What’s causing the Arctic to melt? The answer to this question seems obvious: global warming, of course. It goes without saying, along with melting ice and rising seas, there are a multitude of deleterious environmental consequences caused by climate change; dieback of the Amazon rainforest, desertification of landscape, increased frequency of wildfires – the known list goes on.
But what is also causing the Arctic to melt? Well, Arctic melting.
Similarly, the dying Amazon rainforest is causing more trees to die, drought is only causing the ground to get drier, and frequent wildfires are lighting the match for more fires to burn.
Yes, the emissions stemming from industrialisation, excessive over-consumption, and over-reliance on fossil fuels are of course the main common denominator of climate change. But another, unprecedented symptom of planetary warming, one that’s harder to monitor, quantify and mitigate, is the very poignant catch-22 of climate change:
The self-destruction of the natural world, triggered by human-induced climate change, but further perpetuated by its very own decline.
Problematic situation: Climate change causes a spectrum of fallout.
Only solution: Mitigate climate change to stop the fallout from getting worse.
Circumstance inherent in the problem: The fallout itself is making climate change worse.
To clarify: Whilst many (if not all) of Earth’s vital ecosystems are inherently damaged by global warming, because of this damage, they’re also driving the phenomena themselves at the same time.
You may have heard conversations on this topic make reference to climate change “feedback loops” or “tipping points,” but perhaps a simpler, and more accurate way to define these elements would be as “climate change accelerators.”
These elements have already been widely researched and reported on by climate scientists, but in a new study published last week, experts warn that the list of accelerators is now much longer than previously thought.
“Our study describes a large set of climate feedback loops, including many amplifying loops that increase the warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr. William J. Ripple, lead author of the study and Distinguished Professor of Ecology at Oregon State University told Impakter.
“Because of emissions from humans and these feedbacks, an extraordinarily rapid decrease in emissions is needed,” stated Dr. Ripple.
His group warn that if ignored and left to activate, these accelerators “could result in tragic climate change outside the control of humans.” Clearly, these kamikaze climate change catalysts need to be given due attention, but first:
How on Earth is all of this possible?
CLIMATE EMERGENCY: Support climate change policiy. We found 27 positive feedback loops that could ramp up global heating on top of all the emissions by humans. Policy needs to shift to big-time climate mitigation. See infographic below and CNN story here https://t.co/bBanNAeIHr pic.twitter.com/JtkbkTtOD6
— Dr. William J. Ripple (@WilliamJRipple) February 18, 2023
The self-destruction of the natural world
Much like the harmony of an orchestra relies both on the skill of the individual musician as well as the cohesiveness of the larger ensemble, the stability of Earth relies on a spectrum of integrated elements (polar ice sheets, rainforests, and coral reefs, etc) working alone and in unison to ensure the proper functioning of the planet’s vital systems.
However, each of these elements is very sensitive to changes in the climate, and past a certain degree of warming – a climate threshold if you like – the elements’ status quo gets disrupted.
As mentioned above, scientists call these thresholds “climate tipping points.”
Past its “tipping point” the stability of any given “tipping element” of the earth’s geosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere or atmosphere begins to deteriorate, eventually spiralling into a self-perpetuating loop of dysfunction.
Once tipped over the edge, the cascade of destruction will continue regardless of whether global warming persists, and the fallout from one cascade may even trigger other elements’ tipping points to be breached – much like the domino effect.
As more dominoes in the sequence fall, the ecosystems, landscapes and environments once responsible for regulating Earth’s climate, undergo a somewhat sinister transformation into amplifiers of exponential and irreversable damage as it warms.
Pushing the planet’s climate pedal to the metal
In 2008, climate scientists published a list of nine “tipping elements” and their associated “tipping points,” providing a first look into the potentially catastrophic impacts on humanity and the environment if these components were to be tipped over into decline.
In September last year, experts built on these predictions, presenting an updated and expanded list of 16 positive climate feedback loops to keep an eye on.
This latest study, however, has gone a significant step further than both of its prequel’s, identifying 34 potential climate accelerators which they say could significantly amplify climate change as they deteriorate because of it.
“Here, we present, to the best of our knowledge, the most extensive list available of climate feedback loops,” say the scientists, revealing an extensive network of interrelated climate change accelerators scattered across the globe.
“We are now seeing greenhouse gas levels that have not occurred in several million years,” they say, warning that “even relatively modest warming is expected to increase the risk that various climatic tipping points will be crossed.”
Despite this, the group says that current climate models don’t accurately account for the known climate accelerators which are poised to rev-up rising global temperatures, and therefore may be drastically underestimating the rate of warming in their simulations.
“The accuracy of climate models is of vital importance since they guide climate mitigation efforts by informing policymakers about the expected effects of anthropogenic emissions,” states the group.
The scientists therefore hope their work will promote the further study of such “dangerously underexplored scenarios.”
Scientists Examine Dangerous Global Warming ‘Accelerators’
A new study categorizes #climate feedback loops and the possibility they could push the climate past planetary tipping points: https://t.co/e1yGq98dKb pic.twitter.com/1kG57yYAyj
— Conejo Climate Coalition (@ConejoClimate) February 19, 2023
What are these accelerators?
The group lists two main categories of feedback loops: physical and biological, and although not all of the elements catalogued are guaranteed to accelerate climate change (some may even decellerate it), the group note that the majority are either proven or expected to amplify warming.
However, what arguably makes this latest study particularly striking, is the group’s additional categorisation of human feedback loops capable of driving warming, shining a much-needed light on the importance of including interdisciplinary concepts within climate research, mitigation and adaptation.
Physical climate accelerators:
- Melting snow and ice – As the snow and glacial/sea ice melts, its “albedo” effect (the ability of surfaces to reflect sunlight, and therefore warmth) is disrupted, causing more warming and melting.
- Rising sea levels – Melting increases sea volume, leading to coastal region submersion and therefore decreased surface area, again, disrupting the land’s “albedo” effect.
- Atmospheric water vapour – Warming leads to increased production of water vapour, which is actually a greenhouse gas that in return amplifies the warming effect.
- Clouds – Warming disrupts cloud cover, which alters the greenhouse effect and disrupts the clouds’ “albedo” effect.
- Antarctic rainfall – As the ice sheets melt, precipitation increases and causes deep ocean warming, causing more melting in return.
- Dust – Warming changes dust abundance, altering the greenhouse effect and disrupting the planetary “albedo” effect.
Biological climate accelerators:
- Forest dieback and plant stress – Warming and drought trigger tree death, decreasing CO2 sequestration, and resulting in amplification of the greenhouse effect and warming.
- Insect outbreaks – Rising temperatures change the distribution and abundance of insect populations, which in turn damage vegetation and forests, decreasing CO2 sequestration.
- Northern greening – Milder climates allow vegetation to grow in the Arctic, greening the once snowy area, and therefore decreasing the region’s “albedo” effect.
- Wildfires – Warming and drought increase the frequency of wildfires which burn through vegetation and forests, increasing emissions and decreasing CO2 sequestration.
- Permafrost thawing – As warming melts the permafrost, the vegetation and organisms frozen deep within it begin decomposing and releasing methane, increasing emissions.
- Microbes – Warming increases the respiration rate of microbial organisms present within land, freshwater and ocean ecosystems, as a result they produce more CO2 and methane.
Human climate accelerators:
- Human migration – As many parts of the world are rendered uninhabitable, there is a potential carbon cost associated with mass movement and the construction required to house climate refugees.
- Policy paralysis – As climate change becomes an increasingly complex policy issue, it’s hard to address cohesively on a global scale, leading to a lack of solidarity and inaction.
- Political disruption and Geopolitics – As climate migration, climate inequality and energy (among other factors) polarise state politics, it’s possible that nationalism will increase, and global cooperation on climate mitigation will decrease.
- Economic disruption – Climate-related natural disasters and crop failures destabilise economies, leading to prioritisation of economic restabilisation over climate investment.
- Climate impacts and disasters – As extreme weather and changing landscapes destroy infrastructure, there is a potential carbon cost associated with rebuilding and adapting.
- Human conflict – Political, economic and social tensions fueled by climate change spur conflict, which in turn causes more tension and increased emissions from military activity.
- Agriculture – Warming disrupts crop yields, which forces farming areas to expand or migrate, possibly fueling further deforestation.
These are just a few examples from the study’s list of feedback loops, which the group warn is probably just the topsoil of discovery.
“Due to the complexity of the Earth system, we expect more climate accelerators to be discovered in the near future,” Dr. Ripple told Impakter.
It’s unclear just how many more will be revealed as the crisis intensifies and the deeper interconnected roots of the problem are exposed, but Dr. Ripple did warn us that “this is a global emergency.”
“The first step in curbing the near-term climate impacts and minimizing the risk of an eventual catastrophic outcome is for us to expand our awareness of the severity of our predicament,” the group states.
The predicament in this case being humanity’s endless emissions splurge, plunging us deeper into our atmospheric overdraft.
CLIMATE EMERGENCY: Just imagine how much methane could be released by the thawing of the northern permafrost, a feedback that could help send us to climate hell. Please help call for humanity to leave fossil fuels in the ground. https://t.co/uu7BC4EUVQ
— Dr. William J. Ripple (@WilliamJRipple) February 21, 2023
Managing the planet’s carbon budget
Climate science and climate policy are often misaligned – there’s a patent disconnect between a graph showing rising global temperatures and the willingness of society to curb its well-established daily lifestyle to bring them back down again.
But regardless of how easy or hard it is to change human behaviour, the first step in reaching climate targets is in understanding what tangible changes actually need to be made.
To do this, we must answer the following question: To limit rising global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, how many more emissions is too many emissions?
More specifically, what’s the “permitted amount of future anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that are consistent with a given climate target?”
What this all boils down to, is the outstanding balance of the planet’s carbon budget.
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“The remaining carbon budget is rapidly shrinking and waiting until 2050 to achieve net-zero carbon emissions might be far too late,” warn the scientists.
In publishing this list of climate accelerators, the group hopes they can be better accounted for in climate research, can help re-shape climate policy and can assist in defining climate targets that – as well as the mitigation efforts required to achieve them – are realistic.
Bringing awareness to climate accelerators in this way will hopefully raise awareness of their planetary influence, and therefore drive investment to fuel further investigation.
“We must strive to curb warming as much as possible by pursuing large-scale climate mitigation actions such as quickly phasing out fossil fuel use and restoring natural ecosystems, especially forests,” says Dr. Ripple.
The IPCC headline carbon budgets in the above table exclude a range of 'earth system feedbacks' that, if realised, adjust these budgets significantly. Box 1, attached, outlines the IPCC's estimate of the additional feedbacks & their potential repercussions on the budget values. pic.twitter.com/N0ISXQvKn8
— Kevin Anderson (@KevinClimate) January 10, 2023
For an interrelated problem, an interdisciplinary solution is required
The group advocate for a mille-feuille approach to tackling climate change – just like the interconnected nature of the planet and its problems, we need an interdisciplinary approach to tackle them. This echoes the “One Health” approach in balancing and optimising human, animal and environmental health.
First, we must account for the integrated nature of Earth’s systems. “The climate system can only be understood by integrating the functioning and state of all Earth system interactions,” says the group.
Second, we must incorporate social, economic and political climate considerations, rather than just scientific ones, into research, policy and targets.
And third, we must implement the associated mitigation strategies on parallel short and long-term timescales. They suggest strategic placement of carbon sinks across the planet could provide some short-term emissions relief, whereas in the long-term, “transformative and socially just changes” within global economies, infrastructures, energy use and education are required.
“In a likely short-term scenario, our lack of dramatic emission reductions could result in a future with ongoing and intensifying climate impacts,” say the scientists.
But “in the worst case long-term scenario, interactions among feedback loops could result in an irreversible drift away from the current state of Earth’s climate to a state that threatens habitability for humans and other life forms.”
This, however, is no mean feat, and in an attempt to acknowledge the complexity of integrating biophyscial, biological and human dynamics together – in a meaningful way no less – the scientists suggest recruiting the help of artificial intelligence systems to help map out the “complex trajectories that tie physical, biological, and social feedbacks together.”
“A major challenge for climate researchers is dealing with the many interactions among feedback loops and other processes,” Dr. Ripple explained to Impakter, “artificial intelligence approaches may be helpful here because they can be used to make sense of large amounts of data and model complex relationships.”
Here are my six steps to sustainability. pic.twitter.com/rGarTad7tI
— Dr. William J. Ripple (@WilliamJRipple) January 22, 2023
Doesn’t a catch-22 mean all hope is lost?
You know that moment when you knock something over, and time seems to slow down for a few milliseconds as you see it start to wobble? Or when the air feels calm and yet still charged with anticipation right before a ferocious downpour or an avalanche of snow slides off the mountainside?
That’s the moment we’re currently in – for the most part – with the climate crisis. Teetering on the edge, with only a few metaphorical seconds left to act before the cascade of environmental decline risks becoming unstoppable.
For some of Earth’s elements in fact, these downward spirals may have already begun.
“It is too late to fully prevent the pain of climate change as severe impacts are already being felt, but if we can have a much better understanding of feedback loops and make the needed transformative changes soon while prioritizing basic human needs, there might still be time to limit the harm,” say the scientists.
A “Catch-22,” either in the context of Joseph Heller’s satirical war novel of the same name, or simply the modern popular culture concept it has become, somewhat inspires a feeling of hopelessness that, no matter what you do or what choice you make, the outcome of a given scenario is already predetermined to be bad.
Though this does somewhat encapsulate the premise of how a climate feedback loop might work – as a paradoxical and self-perpetuating symptom of our warming planet – that does not mean that there is in fact no hope.
There have even been some “positive tipping points” discovered, in the form of zero-carbon solutions that instead of perpetuating the climate crisis, actually help accelerate faster towards net zero and delay global warming.
With better informed climate research and policy, as well as a stronger global commitment to change, the climate accelerators revealed in this latest study – though not entirely avoidable – are most likely a phenomena that we can learn to adapt to, if not possibly even overcome.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Burnt matches in a row. Featured Photo Credit: Ferbugs/Pexels