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Ed Hawkins, Pablo Ortega, Emma Suckling, Andrew Schurer, Gabi Hegerl, Phil Jones, Manoj Joshi, Timothy J. Osborn, Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Juliette Mignot, Peter Thorne, and Geert Jan van Oldenborgh

Abstract

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process agreed in Paris to limit global surface temperature rise to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” But what period is preindustrial? Somewhat remarkably, this is not defined within the UNFCCC’s many agreements and protocols. Nor is it defined in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in the evaluation of when particular temperature levels might be reached because no robust definition of the period exists. Here we discuss the important factors to consider when defining a preindustrial period, based on estimates of historical radiative forcings and the availability of climate observations. There is no perfect period, but we suggest that 1720–1800 is the most suitable choice when discussing global temperature limits. We then estimate the change in global average temperature since preindustrial using a range of approaches based on observations, radiative forcings, global climate model simulations, and proxy evidence. Our assessment is that this preindustrial period was likely 0.55°–0.80°C cooler than 1986–2005 and that 2015 was likely the first year in which global average temperature was more than 1°C above preindustrial levels. We provide some recommendations for how this assessment might be improved in the future and suggest that reframing temperature limits with a modern baseline would be inherently less uncertain and more policy relevant.

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Gerald A. Meehl, Lisa Goddard, George Boer, Robert Burgman, Grant Branstator, Christophe Cassou, Susanna Corti, Gokhan Danabasoglu, Francisco Doblas-Reyes, Ed Hawkins, Alicia Karspeck, Masahide Kimoto, Arun Kumar, Daniela Matei, Juliette Mignot, Rym Msadek, Antonio Navarra, Holger Pohlmann, Michele Rienecker, Tony Rosati, Edwin Schneider, Doug Smith, Rowan Sutton, Haiyan Teng, Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, Gabriel Vecchi, and Stephen Yeager

This paper provides an update on research in the relatively new and fast-moving field of decadal climate prediction, and addresses the use of decadal climate predictions not only for potential users of such information but also for improving our understanding of processes in the climate system. External forcing influences the predictions throughout, but their contributions to predictive skill become dominant after most of the improved skill from initialization with observations vanishes after about 6–9 years. Recent multimodel results suggest that there is relatively more decadal predictive skill in the North Atlantic, western Pacific, and Indian Oceans than in other regions of the world oceans. Aspects of decadal variability of SSTs, like the mid-1970s shift in the Pacific, the mid-1990s shift in the northern North Atlantic and western Pacific, and the early-2000s hiatus, are better represented in initialized hindcasts compared to uninitialized simulations. There is evidence of higher skill in initialized multimodel ensemble decadal hindcasts than in single model results, with multimodel initialized predictions for near-term climate showing somewhat less global warming than uninitialized simulations. Some decadal hindcasts have shown statistically reliable predictions of surface temperature over various land and ocean regions for lead times of up to 6–9 years, but this needs to be investigated in a wider set of models. As in the early days of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) prediction, improvements to models will reduce the need for bias adjustment, and increase the reliability, and thus usefulness, of decadal climate predictions in the future.

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