projecting a temperature increase at the lower bound of results generated by an ensemble of ESMs (as presented in the latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). This result can be interpreted as follows. The climate system is conceptually complex but has at its heart the physical laws of radiative transfer. This basic, or “core” physics is relatively straightforward to compute mathematically, as exemplified by Callendar's calculations, leading to quantitatively robust projections of baseline warming. The ESMs include not only the physical core but also climate feedbacks that introduce uncertainty into the projections in terms of magnitude, but not sign: positive (amplification of warming). As such, the projections of end-of-century global warming by ESMs are fundamentally trustworthy: quantitatively robust baseline warming based on the well-understood physics of radiative transfer, with extra warming due to climate feedbacks. These projections thus provide a compelling case that global climate will continue to undergo significant warming in response to ongoing emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Anderson, T. R., Hawkins, E., & Jones, P. D. (2016). CO2, the greenhouse effect and global warming: from the pioneering work of Arrhenius and Callendar to today’s Earth System Models. Endeavour, 40(3), 178–187. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.endeavour.2016.07.002