Climate Primer #36: Positive Feedback – 1. Albedo

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible to grasp, but this representative selection gives a sense of the enormity of the current global impasse. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

Because out-of-control climate change (or a runaway greenhouse effect) could easily be fueled, among other things, by positive feedback, I thought about titling this post: Positive Feedback Loops (Relative to Climate Crisis, They’re Negative). What is positive feedback? In brief, in a positive feedback loop, a signal/change in a system occurs that drives its own further amplification. A good example from human life can be found in birth, in the process of which the release of oxytocin stimulates contractions, which trigger the release of more oxytocin, which triggers yet more intense contractions, in an intensifying positive feedback loop, ideally until a healthy baby is born to a healthy birthing person, at which point, contractions cease. (Positive feedback loops tend to be escalatory – at least up until a point – whereas negative feedback loops tend to be range-constrained; in both stable climates and healthy biological systems, negative feedback loops, which maintain balance/homeostasis, tend to predominate. A classic, simple example of a negative feedback loop, in a rich country context, is the functioning of a thermostat: If the target temperature is 78 degrees Fahrenheit, then the thermostat can be imagined to turn on the air conditioning whenever the temperature rises to 79 degrees, and turn off the air conditioning whenever the temperature drops to 77, thereby maintaining the air temperature in the range between 77 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit, or roughly at 78.)

Relative to climate crisis, positive feedback loops occur when anthropogenic changes disrupt Earthly conditions which – at least for the ~10,000 years of the Holocene, and until historically recently – had remained relatively stable, in such a fashion as to drive still further like disruption. Today’s post will highlight changes in average global albedo as a positive feedback loop which is driving further planetary warming. As this primer from NASA puts it: “Ice is white and very reflective, in contrast to the ocean surface, which is dark and absorbs heat faster. As the atmosphere warms and sea ice melts, the darker ocean absorbs more heat, causes more ice to melt, and makes the Earth warmer overall. The ice-albedo feedback is a very strong positive feedback.”

It’s not hard to imagine that the melting of glaciers and ice caps is contributing to the same “strong positive feedback” effect, although in some instances – for example, the destruction of California’s forest, and the likely ecological regime shift to follow – climate crisis may lead to changes on Earth’s surface that increase albedo (in that trees tend to have green leaves for much of the year, whereas, if the forests are all destroyed by fire, disease, and encroachment – which, at least in much of California, strikes me, grimly, as a near certainty at this point – the new scrub or desert land may very well be more tan than green, and thus more reflective, though I wouldn’t count that as any net great win for climate stability). Similarly, the science, at least so far as I understand it, still seems to be out on what effect heating (and other climatic shifts) will have on cloud cover; increases in cloud cover increase albedo, thus significant heating-driven increases in cloud cover could, in turn, dampen heating (and hence would constitute a negative, rather than a positive feedback). So far as ice is concerned though – a lot of which is currently melting – the effect is unequivocally to reduce albedo, which is positive, in a negative way.

Note: I’ve failed, in spite of my mother’s request, to inject terribly much optimism into these posts as yet; I do think that an honest encounter with and unsparing foundation in the facts is prerequisite for charting any viable path forward, and only hope that as the harsh realities of global circumstances become ever more readily apparent, that people of conscience will summon the courage to confront sad realities – for example, that settler-colonial California, as we have known it, is over and never coming back – as part of a grieving process that might yet open up to a life-affirming future on Earth. My intention is, in time, to address various climate “solutions” and solutions (if it is even fair to talk about the latter), but, in the meantime, for readers feeling a bit starved for sources of hope, there’s always Project Drawdown.

Climate Primer #35: Impacts of Climate Crisis – 18. Violent Conflict

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible for an individual to grasp, but so far, this sub-series has covered: global heating, Arctic amplification, heat waves, droughts and floods, disruption of oceanic and atmospheric patterns, cryosphere collapse, declining oceanic dissolved oxygen content, sea level rise, fisheries collapse, coral reef die-offs, deforestation, water scarcity, food insecurity, deteriorating health, urban threats, rural threats and deepening poverty, and mass migration. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

Today’s post – which may be the last in this admittedly esoteric sub-series (esoteric in the sense that one could have very easily categorized and emphasized differently, though to much the same effect) – is on violent conflict; as AR5 suggests, in the following excerpt, climate crisis will make such conflict more likely:

Source: AR5 of the IPCC (page 73)

For anyone interested in exploring this troubling connection in more detail, I recommend Christian Parenti’s prescient 2011 books, Tropic of Chaos. Unfortunately, it has only grown more relevant since its publication.

Climate Primer #34: Impacts of Climate Crisis – 17. Mass Migration

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible for an individual to grasp, but so far, this sub-series has covered: global heating, Arctic amplification, heat waves, droughts and floods, disruption of oceanic and atmospheric patterns, cryosphere collapse, declining oceanic dissolved oxygen content, sea level rise, fisheries collapse, coral reef die-offs, deforestation, water scarcity, food insecurity, deteriorating health, urban threats, and rural threats and deepening poverty. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

I’d planned to write, yesterday, about mass migration driven by climate crisis, but then the New York Times went and scooped me:

I no longer link to the Times (because I’m sick of them stealing content without attribution; drawing false equivalences and soft-pedaling on lies; publishing dishonest hit jobs on courageous investigative journalism outlets; and, of course, not forcefully standing up for Julian Assange. Their coverage of India is also shit), but, in this instance, the Times is absolutely right: “Millions will be displaced,” and not just in the United States. As AR5 puts it:

Accidental highlighting my own; I was surprised not to find human migration mentioned, so found in document “displace” only to discover it was the very next clause on the page I was already looking at…
Source: AR5 of the IPCC (page 73)

Leaving it at that for today, as my intention is not to belabor heavy and distressing points, only to assert the obvious: That we live in an already radically changed reality, and our time and resources are dwindling to respond to the threats posed by escalating climate crisis.

Climate Primer #33: Impacts of Climate Crisis – 16. Rural Threats and Deepening Poverty

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible for an individual to grasp, but so far, this sub-series has covered: global heating, Arctic amplification, heat waves, droughts and floods, disruption of oceanic and atmospheric patterns, cryosphere collapse, declining oceanic dissolved oxygen content, sea level rise, fisheries collapse, coral reef die-offs, deforestation, water scarcity, food insecurity, deteriorating health, and urban threats. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

Just as posts before the most recent had already addressed many climate crisis-driven threats to urban centers, so too have many previous posts already outlined phenomena that threaten rural communities around the globe – phenomena which AR5 glosses as follows:

Source: AR5 of the IPCC (page 69)

Taken together, these multi-faceted threats to urban and rural communities globally are very likely to cause radical deterioration in the quality of life of billions of people, with the poor and socially marginalized at greatest risk of losing livelihoods, shelter, access to education, etc., etc. In this sense, the COVID-19 pandemic – with its rolling social, economic, and political impacts – can be seen as a modest dress rehearsal of what climate crisis may bring, even in optimistic scenarios, as class divisions are exacerbated and the world’s poor suffer disproportionate harm from catastrophe. In short, progress towards the the reduction of poverty (itself, often enough, a specious artifact of arbitrary definitions set by multilateral agencies) is likely to be reversed. Here’s another AR5 excerpt:

Source: AR5 of the IPCC (page 73)

Giving myself permission to briefly editorialize, I fear that – in spite of all the numbing Hollywood disaster films and sensationalized news coverage of recent decades regarding (climate) apocalypse – few of us are prepared for the scope, scale, speed, intensity, and duration of trauma that is already largely “baked in” to our future. What is happening now on the west coast of the US (and in the Amazon, where the fires are as bad or worse as they were last year), what happened last winter in Australia – these are obviously not anomalous events, or once-in-a-century occurrences, but they are also not a culmination so much as they are a new beginning: The dawning of a very frightening era on planet Earth. The collective loss we stand to suffer – which, again, will be unevenly distributed in the extreme – is quite hard, and overwhelmingly sad, to comprehend, and yet, part of our task today is to understand what is more or less inevitable so we can avert what remains avertable of the harm. In a US context, Miami, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and perhaps even Los Angeles are not likely to thrive beyond the middle of this century as, variously, megadroughts, megastorms, floods, rising temperatures, rising sea levels, fires, heatwaves, infectious disease, toxic contamination, and extreme water shortages increasingly undercut the appeal of “the Sun Belt” – leaving some places increasingly unlivable, while making others simply unpleasant – in the process making obvious what always should have been clear: That building major population centers in the middle of deserts or in coastal floodplains subject to regular tropical storms is not a good idea. New York, and the Northeast broadly, may enjoy a longer grace period as the effects of climate crisis intensify, but it’s hard to imagine that the corridor from DC to Boston won’t likewise face existential challenges by the end of this century.

Climate Primer #32: Impacts of Climate Crisis – 15. Urban Threats

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible for an individual to grasp, but so far, this sub-series has covered: global heating, Arctic amplification, heat waves, droughts and floods, disruption of oceanic and atmospheric patterns, cryosphere collapse, declining oceanic dissolved oxygen content, sea level rise, fisheries collapse, coral reef die-offs, deforestation, water scarcity, food insecurity, and deteriorating health. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

Although droughts, floods, heat waves, and water scarcity have all already been addressed in previous posts, given that more than 50% of the human population globally already lives in urban areas (with the UN projecting that nearly 70% may live in such areas by 2050), the specific threats that climate crisis poses for cities merit just the sort of specific attention that AR5 gives them:

Source: AR5 of the IPCC (page 69)

I live in New York City, so, of course, such urban particularities are of personal interest to me. Thankfully, New York is not particularly menaced by landslides or water scarcity (though the vulnerability of our water infrastructure could, at some point, put us into the position of being surrounded by water without having any uncontaminated water to drink), but all of the other threats outlined above by the IPCC apply here. To quote from the City’s own Environment & Health Data Portal: “Over the past century in New York City, average temperatures have increased by 0.25°F per decade, precipitation by 0.72 inches per decade, and sea levels by 1.2 inches per decade. By the 2020s, a projected 25-30 days above 90°F are expected in a typical summer, resulting in more frequent and intense heat waves.” These figures, in turn, were culled from the 2009 report “Climate Risk Information” from the New York City Panel on Climate Change, and things have only grown worse in the ensuing decade, nor would I say that New York is doing a particularly worse job than its peer cities globally in (not) meeting the growing challenge of climate crisis.