Avoiding catastrophic global warming requires stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations, not emissions. Studies find that many, if not most, people are confused about this, including highly educated graduate students. I have personally found even well informed people are confused on this point and its crucial implications:
We need to cut emissions 50% to 80% below current levels just to stop concentrations from rising. And global temperatures will not be stabilized for decades after concentrations are stabilized. And of course the ice sheets may not stop disintegrating for decades — and if we dawdle too long, centuries — after temperatures stabilize. That is why we must act now if we want to have any reasonable hope of averting catastrophe.
One 2007 M.I.T. study, “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter,” concluded “Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change.”
Here is a great video clarifying the issue, which you can send to folks. It is narrated by my friend Andrew Jones. If you want to play the simulation itself, go here. They make use of the bathtub analogy: While atmospheric concentrations (the total stock of CO2 already in the air) might be thought of as the water level in the bathtub, emissions (the yearly new flow into the air) are the rate of water flowing into a bathtub.
As John Sterman, Director of the MIT System Dynamics Group at the Sloan School of Management, noted in Part I, Bush cleverly plays into the public’s confusion with his SOTU line
… let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.
As Sterman writes, “So the SOTU still reflects deliberate and careful use of language to make delay sound like action.”
I recommend reading the entire MIT study, whose lead author is John Sterman. Here is the abstract: