A new study reported by a global team of scientists, along with researchers from Oregon State University (OSU), warns of several risky climate feedback loops and the requirement for action in research as well as policy.
The report says that partially owing to increasing climate feedbacks, “a very rapid drawdown in emissions will be required to limit future warming.” This report was published in One Earth.
Scientists from the US and Europe listed and explained 41 climate feedback loops that have key implications for the outlook on climate change. Being the processes that can either increase or reduce the greenhouse gas emissions effects, climate feedback loops initiate a cyclical chain reaction that repeats constantly.
Several large amplifying feedbacks exist, which accentuate warming. The scientists found a total of 7 dampening feedbacks, 27 amplifying feedbacks, and 7 uncertain feedbacks.
The lead authors, Christopher Wolf, a postdoctoral researcher at OSU, and William Ripple, a distinguished professor of ecology at OSU, were joined by many US and global researchers who are recognized as the report’s co-authors. Ripple is also an affiliate scientist with the Conservation Biology Institute.
The authors underline many particularly troubling feedback loops like the permafrost feedback in which rising temperatures result in permafrost thawing, which leads to more methane and CO2 emissions, resulting in more warming.
Drying or smoldering peatlands and forest dieback are other possibly dangerous feedbacks. As these feedbacks may still not be completely incorporated into climate models, existing emissions drawdown plans can fail to sufficiently limit future warming. Alongside, “some climate feedback loops are associated with tipping points, which will make it difficult to reverse their effects,” said co-author Jillian Gregg, a scientist at Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Associates.
The authors make two recommendations inspired by several amplifying climate feedbacks. In respect of climate research, a quick shift toward unified Earth system science is required to fully account for social, biological, and other interactions that might impact the climate.
Regarding climate policy, more ambitious strategies for emissions drawdown need to be continued in respect of existing climate disasters and long-term catastrophic threats. These strategies can include using nature-based solutions to seize more carbon from the atmosphere. “The strategic establishment of large natural carbon sinks such as forests is a critical step toward reaching carbon neutrality,” said Ripple.
To address the climate crisis and dangers caused by feedback loops, the researchers issued a call for a transformative shift as a conclusive step. According to Wolf, “policies are needed to facilitate transformative and socially just changes across many sectors, including energy and food production.”
The paper is accompanied by the launch of a feedback loops website with animated feedback loops inspired by the study.
Along with Wolf, Ripple, and Gregg, five other scientists are co-authors of the paper:
Timothy M. Lenton of the University of Exeter, Susan M. Natali and Philip B. Duffy of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, Johan Rockström and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Ripple, W. J., et al. (2023) Many risky feedback loops amplify the need for climate action. One Earth. doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2023.01.004.