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Matthews and Solomon: Irreversible Does Not Mean Unavoidable

2013 May 2

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 (2–4). 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

Given the irreversibility of CO2-induced warming, every increment of avoided temperature increase represents less warming that would otherwise persist for many centuries. Although emissions reductions cannot return global temperatures to preindustrial levels, they do have the power to avert additional warming on the same time scale as the emissions reductions themselves. Climate warming tomorrow, this year, this decade, or this century is not predetermined by past CO2 emissions; it is yet to be determined by future emissions. The climate benefits of emissions reductions would thus occur on the same time scale as the political decisions that lead to the reductions.

Irreversible Does Not Mean Unavoidable
H. Damon Matthews, Susan Solomon
Published Online March 28 2013
Science 26 April 2013:
Vol. 340 no. 6131 pp. 438-439
DOI: 10.1126/science.1236372