PerspectiveATMOSPHERE

Irreversible Does Not Mean Unavoidable

Science  26 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6131, pp. 438-439
DOI: 10.1126/science.1236372

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Summary

Understanding how decreases in CO2 emissions would affect global temperatures has been hampered in recent years by confusion regarding issues of committed warming and irreversibility. The notion that there will be additional future warming or “warming in the pipeline” if the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were to remain fixed at current levels (1) has been misinterpreted to mean that the rate of increase in Earth's global temperature is inevitable, regardless of how much or how quickly emissions decrease (24). Further misunderstanding may stem from recent studies showing that the warming that has already occurred as a result of past anthropogenic carbon dioxide increases is irreversible on a time scale of at least 1000 years (5, 6). But irreversibility of past changes does not mean that further warming is unavoidable.