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Higher global warming alert

Increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere may lead to a steeper rise in the global average temperature than has been previously believed, a study has suggested.

The researchers, who used geochemical tools as peepholes into Earth’s history, have found that a relatively small rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide was associated with substantial global warming about 4.5 million years ago.

Earlier research had indicated that the global temperatures today were 3 to 4 degrees Celsius higher than they were 3 to 5 million years ago. The new findings, published today in the journal Nature Geoscience, suggest that the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels during peak temperatures were between 365 parts per million (ppm) and 415ppm — which is comparable to the present-day concentration of about 386ppm.

“Since there is no indication that the future will behave differently from the past, we should expect a couple of degrees of continued warming even if we held the carbon dioxide concentrations at the current level,” said Mark Pagani, associate professor of geology at Yale University and lead author of the study.

Earth’s climate is more sensitive to changes in carbon dioxide levels than is discussed in policy circles, Pagani said in a statement released through the university. Current computer simulations of future climate suggest that global temperature may rise by 1.5 to 4 degrees Celsius in response to a doubling of carbon dioxide. But the new study shows carbon dioxide doubling could raise temperatures by 7 to 9 degrees Celsius.

The researchers studied the chemical composition of material drilled from several sites in the Pacific and the Atlantic, focusing on compounds produced by a family of algae sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Current simulations take into account the effect of water vapour in the atmosphere, sea ice and clouds on climate. Pagani and his colleagues have tried to incorporate the effects of continental ice sheets, vegetation cover and greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide.

These components have a slow effect that may amplify the changes in greenhouse gas composition in the atmosphere, the study’s co-author, Ana Christina Ravelo from the University of Santa Cruz, said in a statement issued by the university.

The findings appear just two days after a UN climate summit failed to finalise strategies to reduce or curb global emissions of greenhouse gases. A political statement from the Copenhagen summit recognises the need to hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
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