The Implications of Positive Feedback Loops
Scientists from all disciplines are sounding the alarm on irreversible climate change. One of the most concerning aspects of these warnings is a process termed “runaway climate change.” This is the scenario where the Earth takes over by commencing an irreversible and uncontrollable series of events. An example of such a scenario is highlighted in a recent article from The Independent (https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change-paris-agreement-permafrost-melting-carbon-emissions-a8541686.html). The journalist summarizes the concerns of prominent scientists with regards to permafrost melting in the Arctic. This case is already playing out in the Canadian north and highlights the increasing economic, political, and social urgency for climate action.
To take the Canadian feedback loop example of permafrost melt: An event is triggered by climate change (permafrost melt) – An effect from this event is then fed back into the system (ex. methane released from the ground) – The effect initiates more climate change (ex. methane is a potent greenhouse gas) - The initial event expands and becomes more widespread (more permafrost melt) – The effect also expands in turn (more methane into the atmosphere) – More climate change is produced – The cycle continues to repeat itself in what is referred to as a positive feedback loop.
The permafrost example is already unfolding in front of our eyes. Scientists from Russia to Canada are observing the rapid permafrost melt and the consequential methane release far faster than initially predicted.
Unfortunately, the permafrost-methane feedback loop is not the only process to be concerned about. Similar feedbacks are predicted all over our changing globe that follow the same event -> effect -> more change -> more event formula, including: Forest fires – Carbon emissions – More change – More forest fires; Warming oceans – Water vapor emissions – More change – Warmer oceans; Ice melts – Water absorbs heat > ice – More change – Less ice.
Despite our understanding of feedback loops they have not accounted for in most climate change models. This could mean we are pushing past our Paris climate targets and into dangerous levels of change through cycles that have already begun.
There is no turning back once these processes are in a runaway state. Therefore, climate action is essential, economical, and logical on a massive scale. I believe the best way to approach this is though market-based solutions (See the “Markets” blog post). Electric vehicles supported by solar energy are technologies that are ready to be rapidly implemented and are cheaper than rival energy/ transportation solutions. The only thing stopping us from conquering this challenge is our collective will to face it head on.