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What do we learn from James Hansen's 1988 prediction?

What the science says...

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Hansen's 1988 results are evidence that the actual climate sensitivity is about 3°C for a doubling of atmospheric CO2.

Climate Myth...

Hansen's 1988 prediction was wrong
'On June 23, 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the House of Representatives that there was a strong "cause and effect relationship" between observed temperatures and human emissions into the atmosphere. At that time, Hansen also produced a model of the future behavior of the globe’s temperature, which he had turned into a video movie that was heavily shopped in Congress. That model predicted that global temperature between 1988 and 1997 would rise by 0.45°C (Figure 1). Ground-based temperatures from the IPCC show a rise of 0.11°C, or more than four times less than Hansen predicted. The forecast made in 1988 was an astounding failure, and IPCC’s 1990 statement about the realistic nature of these projections was simply wrong.' (Pat Michaels)

In 1988, James Hansen projected future warming trends. He used 3 different scenarios, identified as A, B, and C. Each represented different levels of greenhouse gas emissions.  Scenario A assumed greenhouse gas emissions would continue to accelerate.  Scenario B assumed a slowing and eventually constant rate of growth. Scenario C assumed a rapid decline in greenhouse gas emissions around the year 2000.  The actual greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 have been closest to Scenario B. As shown below, the actual warming has been less than Scenario B.

Figure 1: Global surface temperature computed for scenarios A, B, and C, compared with observational data

As climate scientist John Christy noted, "this demonstrates that the old NASA [global climate model] was considerably more sensitive to GHGs than is the real atmosphere."  However, Dr. Christy did not investigate why the climate model was too sensitive.  There are two main reasons for Hansen's overestimate:

  1. Scenario B, which was the closest to reality, slightly overestimated how much the atmospheric greenhouse gases would increase. This isn't just carbon dioxide. It also includes methane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
  2. Hansen's climate model had a rather high climate sensitivity parameter.  Climate sensitivity describes how sensitive the global climate is to a change in the amount of energy reaching the Earth's surface and lower atmosphere.

If we take into account the lower atmospheric greenhouse gas increases, we can compare the observed versus projected global temperature warming rates, as shown in the Advanced version of this rebuttal. To accurately predict the global warming of the past 22 years, Hansen's climate model would have needed a climate sensitivity of about 3.4°C for a doubling of atmospheric CO2.  This is within the likely range of climate sensitivity values listed as 2-4.5°C by the IPCC for a doubling of CO2. It is even a bit higher than the most likely value currently widely accepted as 3°C.

In short, the main reason Hansen's 1988 warming projections were too high is that he used a climate model with a high climate sensitivity. His results are actually evidence that the true climate sensitivity parameter is within the range accepted by the IPCC.

Last updated on 12 March 2013 by John Cook. View Archives

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Comments 1 to 19:

  1. I have updated the chart with rolling 12 month values for the latest GISS data (to June 2010).

    It is of possible interest to those looking at "record" temperatures that the current 12 month average is the highest on record (both for station data and Land plus Ocean data).
  2. Hi there - I'm relatively new to commenting here so apologies if I'm missing something. I've read through dana1981's Advanced and Basic versions of this rebuttal, and something important appears to be omitted from this Basic version - namely that Pat Michaels was misleading in saying that "That model predicted that global temperature between 1988 and 1997 would rise by 0.45°C." Together with Peter Hogarth's updated chart (above), it appears that even though Hansen overestimated the sensitivity parameter, his Scenario C projection is not far off from the GISS measured temperatures. I'm not sure if it's too late to make any updates to the rebuttal, but the key conclusion here might be that Hansen's 1988 projections - even though based on far less data than we have now - were within the range of what has actually been observed. Furthermore, the measured warming provides support that Hansen had the fundamentals of climate science correct, namely that human factors are driving GHG emissions and causing global warming that is significant enough that it can be directly measured over just a few decades - not centuries from now.
  3. Also while actual temps are in the range of Scenario C, greenhouse gas emissions have not followed those in that particular projection. It makes more sense to focus on Scenario B, which has been very close to actual emissions, and then determine why the actual temp change has been lower (mainly the climate sensitivity factor difference).
  4. Ok thanks for clarifying about Scenario C. It still might not hurt to explain in the "Basic" version that: 1) Michaels was misleading by focusing on Scenario A and ignoring Scenario B, and 2) Hansen had less data in 1988 and got the sensitivity wrong, but his overall theory (GHG and temp increases) has been borne out by observations in the last decades. Thanks again for the great post here!
  5. Another misleading analysis of Hansen's 1988 scenarios

    this time bob carter and david evans getting it hideously wrong.

    Note the substitution of tropospheric temperatures when the projections were for surface temperatures.

    Note the complete disregard of non CO2 greenhouse gases in order to claim scenario A best fits reality. Check the comments. There is a quote mine of Hansen 1988 to support that disregard.

    Worse of all a complete lack of research. It's like they haven't even bothered reading any analyses of the 1988 scenarios, including in some of hansen's later papers. Like they didn't even use google.

    There's enough wrong in that article for a skepticalscience correction imo. If you google some of the text in the article you will find it's been copy pasted around over the years.

    Another bad thing is how none of the commenter seem to know it's wrong.
  6. Doesn't the link from RealClimate show the projected CO2 for 2010 was 392ppmv? And wasn't the actual level in 2010 389ppmv? It's a minor point, but it looks like you have that reversed on your chart.
  7. Disregard my above post, I misread the column from the Realclimate link. :)
  8. What are the basic reasons why Hansen et al chose a climate sensitivity of 4.2C as input to their model?
  9. Climate sensitivity isn't an input, it's built into the model based on how various feedbacks react to a given forcing. I think understanding ocean interactions was one of the big challenges that took a while, perhaps the amount of CO2 uptake by the oceans.
  10. The article says "we find that in order to accurately predict the global warming of the past 22 years, Hansen's climate model would have needed a climate sensitivity of about 3.4°C for a doubling of atmospheric CO2."
    Can you show me those results. I'd love to see just how well the model worked for the 3.4 degree forcing.
  11. dging, see the final figure in this post (although it uses 3°C sensitivity, not 3.4°C. As you can see, the result is that the projection is a bit low).
  12. Is this a reasonable way to look at Hansen's prediction?

    It shows the slope at the time Hansen made the prediction against the slope from the same point till now.

    He was wrong about some of the numbers but his claim that the rate of warming would considerably increase certainly bore fruit.
  13. RealClimate has a new post describing an article from Hansen 1981 and its prediction of future warming. Hansen was about 30% lower than observed warming for this 30 year validation. Perhaps a review of this article could be added to the predictions link.

    Unfortunately, that prediction calls for a rapid increase in global warming in the near future.
  14. What was Hansen using as the climate sensitivity to doubling CO2 back in 1988? Perhaps it is mentioned somewhere but I'm failing to see it.
  15. balanceact - See the intermediate version of this post - his sensitivity estimate was 4.2°C/doubling.
  16. "Forecast temperature trends for time scales of a few decades or less are not very sensitive to the model’s equilibrium climate sensitivity. Therefore climate sensitivity would have to be much smaller than 4.2ºC, say 1.5-2ºC, in order to modify our conclusions significantly." Hansen (1988)
  17. Russ - I guess that depends on what's considered 'significant'. Transient climate response tends to vary fairly proportionately to equilibrium sensitivity, so a lower sensitivity also means a lower transient response, and a smaller short-term warming. Not a huge difference, but like I said, it depends what you consider 'significant'.
  18. A minor note, inspired by re-reading Myhre et al 1998 on the radiative forcing of various greenhouse gases:

    The forcing from a change in CO2 is estimated as F = α * ln(C/C0) - this is a shorthand fit to what is calculated from a number of line-by-line radiative calculations. 

    The 1990 constant, which is what I presume Hansen used in the 1988 model, had a constant α = 6.3, while Myhre et al 1998, using better radiative estimates, has α = 5.35. And that value has been used ever since in modeling estimations. 

    I suspect that difference in estimating radiative forcing may be responsible for much of the 4.2°C/doubling sensitivity Hansen 1988 (over)estimated, as opposed to the roughly 3°C/doubling value used now. 

  19. Tamino has updated Hansen's 1988 prediction by swapping in actual values of forcings (except volcanic) more recently than was done by RealClimate seven years ago.  The forcings are closest to Hansen's Scenario C forcings.  So actual temperatures should have been closest to Hanson's Scenario C model projection.  Guess what?

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