Hansen’s 1988 projections

At Jim Hansen’s now famous congressional testimony given in the hot summer of 1988, he showed GISS model projections of continued global warming assuming further increases in human produced greenhouse gases. This was one of the earliest transient climate model experiments and so rightly gets a fair bit of attention when the reliability of model projections are discussed. There have however been an awful lot of mis-statements over the years – some based on pure dishonesty, some based on simple confusion. Hansen himself (and, for full disclosure, my boss), revisited those simulations in a paper last year, where he showed a rather impressive match between the recently observed data and the model projections. But how impressive is this really? and what can be concluded from the subsequent years of observations?

In the original 1988 paper, three different scenarios were used A, B, and C. They consisted of hypothesised future concentrations of the main greenhouse gases – CO2, CH4, CFCs etc. together with a few scattered volcanic eruptions. The details varied for each scenario, but the net effect of all the changes was that Scenario A assumed exponential growth in forcings, Scenario B was roughly a linear increase in forcings, and Scenario C was similar to B, but had close to constant forcings from 2000 onwards. Scenario B and C had an ‘El Chichon’ sized volcanic eruption in 1995. Essentially, a high, middle and low estimate were chosen to bracket the set of possibilities. Hansen specifically stated that he thought the middle scenario (B) the “most plausible”.

These experiments were started from a control run with 1959 conditions and used observed greenhouse gas forcings up until 1984, and projections subsequently (NB. Scenario A had a slightly larger ‘observed’ forcing change to account for a small uncertainty in the minor CFCs). It should also be noted that these experiments were single realisations. Nowadays we would use an ensemble of runs with slightly perturbed initial conditions (usually a different ocean state) in order to average over ‘weather noise’ and extract the ‘forced’ signal. In the absence of an ensemble, this forced signal will be clearest in the long term trend.

How can we tell how successful the projections were?

Firstly, since the projected forcings started in 1984, that should be the starting year for any analysis, giving us just over two decades of comparison with the real world. The delay between the projections and the publication is a reflection of the time needed to gather the necessary data, churn through the model experiments and get results ready for publication. If the analysis uses earlier data i.e. 1959, it will be affected by the ‘cold start’ problem -i.e. the model is starting with a radiative balance that real world was not in. After a decade or so that is less important. Secondly, we need to address two questions – how accurate were the scenarios and how accurate were the modelled impacts.

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