Feedback loops paint a far different view of climate change as compared to the linear process.
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March 7, 2023
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Feedback loops paint a far different view of climate change as compared to the linear process.

Discover how feedback loops change the way we think about climate change. Explore our blog to learn more about latest blog.

A new report has issued a warning that climate feedback loops are of greater importance than previously assumed.

Feedback loops

When we speak about climate change we often have the tendency to think about it as a linear process, as a graph of temperature steadily and uniformly going up over the years. Scientists, however, have warned out for decades about the importance of feedback loops, processes of interactions between different elements of the climate system, where a change in one element leads to a change in another element, which further amplifies or dampens the original change.

Feedback loops paint a far different view of climate change as compared to the linear process. It tells us not only that the planet is getting warmer, the rate in which it is warming is also accelerating. As the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere increases due to burning of fossil fuels, this traps more radiation from the sun, leading to an increase in global temperatures.

This then on its turn leads to more water vapour in the atmosphere which further accelerates and magnifies radiation trapping. It creates a self-propelling system where every piece pushes the other one to move faster and faster. Important to note that, in most cases, climate feedback loops can not be undone once they’re set off. The system will keep moving itself.

The study

An international collaboration led by Oregon State University have recently warned us about how feedback loops must be accounted for in our climate policy and call for more urgent action. Climate plans and international agreements are based on the idea that we pretty much have an idea where climate change is going and how fast it is getting there.

This view ignores the magnifying effect that feedback loops can have on our predictions which can lead to them completely ruining even our most utopic dreams of decarbonisation. They’ve identified 27 amplifying feedback loops and they argue that some of them might not be accounted for in current climate models. They note that their findings provide a roadmap to policy makers and hope to increase the sense of urgency in climate action.

The researchers find that even moderate warming is likely to cause us to cross several tipping points, which once set off can not be undone and will continue to accelerate other climate related effects. They state that climate models need to be far more sensitive to feedback loops which have the power to completely reframe the rate and trajectory we think climate change is heading on. Interaction between feedback loops can cause a permanent shift away from Earth’s current climate and into a state which threatens our existence.

Feedback loops need to be accounted for much more carefully precisely because they’re self-perpetuating and can not be undone, no matter what plans or agreements we sign in the future. If enough of these feedback loops are activated, the consequences will be devastating and will arrive much faster than we currently predict. There are also 7 feedback loops which are dampening in effect so the research wasn’t entirely pessimistic. However, research stress the fact that due to feedback loops, there’s an element of unpredictability in the current models, an element which can prove to be crucial in the way we shape climate policy.