Historical and 21st century global precipitation changes are investigated using data from the fifth Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) Atmosphere-Ocean-General-Circulation-Models (AOGCMs) and a simple energy-balance model. In the simple model, precipitation change in response to a given top-of-atmosphere radiative forcing is calculated as the sum of a response to the surface warming and a direct ‘adjustment’ response to the atmospheric radiative forcing. This simple model allows the adjustment in global mean precipitation to atmospheric radiative forcing from different forcing agents to be examined separately and emulates the AOGCMs well. During the historical period the AOGCMs simulate little global precipitation change despite an increase in global temperature—at the end of the historical period, global multi-model mean precipitation has increased by about 0.03 mm day−1, while the global multi-model mean surface temperature has warmed by about 1 K, both relative to the pre-industrial control means. This is because there is a large direct effect from CO2 and black carbon atmospheric forcing that opposes the increase in precipitation from surface warming. In the 21st century scenarios, the opposing effect from black carbon declines and the increase in global precipitation due to surface warming dominates. The cause of the spread between models in the global precipitation projections (which can be up to 0.25 mm day−1) is examined and found to come mainly from uncertainty in the climate sensitivity. The spatial distribution of precipitation change is found to be dominated by the response to surface warming. It is concluded that AOGCM global precipitation projections are in line with expectations based on our understanding of how the energy and water cycles are physically linked.

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