The lag between temperature and CO2. (Gore’s got it right.)

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.

Una traduzione in italiano è disponibile qui

Una traducción en español está disponible aquí

First of all, saying “historically” is misleading, because Barton is actually talking about CO2 changes on very long (glacial-interglacial) timescales. On historical timescales, CO2 has definitely led, not lagged, temperature. But in any case, it doesn’t really matter for the problem at hand (global warming). We know why CO2 is increasing now, and the direct radiative effects of CO2 on climate have been known for more than 100 years. In the absence of human intervention CO2 does rise and fall over time, due to exchanges of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, and ocean and, on the very longest timescales, the lithosphere (i.e. rocks, oil reservoirs, coal, carbonate rocks). The rates of those exchanges are now being completely overwhelmed by the rate at which we are extracting carbon from the latter set of reservoirs and converting it to atmospheric CO2. No discovery made with ice cores is going to change those basic facts.

Second, the idea that there might be a lag of CO2 concentrations behind temperature change (during glacial-interglacial climate changes) is hardly new to the climate science community. Indeed, Claude Lorius, Jim Hansen and others essentially predicted this finding fully 17 years ago, in a landmark paper that addressed the cause of temperature change observed in Antarctic ice core records, well before the data showed that CO2 might lag temperature. In that paper (Lorius et al., 1990), they say that:

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