You have to appreciate the fantastic dissonance this week caused by the juxtapositioning of the ho-hum Doha Climate talks and the rapid melting of the Arctic. On the one hand you have a major Climate talk failing to deliver action (yet again) on Climate Change. And, on the other, you have a major feature of our planet disappearing before the very eyes of our satellites because of our inaction. This dysfunctional absurdity of ours got me thinking about positive feedback loops.
A positive feedback loop occurs when stuff happens in sync with the stuff that’s already happening, increasing the likelihood that the stuff will happen even more. Scientist use these ‘loops’ to explain the phenomenon of accelerated anthropogenic warming that is melting Arctic ice, which in turn will warm our planet’s atmosphere even more because the reflective surface of ice —the albedo effect--will soon be replaced by dark ocean, which absorbs heat.
How did we get to this bottleneck in our history where our actions have actually threatened our environment and we cannot find it in ourselves to solve this problem? Perhaps, like the natural mechanisms that cause Climate Change, we ourselves create positive feedback loops in our own systems that cause us to become less aware of our human-caused planetary threat.
Oh, I forgot, there’s another critical part of the positive feedback loop, the Butterfly Effect. A slight disturbance in the initial stages of a system can turn out to be quite dramatic later on. For example, in our artificially-crafted economic models we chose not to include environmental resources or damages (externalities). Centuries ago, there seemed to be no limit to the amount of food and water provided by Nature and no limit to the amount of stuff we could throw into our land, water, and air without it coming back to bite us. But now we know that to be complete and utter nonsense. Our environment that evolved over many billions of years is extremely sensitive to every perturbation—the emitting of heat trapping gases being but one of them. This small oversight has created an environmental juggernaut, and our notions of exceptionalism (see below) won’t let us entertain a carbon tax.
Our media, the system tasked with informing us about what’s going on, has created another positive feedback loop together with our own interesting butterfly effect. The ‘butterfly’ is our disinclination to hear stuff we don’t want to hear. If you only listen to a media that only presents you with a world that panders to your beliefs and desires, then you not only miss stuff, but fail to interpret events in a rational way. For example, if you only listen to FOX News, you’ll think all the evidence from around the world that our atmosphere is warming is a ‘commie plot’ or a hoax. You’ll tend to think the real deciding factor ruling our existence is not the laws of Nature, but clever talking points from a well-paid pundit.
Politics in the United States is well on its way to producing a positive feedback loop where it becomes more likely that we’ll do less about solving Climate Change the more obvious is becomes that we need to do more. American Exceptionalism, the butterfly in this case, cannot allow us to entertain the idea that other nations, especially the developing nations, want to have the same standard of living we enjoy, but if they do it in the same way we did (burning fossil fuels and polluting our environment) there will be no habitable environment for anyone. At this year’s climate talks the developing nations are trying to say that they want a chance to grow and are willing to do that without doing what we did and all they need is some help. And we’ve created a system where we cannot hear them.
The difference between the positive feedback loops created by our artificial creations and those produced in nature is that we can decide to stop our man-made ‘loops’.