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Carbon Dioxide Emissions Produce Maximum Warming in 10 Years: Study

Image: File photo shows a street lamp in front of Datong's second coal-fired power plant at night on the outskirts of Datong, Shanxi province

World carbon dioxide emissions will hit a record high this year, driven by China's growth and keeping the world far off track from the deep cuts needed to limit climate change, the Global Carbon Project report by leading research institutes said on September 21, 2014. JASON LEE / Reuters

It's not just our children and grandchildren who need to worry about global warming. A new study indicates that it takes a mere 10 years for carbon dioxide emissions to produce their maximum warming effects on the Earth.

“Frankly, I was surprised,” said study co-author Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. “I always thought this was something that would impact future generations. This means that what we are doing today will cause temperature increases over the next decade and they will stay high for many centuries.”

It’s long been thought that it takes many decades for carbon dioxide emissions to have an effect. “And that’s because nobody has ever done this kind of careful analysis before,” Caldeira said.

The findings were published in Environmental Research Letters.

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While we can’t turn back the clock on the warming that’s already occurred, we might be able to slow down the process, Caldeira said.

And that might stave off some of the more frightening possible consequences of climate change, such as extreme weather events, melting ice sheets and rising sea levels.

To get a better handle on how quickly carbon dioxide emissions impact global temperatures, Caldeira and his colleagues combined information about the Earth's carbon cycle — specifically how quickly the ocean and biosphere absorbed a large pulse of carbon dioxide — with information about the Earth's climate system taken from a group of climate models used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest assessments.

The results showed that the median time between a single carbon dioxide emission and maximum warming was 10.1 years and that the resulting warming could last over a century.

"The benefits from decisions being made right now are not just kicking down to future generations."

The findings give the issue “a new sense of urgency,” said Ralph Keeling, a professor of geochemistry at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. “The main finding is that it only takes 10 years to get maximum effect and while that makes sense nobody had put it in those terms before.”

The take home message for Americans is that this is something that is happening in their lifetimes, said Peter deMenocal, a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

“The time frame is short enough for it to be relevant to improving the lives of people who are alive today,” deMenocal said. “That is a big statement. The benefits from decisions being made right now are not just kicking down to future generations. This is putting a much more immediate time frame on it.”