Feedback dynamics in climate and society

In the debate over climate change, I find myself paying more attention to authorities who highlight important positive feedback loops through which a warming atmosphere triggers increased climate change. Their troubling scenarios come not from innate pessimism but from paying attention to system dynamics.

A feedback loop is a systemic dynamic through which outputs re-enter the system, magnifying (positive feedback) or balancing (negative feedback) the conditions in the system. For a positive feedback loop, consider a wealthy person who donates to a candidate and gets legislation favorable to his business, so that he can make more money to support candidates who pass favorable legislation, etc. His investments (output) generate returns (input) which he reinvests (output) ad infinitum, steadily increasing his stock of money as he repeats this feedback process.

Feedback dynamics have a powerful impact shaping what happens next in a system. To the extent we understand the feedback dynamics, we gain insight into what will happen next in a system and, perhaps most importantly, what we might do about it.


So here are four major positive feedback dynamics impacting the rate of climate change. They involve reflective ice, methane, oil reserves, and trees, and they cause the atmosphere to continue to warm faster than we would expect if we didn’t take them into acount.



Feedback loop #1 – ALBEDO: As skiers and other snow-sport enthusiasts know, ice and snow reflect sunlight – an effect known as albedo. When ice melts in the Arctic, less of the sun’s energy is reflected off into space and more of it is absorbed by the dark water water and land that’s left behind. The absorbed solar energy heats up the Earth and our atmosphere. The more glaciers melt, the more heat is absorbed, which leads to more glaciers melting, etc., an effect dramatized by the disturbing (and incredibly beautiful) 2012 movie “Chasing Ice“. (A related but seldom-discussed albedo effect is the fact that climate change causes sub-arctic trees which lose their dark needles in the winter – thereby increasing reflection – to be replaced by trees that keep their dark needles – thereby trapping more heat. This causes the atmosphere to warm and replace more of the trees, causing the atmosphere to warm further, etc…)


Feedback loop #2 – METHANE RELEASE: Hundreds of gigatons of environmental methane exist in the form of methane clathrate (methane frozen into water crystals, also known as methane hydrate) frozen beneath Arctic ice and on the sub-arctic sea floor, and in frozen tundras and peat bogs. As global warming melts these frozen methane deposits, gaseous methane is released. You can watch videos online of people lighting methane fires though a hole in Arctic ice:

That’s not good news, because methane has a global warming potential 72 times as great as carbon dioxide over 20 years, and 25 times as big over 100 years. So the more methane that gets released into the atmosphere, the more the sun’s heat gets absorbed by that atmosphere. The atmospheric warming melts more glaciers and more tundra acreage, releasing more frozen methane into the atmosphere, and on it goes…. (To get a glimpse of how big a deal this is, here are estimates of how much frozen methane exists and how much carbon that adds up to: The 390-455 gigatonnes of carbon (Gt C) currently stored in peatlands is about one-third of the total land-based carbon store and over half the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere. The estimated 0.24 to 1.2 million cubic miles of oceanic methane clathrate contains 500-2500 Gt C, which is smaller than the 5000 Gt C estimated for all other fossil fuel reserves but substantially larger than the ~230 Gt C estimated for other natural gas sources. One estimate suggests that 70,000,000,000 tonnes of methane might be released over the next few decades.)


Feedback loop #3 – ARCTIC OIL (very few people are talking about this as a feedback loop): Arctic ice melting uncovers vast oil deposits previously unreachable thanks to the polar ice cap. A 2008 United States Geological Survey estimated that areas north of the Arctic Circle have 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil. Nations and corporations are jockeying with increasing intensity – economically, politically, diplomatically, militarily – for access to that oil (and other newly available minerals). Such rivalry is pretty much business-as-usual in our competitive global economy when new resources are discovered. But notice the feedback dynamic: As that arctic oil starts to be used – i.e., burned – more CO2 will be released, warming the climate, melting more ice, opening up more oil to burn, releasing more CO2… (Well subsidized oil companies are also working on mining methane clathrate as an energy source, adding to our carbon fuel stock. So as new sources of carbon fuels are developed, the pinch (or catastrophe) of “peak oil” gets delayed a bit longer, helping us continue our carbon-based business as usual longer, emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere and further suppressing healthy pressures for developing more sustainable forms of energy – which gives us another unhealthy positive feedback loop.)


Feedback loop #4 – DYING/BURNING TREES: Trees absorb CO2. Climate change causes droughts in rain forests and other places near and far – California, Colorado, Australia – setting conditions for fires (caused by lightning or humans) which burn down millions of trees. Not only are those incinerated trees no longer able to absorb CO2, but their burning released their sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere, causing the climate to heat up, stimulating more droughts and fires, causing more atmospheric heating, etc., in an ascending spiral of heat… (Related dynamics: Climate-induced desertification also wipes out vegetation that previously absorbed atmospheric carbon. And in many areas climate change is increasing populations of microorganisms, parasites and insects that kill trees. This cluster of tree-destroying feedback loops adds to the already overwhelming deforestation activities of humanity in search of lumber, biofuels, and land for housing, farms, ranches, roads, golf courses… all of which undermine the biosphere’s capacity to constrain atmospheric CO2.)




Intelligence is a cognitive feedback system that allows us to adjust appropriately to changing conditions.


Here’s how it works – at least ideally: Using our intelligence, we observe and organize what’s going on in and around us. We learn – by reflecting on what we observe, calling up memories, and creating understandings – recognizing patterns and creating ideas and narratives. We decide on how to act, based on our understandings. When we observe the results of our actions and reflect on what we observe, we can modify our understandings – our ideas, stories, beliefs, and worldviews – to take into account what we’ve observed. This is “learning from experience” – the most fundamental role of intelligence.


The same dynamic happens with collective intelligence in society. As a society, we use things like science, journalism, blogs, twitter feeds, and intelligence services to collectively observe what’s going on within and around our society. We use pundits, academia, government deliberations, boardroom conferences, online forums and other conversations to reflect on what we’ve observed and to formulate our responses based on what we think we’re learning. We call up relevant pieces of the past using libraries, databases, history, the records of mass media, and our own individual memories. We take action through corporate and government policies and activities and the billions of decisions and activities of variously informed individuals, families, networks, and other social groupings. We then reflect on the results of what “we” have done, not only through the institutions I mentioned earlier – science, journalism, etc. – but also through the investigations and protests of activists and other political players working through political campaigns and lobbying.


This is our societal collective intelligence – or lack of it – the feedback system through which our society responds to changes in its collective circumstances – changes like climate change.


If our society is not responding well to the issues it faces, we can be sure there are faulty circuits in the cognitive systems that constitute our collective intelligence. Are there forces distorting science and journalism, preventing them from performing their proper roles with integrity? Are their systemic design issues or parasitic influences that prevent government deliberations, corporate conferences, and individual citizens and consumers from taking into account what needs to be taken into account? Do certain cultural assumptions and worldviews color the thinking of both powerholders and depowered citizens so they can’t perceive – or they obsessively deny – emerging threats and possibilities? Is the flow of information and collective memory smooth and useful – or does the society manifest dangerous levels of collective Alzheimer’s, unable to even remember who it is in the larger scheme of things? Do the change agents who seek to correct society’s failings attend only to specific cases or issues – or to healing and upgrading the systems and cultures that constitute their society’s collective cognitive capacity – it’s collective intelligence and wisdom? These are important questions that can direct the attention of change agents to more fruitful targets, based on an understanding of collective intelligence.


How well does our society’s collective intelligence feedback system – the many ways we collectively learn (or not) from experience – recognize and deal with the feedback systems that generate climate change? What factors help us do this – and which ones hinder us? THIS is what we need to attend to.


Because ultimately, climate change is not the issue. Ultimately, the issue is our collective ability to observe, think, feel, decide, act, and reflect on our actions and their results. If we can do that well, we can deal well with every issue we face because – thanks to our own cognitive feedback powers – it doesn’t matter where we start. We’ll be able to improve and correct our course as we proceed, collectively, into a better future.



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