While we’ve all been waiting for some good news on the climate change front, the latest research only features more bad news: the damage we’ve already done won’t quickly be reversed. In fact, even if we were to magically stop carbon emissions completely and immediately, the existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would continue to warm our planet for centuries to come.
Researchers at Princeton University conducted simulations of what would happen to the existing carbon dioxide in the air after we stopped polluting. The team’s findings are significant because they realized that fellow scientists have been overlooking a key factor: oceans (and to a lesser extent land) have a tendency to absorb the carbon back, which will continue to heat the planet even if new carbon is not being released.
“Scientists have thought that the temperature stays constant or declines once emissions stop, but now we show that the possibility of a temperature increase cannot be excluded,” said the study’s lead author, Thomas Frolicher. “This is illustrative of how difficult it may be to reverse climate change – we stop the emissions, but still get an increase in the global mean temperature.”
Scientists have estimated that we’ve emitted 500 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere since society industrialized. They predicted that by the time we doubled that amount, the earth will have heated by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit and the results will be catastrophic. Many have considered the 1,000 billion tons of emission the cutoff that we absolutely can’t pass, which is frightening considering we’re already there.
With this new research, however, scientists are realizing that the existing carbon will heat the planet more than we expected. To avoid the 3.6 degrees threshold, humanity must stop before reaching 750 billion tons of carbon emission, meaning we’re actually two-thirds of the way to the point of no return rather than halfway.
Candidly, my first reaction to this research is to feel hopeless. If we thought we were running short on time to fix climate change previously, this news just cut the deadline even shorter. Convincing the world and economic powers to stop polluting is a hard enough task, but realizing that even if the people were to succeed on this front that the earth would still get significantly warmer for a century to come is almost too much to bear.
However, the real takeaway from this research should not be to curl up into the fetal position and give up. Instead, we need to use this motivation to implement real and immediate change. Sure, we thought things were awful and now it looks like it’s actually that much worse. And sure, there’s no changing the mistakes we’ve made in the past – our earth is liable to get much hotter even after we curb our carbon emissions. Nonetheless, this new information can be a critical tool in subsequent environmental advocacy.
The attitude of many leaders seems to be, “We’ll definitely have to stop polluting someday, but we’ll worry about that later.” The fact that humanity can’t merely – as we previously believed – suddenly stop polluting and expect to start seeing a change is a pill that everyone will need to swallow. It’s a message that’s so frightening that it might finally be successful.