Clouds Dominate CO2 as a Climate Driver Since 2000

January 9th, 2010 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

Last year I posted an analysis of satellite observations of the 2007-08 global cooling event, showing evidence that it was due to a natural increase in low cloud cover. Here I will look at the bigger picture of what how the satellite-observed variations in Earth’s radiative budget compare to that expected from increasing carbon dioxide. Is there something that we can say about the relative roles of nature versus humanity based upon the evidence?

What we will find is evidence consistent with natural cloud variations being the dominant source of climate variability since 2000.

CERES Observations of Global Energy Budget Changes
The following graph shows the variations in the Earth’s global-average radiative energy balance as measured by the CERES instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite. These are variations in the imbalance between absorbed sunlight and emitted infrared radiation, the most fundamental quantity associated with global warming or global cooling. Also show (in red) are theoretically calculated changes in radiative forcing from increasing carbon dioxide as measured at Mauna Loa.

Since there is some uncertainty in the absolute accuracy of the CERES measurements, where one puts the zero line is also somewhat uncertain. Therefore, it’s the variations since 2000 which are believed to be pretty accurate, and the exact dividing line between Earth gaining energy and Earth losing energy is uncertain. Significantly, all of the downward trend is in the reflected sunlight portion, not the infrared portion of the variations. We similarly can not reference where the zero line should be for the CO2 forcing, but the reasons for this are more complex and I will not address them here.

In order to compare the variations in the CO2 forcing (in red) to the satellite observations, we need to account for the fact that the satellite observes forcing and feedback intermingled together. So, let’s remove a couple of estimates of feedback from the satellite measurements to do a more direct comparison.

Inferred Forcing Assuming High Climate Sensitivity (IPCC View)
Conceptually, the variations in the Earth’s radiative imbalance are a mixture of forcing (e.g. increasing CO2; clouds causing temperature changes), and feedback (e.g. temperature changes causing cloud changes). We can estimate the forcing part by subtracting out the feedback part.

First, let’s assume that the IPCC is correct that climate sensitivity is pretty high. In the following chart I have subtracted out an estimate of the feedback portion of the CERES measurements based upon the IPCC 20-model average feedback parameter of 1.4 W m-2 K-1 times the satellite AMSU-measured tropospheric temperature variations

As can be seen, the long-term trend in the CERES measurements is much larger than can be accounted for by increasing carbon dioxide alone, which is presumably buried somewhere in the satellite-measured signal. In fact, the satellite observed trend is in the reflected sunlight portion, not the infrared as we would expect for increasing CO2 (not shown).

Inferred Forcing Assuming Low Climate Sensitivity (“Skeptical” View)
There has been some published evidence (our 2007 GRL paper, Lindzen & Choi’s 2009 paper) to suggest the climate system is quite insensitive. Based upon that evidence, if we assume a net feedback parameter of 6 W m-2 K-1 is operating during this period of time, then removing that feedback signal using AMSU channel 5 yields the following history of radiative forcing:

As can be seen, the relative size of the natural forcings become larger since more forcing is required to cause the same temperature changes when the feedback fighting it is strong. Remember, the NET feedback (including the direct increase in emitted IR) is always acting against the forcing…it is the restoring force for the climate system.

What this Might Mean for Global Warming
The main point I am making here is that, no matter whether you assume the climate system is sensitive or insensitive, our best satellite measurements suggest that the climate system is perfectly capable of causing internally-generated radiative forcing larger than the “external” forcing due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Low cloud variations are the most likely source of this internal radiative forcing. It should be remembered that the satellite data are actually measured, whereas the CO2 forcing (red lines in the above graphs) is so small that it can only be computed theoretically.

The satellite observed trend toward less energy loss (or, if you prefer, more energy gain) is interesting since there was no net warming observed during this time. How could this be? Well, the satellite observed trend must be due to forcing only since there was no warming or cooling trend during this period for feedback to act upon. And the lack of warming from this substantial trend in the forcing suggests an insensitive climate system.

If one additionally entertains the possibility that there is still considerable “warming still in the pipeline” left from increasing CO2, as NASA’s Jim Hansen claims, then the need for some natural cooling mechanism to offset and thus produce no net warming becomes even stronger. Either that, or the climate system is so insensitive to increasing CO2 that there is essentially no warming left in the pipeline to be realized. (The less sensitive the climate system, the faster it reaches equilibrium when forced with a radiative imbalance.)

Any way you look at it, the evidence for internally-forced climate change is pretty clear. Based upon this satellite evidence alone, I do not see how the IPCC can continue to ignore internally-forced variations in the climate system. The evidence for its existence is there for all to see, and in my opinion, the IPCC’s lack of diagnostic skill in this matter verges on scientific malpractice.

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