Global warming is not reversible, but it’s stoppable
With charts and graphs and such, Andy Skuce makes an interesting argument HERE:
Let’s start with two skill-testing questions:
1. If we stop greenhouse gas emissions, won’t the climate naturally go back to the way it was before?
2. Isn’t there “warming in the pipeline” that will continue to heat up the planet no matter what we do?
The correct answer to both questions is “no”.
Global warming is not reversible but it is stoppable.
Many people incorrectly assume that once we stop making greenhouse gas emissions, the CO2 will be drawn out of the air, the old equilibrium will be re-established and the climate of the planet will go back to the way it used to be; just like the way the acid rain problem was solved once scrubbers were put on smoke stacks, or the way lead pollution disappeared once we changed to unleaded gasoline. This misinterpretation can lead to complacency about the need to act now. In fact, global warming is, on human timescales, here forever. The truth is that the damage we have done—and continue to do—to the climate system cannot be undone.
The second question reveals a different kind of misunderstanding: many mistakenly believe that the climate system is going to send more warming our way no matter what we choose to do. Taken to an extreme, that viewpoint can lead to a fatalistic approach, in which efforts to mitigate climate change by cutting emissions are seen as futile: we should instead begin planning for adaptation or, worse, start deliberately intervening through geoengineering. But this is wrong. The inertia is not in the physics of the climate system, but rather in the human economy.
The confusion that many of us have with answering the two questions posed at the beginning of the article is probably rooted in our mental models, one being that the climate change will naturally revert back to normal; the other that the changes in the climate system have unstoppable momentum. Neither view is correct and they both favour inaction; one by implying that we can wait to fix the problem, the other by implying that it is already too late.
Metaphors and mental models are essential to understanding the way complex systems work. But they can mislead as well as illuminate. Here are a couple of analogies that I have come up with, but they are not perfect either. Maybe readers can do better.
- We can’t put toothpaste back in the tube once we have accidentally squeezed too much out, but we can prevent any further waste by stopping squeezing.
- Like a bull in a china shop, we can’t unbreak what we have already broken, but once the rampaging stops, no more damage will be done.