Over the next few years, you’re likely to see a lot of graphs like this (click for a bigger version):

This one is from a forthcoming paper by Meehl et al, and was shown by Jerry Meehl in his talk at the Annecy workshop this week. It shows the results for just a single model, CCSM4, so it shouldn’t be taken as representative yet. The IPCC assessment will use graphs taken from ensembles of many models, as model ensembles have been shown to be consistently more reliable than any single model (the models tend to compensate for each other’s idiosyncrasies).

But as a first glimpse of the results going into IPCC AR5, I find this graph fascinating:

  • The extension of a higher emissions scenario out to three centuries shows much more dramatically how the choices we make in the next few decades can profoundly change the planet for centuries to come. For IPCC AR4, only the lower scenarios were run beyond 2100. Here, we see that a scenario that gives us 5 degrees of warming by the end of the century is likely to give us that much again (well over 9 degrees) over the next three centuries. In the past, people talked too much about temperature change at the end of this century, without considering that the warming is likely to continue well beyond that.
  • The explicit inclusion of two mitigation scenarios (RCP2.6 and RCP4.5) give good reason for optimism about what can be achieved through a concerted global strategy to reduce emissions. It is still possible to keep emissions below 2 degrees of warming. But, as I discuss below, the optimism is bounded by some hard truths about how much adaptation will still be necessary – even in this wildly optimistic case, the temperature drops only slowly over the three centuries, and still ends up warmer than today, even at the year 2300.

As the approach to these model runs has changed so much since AR4, a few words of explanation might be needed.

First, note that the zero point on the temperature scale is the global average temperature for 1986-2005. That’s different from the baseline used in the previous IPCC assessment, so you have to be careful with comparisons. I’d much prefer they used a pre-industrial baseline – to get that, you have to add 1 (roughly!) to the numbers on the y-axis on this graph. I’ll do that throughout this discussion.

I introduced the RCPs (“Representative Concentration Pathways”) a little in my previous post. Remember, these RCPs were carefully selected from the work of the integrated assessment modelling community, who analyze interactions between socio-economic conditions, climate policy, and energy use. They are representative in the sense that they were selected to span the range of plausible emissions paths discussed in the literature, both with and without a coordinated global emissions policy. They are pathways, as they specify in detail how emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants would change, year by year, under each set of assumptions. The pathways matters a lot, because it is cumulative emissions (and the relative amounts of different types of emissions) that determine how much warming we get, rather than the actual emissions level in any given year. (See this graph for details on the emissions and concentrations in each RCP).

By the way, you can safely ignore the meaning of the numbers used to label the RCPs – they’re really just to remind the scientists which pathway is which. Briefly, the numbers represent the approximate anthropogenic forcing, in W/m², at the year 2100.

RCP8.5 and RCP6 represent two different pathways for a world with no explicit climate policy. RCP8.5 is at about the 90th percentile of the full set of non-mitigation scenarios described in the literature. So it’s not quite a worse case scenario, but emissions much higher than this are unlikely. One scenario that follows this path is a world in which renewable power supply grows only slowly (to about 20% of the global power mix by 2070) while most of a growing demand for energy is still met from fossil fuels. Emissions continue to grow strongly, and don’t peak before the end of the century. Incidentally, RCP8.5 ends up in the year 2100 with a similar atmospheric concentration to the old A1FI scenario in AR4, at around 900ppm CO2.

RCP6 (which is only shown to the year 2100 in this graph) is in the lower quartile of likely non-mitigation scenarios. Here, emissions peak by mid-century and then stabilize at a little below double current annual emissions. This is possible without an explicit climate policy because under some socio-economic conditions, the world still shifts (slowly) towards cleaner energy sources, presumably because the price of renewables continues to fall while oil starts to run out.

The two mitigation pathways, RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 bracket a range of likely scenarios for a concerted global carbon emissions policy. RCP2.6 was explicitly picked as one of the most optimistic possible pathways – note that it’s outside the 90% confidence interval for mitigation scenarios. The expert group were cautious about selecting it, and spent extra time testing its assumptions before including it. But it was picked because there was interest in whether, in the most optimistic case, it’s possible to stay below 2°C of warming.

Most importantly, note that one of the assumptions in RCP2.6 is that the world goes carbon-negative by around 2070. Wait, what? Yes, that’s right – the pathway depends on our ability to find a way to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than we produce, and to be able to do this consistently on a the global scale by 2070. So, the green line in the graph above is certainly possible, but it’s well outside the set of emissions targets currently under discussion in any international negotiations.

RCP4.5 represents a more mainstream view of global attempts to negotiate emissions reductions. On this pathway, emissions peak before mid-century, and fall to well below today’s levels by the end of the century. Of course, this is not enough to stabilize atmospheric concentrations until the end of the century.

The committee that selected the RCPs warns against over-interpretation. They deliberately selected an even number of pathways, to avoid any implication that a “middle” one is the most likely. Each pathway is the result of a different set of assumptions about how the world will develop over the coming century, either with, or without climate policies. Also:

  • The RCPs should not be treated as forecasts, nor bounds on forecasts. No RCP represents a “best guess”. The high and low scenarios were picked as representative of the upper and lower ends of the range described in the literature.
  • The RCPs should not be treated as policy prescriptions. They were picked to help answer scientific questions, not to offer specific policy choices.
  • There isn’t a unique socio-economic scenario driving each RCP – there are multiple sets of conditions that might be consistent with a particular pathway. Identifying these sets of conditions in more detail is an open question to be studied over the next few years.
  • There’s no consistent logic to the four RCPs, as each was derived from a different assessment model. So you can’t, for example, adjust individual assumptions to get from one RCP to another.
  • The translation from emissions profiles (which the RCPs specify) into atmospheric concentrations and radiative forcings is uncertain, and hence is also an open research question. The intent is to study these uncertainties explicitly through the modeling process.

So, we have a set of emissions pathways chosen because they represent “interesting” points in the space of likely global socio-economic scenarios covered in the literature. These are the starting point for multiple lines of research by different research communities. The climate modeling community will use them as inputs to climate simulations, to explore temperature response, regional variations, precipitation, extreme weather, glaciers, sea ice, and so on. The impacts and adaptation community will use them to explore the different effects on human life and infrastructure, and how much adaptation will be needed under each scenario. The mitigation community will use them to study the impacts of possible policy choices, and will continue to investigate the socio-economic assumptions underlying these pathways, to give us a clearer account of how each might come about, and to produce an updated set of scenarios for future assessments.

Okay, back to the graph. This represents one of the first available sets of temperature outputs from a Global Climate Model for the four RCPs. Over the next two years, other modeling groups will produces data from their own runs of these RCPs, to give us a more robust set of multi-model ensemble runs.

So the results in this graph are very preliminary, but if the results from other groups are consistent with them, here’s what I think it means. The upper path, RCP8.5, offers a glimpse of what happens if economic development and fossil fuel use continue to grow they way they have over the last few decades. It’s hard to imagine much of the human race surviving the next few centuries under this scenario. The lowest path, RCP2.6, keeps us below the symbolically important threshold of 2 degrees of warming, but then doesn’t bring us down much from that throughout the coming centuries. And that’s a pretty stark result: even if we do find a way to go carbon-negative by the latter part of this century, the following two centuries still end up hotter than it is now. All the while that we’re re-inventing the entire world’s industrial basis to make it carbon-negative, we also have to be adapting to a global climate that is warmer than any experienced since the human species evolved.

[By the way: the 2 degree threshold is probably more symbolic than it is scientific, although there’s some evidence that this is the point above which many scientists believe positive feedbacks would start to kick in. For a history of the 2 degree limit, see Randalls 2010].