Imagine you’re on a supertanker that needs to change its direction in order to avoid a collision. What would you do? Would you continue going full steam ahead until you can see the collision object right in front of you? Or would you try to change course early, knowing that changing a supertanker’s course takes a considerable amount of time?
The supertanker’s inertia means that you have to act in time if you wish to avoid a collision.
The climate system also has a tremendous amount of inertia built in. And like with the supertanker, this means that early action is required if we want to change the climate’s course. This inertia is a crucial aspect of the climate system, both scientifically but also societally – but in the latter realm it’s a very underappreciated aspect. Just do a mental check: when did you last hear or read about the climate’s inertia in mainstream media or from politicians?
Why is it so important? Because intuitively many people might think that as soon as we have substantially decreased our CO2 emissions (which we haven’t), the problem will be solved. It won’t, not by a very long shot. Even if we reduce CO2 emissions to zero over a realistic timeframe, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere – and thus also the global average temperature- will remain elevated for millennia, as can be seen in the figure below. The total amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere over the course of a few hundred years will affect life on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years. And if we want to reduce the amount of warming that we commit the future to, we need to reduce our carbon emissions sooner rather than later. The longer we postpone emission reductions, the stronger those emissions reductions would need to be in order to have the same mitigating effect on long-term warming.
That’s why climate inertia is so important.
As I wrote before: Postponing meaningful mitigation action until the shit hits the fan comes with considerable risk, because many changes in climate are not reversible on human timescales. Once you notice the trouble, it’s only the beginning, because of the inertia in the various systems (energy system, carbon cycle and climate system). The conundrum is thus that those who caused the problem are in the best position to solve it, but since the full consequences will not materialize until much later, they have the least incentive to do so.
Over at Bits of Science two Dutch science journalists, Rolf Schuttenhelm and Stephan Okhuijsen, published an interesting piece that focuses on the same issue: we only see a portion of the warming that we have committed ourselves to, due to the thermal inertia provided by the oceans. Just as a pot of water doesn’t immediately boil when we turn on the stove, the oceans take time to warm up as well. And since there’s a lot of water in the oceans, it takes a lot of time.
They included the following nifty graph, with the observed surface temperature but also the eventually expected temperature at the corresponding CO2 concentration (which they dub the ’real global temperature’), based on different approaches to account for warming in the pipeline:
This is a nice way to visualize the warming that’s still in the pipeline due to ocean thermal inertia. From a scientific point of view the exact execution and framing could be criticized on certain aspects (e.g. ECS is linearly extrapolated instead of logarithmically; the interpretation that recent record warmth are not peaks but rather a ‘correction to the trend line’ depends strongly on the exact way the endpoints of the observed temperature are smoothed; the effect of non-CO2 greenhouse gases is excluded from the analysis and discussion), but the underlying point, that more warming is in store than we’re currently seeing, is both valid and very important.
Timescales, timescales, timescales. Why art thou missing from the public discussion about global warming?
Update: ClimateInteractive has a good simulation of how this inertia works out in practice. By moving the slider at the bottom the figure you can choose between different emission scenarios. In the graphs above you then see the effect this has on the CO2 concentration, the global average temperature, and the sea level, and how this response is damped. The further down the cause-effect chain, the more damped – or better: the more slowed down- the response is. The sea level will continue to rise the longest (even long after the temperature has stabilized or even starts decreasing), but will take a while to get going. This simulation only runs to the year 2100 though.
A Dutch version of this post can be found on my sister blog KlimaatVerandering.