Variance decomposition shows the importance of human-climate feedbacks in the Earth system

Tuesday, December 12, 2017 - 14:25
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The human and Earth systems are intricately linked: climate influences agricultural production, renewable energy potential, and water availability, for example, while anthropogenic emissions from industry and land use change alter temperature and precipitation. Such feedbacks have the potential to significantly alter future climate change. Current climate change projections contain significant uncertainties, however, and because Earth System Models do not generally include dynamic human (demography, economy, energy, water, land use) components, little is known about how climate feedbacks contribute to that uncertainty. Here we use variance decomposition of a novel coupled human-earth system model to show that the influence of human-climate feedbacks can be as large as 17% of the total variance in the near term for global mean temperature rise, and 11% in the long term for cropland area. The near-term contribution of energy and land use feedbacks to the climate on global mean temperature rise is as large as that from model internal variability, a factor typically considered in modeling studies. Conversely, the contribution of climate feedbacks to cropland extent, while non-negligible, is less than that from socioeconomics, policy, or model. Previous assessments have largely excluded these feedbacks, with the climate community focusing on uncertainty due to internal variability, scenario, and model and the integrated assessment community focusing on uncertainty due to socioeconomics, technology, policy, and model. Our results set the stage for a new generation of models and hypothesis testing to determine when and how bidirectional feedbacks between human and Earth systems should be considered in future assessments of climate change.

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