We investigate the dependence of radiative feedback on the pattern of sea-surface temperature (SST) change in fourteen Atmospheric General Circulation Models (AGCMs) forced with observed variations in SST and sea-ice over the historical record from 1871 to near-present. We find that over 1871-1980, the Earth warmed with feedbacks largely consistent and strongly correlated with long-term climate sensitivity feedbacks (diagnosed from corresponding atmosphere-ocean GCM abrupt-4xCO2 simulations). Post 1980 however, the Earth warmed with unusual trends in tropical Pacific SSTs (enhanced warming in the west, cooling in the east) and cooling in the Southern Ocean that drove climate feedback to be uncorrelated with – and indicating much lower climate sensitivity than – that expected for long-term CO2 increase. We show that these conclusions are not strongly dependent on the AMIP II SST dataset used to force the AGCMs, though the magnitude of feedback post 1980 is generally smaller in nine AGCMs forced with alternative HadISST1 SST boundary conditions. We quantify a ‘pattern effect’ (defined as the difference between historical and long-term CO2 feedback) equal to 0.48 ± 0.47 [5-95%] W m-2 K-1 for the time-period 1871-2010 when the AGCMs are forced with HadISST1 SSTs, or 0.70 ± 0.47 [5-95%] W m-2 K-1 when forced with AMIP II SSTs. Assessed changes in the Earth’s historical energy budget agree with the AGCM feedback estimates. Furthermore satellite observations of changes in top-of-atmosphere radiative fluxes since 1985 suggest that the pattern effect was particularly strong over recent decades but may be waning post 2014.