Research suggests we’re under-estimating global warming feedbacks

For at least as long as I’ve been actively paying attention to the climate issue, activists and scientists have both expressed frustration at the way the IPCC has failed to adequately account for amplifying feedback loops. For those who need a refresher, these “loops” are various effects of warming, that go on to cause more warming all by themselves. The examples that first come to mind for me are the release of CO2 and methane from melting and rotting permafrost, the lowered albedo (decreased reflectivity) of the planet due to melting ice, and a decrease in CO2 uptake, and increase in CO2 emissions from wildfires and other climate-driven ecosystem destruction. One of the feedback loops that had worried me the most in the past was the proposed danger of warming oceans causing a destabilization of sea-floor methane deposits called clathrates, which could in turn release vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Fortunately, data from oil and natural gas spills indicate that while that destabilization may still happen, the gas will be almost entirely absorbed by the ocean before it can reach the surface. I felt like it was good to put in that bit of good news (though I’d like to see follow-up research), because the main focus of today’s post is research led by Oregon State University that says even scientists may be under-estimating feedback loops:

Ripple, Wolf and co-authors from the University of Exeter, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Woodwell Climate Research Center and Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Associates considered both biological and physical feedbacks. Biological feedbacks include forest dieback, soil carbon loss and wildfire; physical feedbacks involve changes such as reduced snow cover, increased Antarctic rainfall and shrinking arctic sea ice.

Even comparatively modest warming is expected to heighten the likelihood that the Earth will cross various tipping points, the researchers say, causing big changes in the planet’s climate system and potentially strengthening the amplifying feedbacks.

“Climate models may be underestimating the acceleration in global temperature change because they aren’t fully considering this large and related set of amplifying feedback loops,” Wolf said. “The accuracy of climate models is crucial as they help guide mitigation efforts by telling policymakers about the expected effects of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. While recent climate models do a much better job of incorporating diverse feedback loops, more progress is needed.”

Emissions have risen substantially over the last century, the researchers note, despite several decades of warnings that they should be significantly curbed. The scientists say interactions among feedback loops could cause a permanent shift away from the Earth’s current climate state to one that threatens the survival of many humans and other life forms.

“In the worst case, if amplifying feedbacks are strong enough, the result is likely tragic climate change that’s moved beyond anything humans can control,” Ripple said. “We need a rapid transition toward integrated Earth system science because the climate can only be fully understood by considering the functioning and state of all Earth systems together. This will require large-scale collaboration, and the result would provide better information for policymakers.”

In addition to the 27 amplifying climate feedbacks the scientists studied were seven that are characterized as dampening – they act to stabilize the climate system. An example is carbon dioxide fertilization, where rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 lead to increasing carbon uptake by vegetation.

The effects of the remaining seven feedbacks, including increased atmospheric dust and reduced ocean stability, are not yet known.

I know the phrase “further study is needed” is pretty standard in the conclusion of a research article, but in this case, further study is needed. I mean, I suppose if we continue down the path favored by capitalists, then I suppose “need” is the wrong word – we can do that in ignorance just fine. For those of us hoping to slow the change and prepare for that which we can no longer prevent, however,  understanding how fast things are moving is crucial. In the event that we ever take climate change seriously, as a species, it’ll be good to know this stuff. The researchers do more than digging into the science though. They also have a message for policy makers. Can you guess what it is?

OSU College of Forestry postdoctoral scholar Christopher Wolf and distinguished professor William Ripple led the study, which in all looked at 41 climate change feedbacks.

“Many of the feedback loops we examined significantly increase warming because of their connection to greenhouse gas emissions,” Wolf said. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the most extensive list available of climate feedback loops, and not all of them are fully considered in climate models. What’s urgently needed is more research and modeling and an accelerated cutback of emissions.”

The paper makes two calls to action for “immediate and massive” emissions reductions:

  • Minimize short-term warming given that “climate disasters” in the form of wildfires, coastal flooding, permafrost thaw, intense storms and other extreme weather are already occurring.
  • Mitigate the possible major threats looming from climate tipping points that are drawing ever-closer due to the prevalence of the many amplifying feedback loops. A tipping point is a threshold after which a change in a component of the climate system becomes self-perpetuating.

“Transformative, socially just changes in global energy and transportation, short-lived air pollution, food production, nature preservation and the international economy, together with population policies based on education and equality, are needed to meet these challenges in both the short and long term,” Ripple said. “It’s too late to fully prevent the pain of climate change, but if we take meaningful steps soon while prioritizing human basic needs and social justice, it could still be possible to limit the harm.”

Do more, and do it quickly, while we still can.

I know, it’s a message that this little community has never heard before. In all seriousness, though, it comes back to this – we have the resources, through nuclear power, “renewable” power, mass transit, and ending overproduction, to make a huge dent in human contribution to the problem, in a way that would measurably improve normal people’s standard of living. Likewise, we can and should invest heavily in changing how we grow food, and in ending most animal agriculture. We could even do this, in theory, while leaving our current ruling class with so much wealth that they’d never need to work in their lives. Unfortunately, they seem to be psychologically incapable of contemplating anything that might diminish their status relative to the peasantry, and they’re too addicted to wielding power to ever give it up. If they ever decide to be useful, I’ll welcome their resources (especially since they never had a moral right to them in the first place), but while we wait for that particular pig to fly, I suggest we explore ways to to make those changes without their help.

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  1. klatu says

    More research is always nice. But somehow, I don’t think a lack of knowledge is why we’re still in this mess.

    Like MR @1 says, really. The trend is plain depressing.

    they’re too addicted to wielding power to ever give it up

    I think perhaps it’s less addiction to power, and more being absolutely fucking terrified of losing what they have, paired with a sheer incomprehensible sense of entitlement. A lot of addicts are aware enough to be ashamed of their vice/illness. The rich and powerful believe they deserve their status. For being smarter or harder working or whiter or whatever. And they will use their influence to defend every scrap of what they have “earned”.

    You see the same tendency on every level of society. Fears of losing a (often ridiculously decadent) standard of living is driving far-right populism all around the world, because they always frame it as a zero-sum game. Shit, for some people, even higher gas prices are enough of a reason to join the fash.

    The failure in thinking ahead here is really obvious, too. Our ludicrous economic system is going to go away one way or the other. Either because we see the light and adjust course before the worst happens. Or because we see the light and adjust course after world war three (immediately followed by thermodynamics crashing the party).

    My opinion is this, if anything: Anyone who is still not convinced of the urgency of our global predicament won’t be convinced by more or better data, neither will they listen to advice from climate scientists. And I’m not convinced that a peaceful, grass-roots approach has any hope of turning things around in time. Unless someone starts coercing the poeple in power, nothing much is going to happen. I expect a lot of (actual, not just so-called) eco-terrorism in the not so distant future, aimed primarily at politicians. It’s not going to help, either.
    I really hope I’m wrong. I really hope that billions will rise in solidarity, to peacfully fight for their collective futures. But I’m not going to hold my breath for the powers-that-be to stop the madness even then.

    (Transphobia Island is being the trailblazer here, with how they’re criminalizing environmental activism. Expect more of Europe to follow suit, as it arms up, not down, in the face of billions of climate refugees coming north in the next hundred years. They will say (and have said) that it’s because of Russia, or whatever other conventient externality presents itself at any given time. The next best crisis is always going to be at hand to justify barbarism.)

  2. StevoR says

    Truth. Distrubing reality. Will share.

    It seems to have very little media attention but we’ve just seen record low sea ice in Antarctica :

    With glaciers there have been observed to speed up :

    Whilst from the same Phys org news notes a chilling echo of NASA climatologist Jim Hansen’s Storms of my Grandhildren’ book title here :

    which, yeah, the implications for our future are huge.

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