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Global warming continues to cause problems even after emissions have ended

Greenhouse gasses that are released today linger in the atmosphere for years to hundreds of years. David McNew/Getty Images Julien Emile-Geay, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

In the present, a small number of people think that we are altering Earth’s climate. What’s really important is how fast can we halt, even reverse, the damage?

One of the answers to this query lies in the notion of ” committed warming,” also known as “pipeline warming.”

This refers to the future rises in global temperatures that will be caused by greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. If, for instance, the transition towards clean energy happened in a short time, what amount of warming would it take to continue?

Earth’s energy balance is out of balance

Humans cause global warming when their activities release greenhouse gases that retain heat in the air, and block the radiation from traveling to space.

Before people began burning fossil fuels in automobiles and factories, and also to raise methane-releasing cattle in almost every agricultural region, Earth’s energy budget was roughly in balance. A similar amount of energy was coming in from the Sun as was leaving.

The current levels of carbon dioxide in the air are nearly 50% higher than when they were the dawn of the industrial age. And they’re taking in more energy.

Earth’s delicate energy balance. California Academy of Sciences.

These carbon dioxide emissions along with greenhouse gases such as methane, and offset by some aspects of atmospheric pollution from aerosols, can trap energy that is equivalent to detonation five Hiroshima-style atomic bombs per second.

When more energy enters than it is leaving, Earth’s thermo energy grows, elevating the temperature of the earth as well as oceans, air and melting ice.

Pipeline warming

The effects of changing the balance of energy on Earth will take time for the effects to manifest. Imagine the consequences of turning the hot water faucet fully on an unseasonably cold winter day. The pipes are full of cold water. So it takes time for the warm water to get to your body – thus the phrase “pipeline warming.” The warming hasn’t been felt yet, but it is present in the pipeline.

Key Climate Findings

There are three primary reasons why Earth’s temperature is likely to remain warm once emissions are stopped.

One of the most significant main contributors to global warming – methane and carbon dioxide are present in the atmosphere for an extended period of time: roughly 10 years for methane, and a whopping 400 years for carbon dioxide. Some molecules sticking around for up to millennia. Therefore, cutting emissions doesn’t translate into instant reductions in the amount of these heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

The second reason is that a portion of the warming has been offset by the man-made emission of a different form of pollutant: sulfate aerosols, small particles released in the combustion of fossil fuels, which reflect light into space. The past 100 years the worldwide dimming is covering up the warming impact from greenhouse gases. However, these and other human-made aerosols have also harmed the health of humans as well as ecological balance. Eliminating these and other short-lived greenhouse gases will result in only a fraction of a degree of warming additional over about a decade, before the biosphere reaches a new equilibrium.

In the end, the Earth’s climate needs time to adjust to any changes in energy balance. About two-thirds of Earth’s surface is comprised of water. Sometimes, it is deep, and is slow in absorbing the excessive heat and carbon. To date, over 91% of the energy generated by human activities, and around a quarter of the excess carbon, have gone into the oceans. Though land dwellers are likely to be happy for this buffer, additional heat is contributing to sea level rise through the expansion of thermal energy and the effects of marine heat waves as the additional carbon can make the ocean harmful to shelled creatures and can alter the chain of food that the oceans rely on.

The temperature of the Earth’s surface, influenced by the imbalance in radiant energy at the top of the atmosphere, as well as affected by the massive thermal inertia of its oceans, is still playing catch on its greatest control knob the concentration of carbon dioxide.

How much of warming?

So, how much committed warming can we expect? There isn’t a clear answer.

The world has already warmed by over 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 F) compared with pre-industrial levels. Nations worldwide agreed in 2015 to try to prevent the average temperature from increasing more than 1.5degC (2.7 F) to minimize the harm, however, the world has been not quick to respond.

Determining the amount of warming ahead is a difficult task. Many recent research studies use climate models to estimate future warming. A investigation of 18 earth system models showed that, when emissions were cut off some continued warming for centuries or more in the meantime, others began cooling fast. Another study, which was published in June 2022, found that there was a 42% likelihood of the earth already dedicated to 1.5 degrees.

The extent of warming can be a factor because the dangerous consequences of global warming don’t rise in proportion to temperature in the global arena. They typically grow exponentially, especially for food production in danger from heat, drought and storms.

Additionally, Earth has tipping points which could cause irreparable changes to fragile parts of the Earth system like ecosystems and glaciers. There is no way to know in the moment that our planet has reached a tipping point since these modifications typically take time to manifest out. These and similar climate-related systems provide the precautionary principle that helps limit warming below 2degC (3.6 F), and preferably, 1.5degC.

The heart of the climate problem, embedded in this concept of committed warming is that there is a long gaps between our behavior as well as changes to the climate. Although the exact amount of climate change that has been committed is a matter of some contention but evidence suggests that the best option is to quickly transition to a carbon-free, more equitable economy that releases lesser greenhouse gas emissions.


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