When I give talks about climate change, the question that comes up most frequently is this: “Doesn’t the relationship between CO2 and temperature in the ice core record show that temperature drives CO2, not the other way round?”
On the face of it, it sounds like a reasonable question. It is no surprise that it comes up because it is one of the most popular claims made by the global warming deniers. It got a particularly high profile airing a couple of weeks ago, when congressman Joe Barton brought it up to try to discredit Al Gore’s congressional testimony. Barton said:
In your movie, you display a timeline of temperature and compared to CO2 levels over a 600,000-year period as reconstructed from ice core samples. You indicate that this is conclusive proof of the link of increased CO2 emissions and global warming. A closer examination of these facts reveals something entirely different. I have an article from Science magazine which I will put into the record at the appropriate time that explains that historically, a rise in CO2 concentrations did not precede a rise in temperatures, but actually lagged temperature by 200 to 1,000 years. CO2 levels went up after the temperature rose. The temperature appears to drive CO2, not vice versa. On this point, Mr. Vice President, you’re not just off a little. You’re totally wrong.
Of course, those who’ve been paying attention will recognize that Gore is not wrong at all. This subject has been very well addressed in numerous places. Indeed, guest contributor Jeff Severinghaus addressed this in one of our very first RealClimate posts, way back in 2004. Still, the question does keep coming up, and Jeff recently received a letter asking about this. His exchange with the letter writer is reproduced in full at the end of this post. Below is my own take on the subject.