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.


  1. Alan Black

    It’s unfortunate that matters best left to scientists, scholars and profesionals are used time after time by right and left political bloviators. Global climate change (warming and cooling) is affected by human (biological), volcanic, solar and orbital factors. We are nearing the end of an intraglacial period. Preceded and most likely followed by 150000 years of ice age weather. Don’t get me wrong, I believe human activity impacts our weather, interestingly as the ice melts and oceans warm the CO2 will accelerate, as it did (based on ice core samples ) 150000 years ago. We should do what we can to minimize ways we negatively impact our planet, but we know species become extinct naturally and new species emerge. Usually because of the millions of years of climate change. We can intellectualize about it, which is nice, or we can bloviate about it, which actually contributes to global warming in this case.

  2. Steverino

    The amount of climate change in the past 20 years is a bit unsettling when you consider that span of time is hardly a speck in the history of this planet. Unfortunately there is probably more money being channeled to conservative think tanks advocating denialism than funds provided for scientific research.

  3. Monkeyonakeyboard

    Stoppable, yes … But will it stop? No.

  4. “The amount of climate change in the past 20 years is a bit unsettling ..”

    Wow, you’ve noticed a change in global climate over a mere 20 years? Fantastic. Like what?


    Yes, this story is about someone’s knickers. It’s about an antidote for a large part of the fossil CO2. What if the polarity and argument over CO2 was so inexpensive to solve it wasn’t worth the trouble to argue about?

    Tens of thousands are working on this, it is their job. They are paid and spend countless billions. I don’t begrudge their sincere interest and dedication to their work and passion. But as is often the case in human endeavours, there too frequently comes a time when the reason for the work, plays second fiddle to preserving the work.

    We thought the world would welcome incredible news from our tiny Native village. http://russgeorge.net/villages… The means to manage the largest amount of our climate changing, global warming, life smothering CO2 was at hand and proven. And the cost was so cheap that big governments and massive carbon taxes would not be needed.

    Instead a tiny village could do it. The miracle is that if we can assemble just 100 villages and teach them how to be stewards of their ocean pastures, if they work to bring their fish back, if they each find just one fishing boat to work for a few months each year, it will work.

    The cost of changing billions of tonnes of CO2 from its deadly form where it is killing ocean life into restored ocean life, into fish, and every other form of ocean life is going to be mere millions, not billions. read more http://russgeorge.net/2013/05/

    OOPS!!!!! Hundreds of reports have used the propaganda rule book to smear the village work and the names of those involved.

    We’d apologize for the success but we’re only temporary occupants of this place. It belongs to our grandchildren and their grandchildren, and we promised to take care of it for them!

    IT JUST WORKS! http://russgeorge.net/category

  6. chris wiegard

    to russ: amusing but flaky. The Carbonic acid deposited in the world ocean by the absorption of carbon dioxide from coal burning is a serious problem, and I doubt that you have figured it out.

    Klem: you are a know-nothing, so I ignore you. Temperatures have risen sharply over the past 20 years in comparison with historic norms.

    monkeyonakeyboard- yes, excellent observation. We COULD do something about global warming by attacking our use of fossil fuels. But that would be HARD, and we do not enjoy doing HARD things. So COULD, sure, but probably WILL NOT. Our distant descendants will curse our very names.

    Steverino- undeniable, that the financial resources of political conservatism and fossil fuel money making make the resources of liberal politics and the renewable energy industries look like a bad joke.

    Alan Black- blah blah blah, so who is bloviating? The typical denialist urge to conceal denialism- sure we are damaging the planet, but it is not a big deal. Sorry, it is a big deal.

    Every speck of optimism is countered by a bucket of pessimism for me, because I have watched this intently as it has unfolded over 25 years. In 1989, James Hansen warned a US Congressional Committee about the consequences of global warming. Conservatives like to blame “warmists” for everything from financial collapse to sexual promiscuity- but please, show me one battle that the “warmists” have actually won? Just one battle, please. Just one.

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