Feed Me A Stray Loop

Physics and carbon and human behavior and good and bad visions of the apocalypse.

This summer, the Arctic burned. Hundreds of thousands of acres across the Canadian far north, Greenland, and Siberia caught fire, scarring a landscape unused to such searing violence. The flames were mostly on peatland, a waterlogged, carbon-filled landscape that, when dried out sufficiently, can burn for extended periods of time and release massive amounts of carbon in doing so. That carbon released from the soils will now hang out in the atmosphere for the next century or two, further warming the climate and helping to cause more massive Arctic peatland wildfires, which in turn release more carbon and okay you get the idea.

It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that the world is now increasingly defined by the presence of feedback loops. The Arctic fires are one such loop, and an ugly one, but there are many others. In climate change, a negative feedback loop means that some process inherent to the warming world produces an effect that reduces subsequent impacts; there aren’t that many of those. A positive feedback loop, like in the Arctic, does the opposite, exacerbating warming in various ways. There are more of those.

Off the top of my head: The warming ocean can absorb less carbon dioxide, meaning more of it stays in the atmosphere, meaning the atmosphere warms up faster. Warmer temperatures help melt Arctic permafrost, which releases methane, which can dramatically increase temperatures, which melts more permafrost. As sea ice melts in the Arctic, the darker water underneath reflects less sunlight back into space, helping speed warming, which melts more ice.

Are you scared yet.

These are all frustrating and dangerous. But they’re also fundamentally physical in nature, understandable (though sometimes difficult to quantify precisely). We can work them into computer models and warn against their effects. Which is less than we can say about feedback loops built in to human behavior.

Some human climate feedback loops are simple. Warmer temperatures mean more air conditioning use during heat waves, which uses power and thus emits more CO2, and so on. Frustrating and scary, again, but simple and straightforward—and fixable: build enough renewable energy and you’re running the AC off the sun instead of dead dinosaurs.

Where it gets more complicated is in the overall human response to the changing climate, and how we communicate the risks. If we talk about the crisis in X terms, maybe that generates a median response we can call Y—maybe that’s fear, or hope, or determination, or panic, or something else. The specific Y then will feedback in two different ways: the physical results to the climate of whatever we end up doing about it, and some change to the original X, the way we talk about the changing climate.

For a long time, convention wisdom in climate communications circles was that “doom-saying” was a poor approach. There are a few behavioral science studies out there—small n pay-a-college-student-20-bucks sorts of things that have been cited ad infinitum like Wayne and Garth holding up their all access passes—suggesting that people react to impending apocalypse with paralysis and inaction. This is its own sort of feedback loop: play up the asteroid’s approach, people flail helplessly on the ground, asteroid gets larger in the sky, messaging can only get more apocalyptic, leading to more flailing/inaction, and so on.

I always found this line of argument a bit odd, and increasingly so every year. Here we are, decades into an era where “we know what must be done” could be inscribed on its tombstone, with shit-all to show for it. Just as a statement of plain, obvious fact, whatever messaging approach we used to get here, did not work. So maybe that assumed feedback loop wasn’t quite right: maybe, instead, promising hope led to the world’s complacency—again, the complacency that we now have decades of evidence for, not some theoretical concept.

Of course, you could argue that would eventually turn into what you could describe as a negative feedback loop: as the complacency and inaction compounded, the crisis has deepened and angled itself toward a confirmation of the direst of predictions. Stronger hurricanes, longer droughts, those fires chewing up Arctic peatland—the result, finally, in the last couple of years, has been a turn toward action. The Green New Deal, CNN’s seven-hour town hall, the rise in prominence of activists like Greta Thunberg—there has been an undeniable shift in the climate conversation, even if we might still have to wait until 2021 for anything to actually happen as a result.

Obviously, you can’t pin that shift on a failed messaging strategy. But that’s what’s so complicated about human feedback loops: we’re getting riled toward meaningful action now because we failed to do so earlier, back when the messaging took a certain form, which maybe helped lead to the general failure, which brings us to today when we stare wide-eyed at a singed Arctic.

Of course, the messaging started to shift a few years ago too. The popularity of a New York Magazine feature by David Wallace-Wells in 2017 led to a book this year, both focused on some of the worst-case scenarios unchecked climate change could bring. This was true doom-saying, not in the prophet-raving-on-the-mountainside way but more in the confront-the-actual-possibilities kind of way, and it clearly touched a nerve.

Again, causality in this realm isn’t something we can pin down with much certainty, but it certainly feels to me like the collective attention on these high-end disasters is spurring at least some of the newfound urgency in calls to action. Talk about it in X terms, and it leads to Y response, which hopefully, eventually, feeds back into the climate system itself with a new negative forcing. Hopefully.


Then, though, there is the bad way to do this sort of messaging. Like, absurdly, amazingly bad. The Jonathan Franzen way.

I didn’t really want to talk about this. I already talked about it, and everyone else already talked about it, and outside of the New Yorker’s editors I would guess we can all agree that it is insane to let someone this bad at it write about climate change in such a venue, but it got me thinking about the feedback loops again, so here we are.

Franzen’s basic premise was that there is essentially zero hope of actually staving off a climate catastrophe, and instead of spouting false hope we should instead confront that catastrophic future and, I dunno, volunteer at a zoo or something. It’s a bit muddled, and he is working from a base position that is literally just wrong—that two degrees of warming is some mythical dividing line beyond which the world unavoidably spirals out of control. The odds of avoiding two degrees are at this point quite small, especially given the general inertia built into human systems and behavior, and therefore we are one hundred percent fucked. Good, enervating stuff. Thanks, Bird Guy.

Think about the ways that approach, compared with Wallace-Wells’s approach, might spawn differing feedback loops. Both focus on the potential doom of civilization, but in the one case, by stressing the high end of scientifically valid modeling the messaging actually appears to spur action, even if it might be tinged with panic. In the other case, the Accept Thy Fate message is designed implicitly to stop action, to stop the panic and urgency. On the one hand, a potential negative feedback loop on the climate system; on the other, a positive feedback loop where the acceptance of impending suffering will breed further suffering.

The way humans respond to climate change is not a controllable experiment. We don’t get a second shot at it, and any suggestion that alternative messaging might have had some demonstrable effect on where we stand now is just a counterfactual, a rhetorical trick that anyone can wield without consequence or meaning. But there are still ways to affect the feedback loops moving forward; the Arctic is going to keep burning, but we don’t have to douse Siberia with kerosene.

random bits

  • A new study analyzed the rising rates of suicide around the country, in particular in rural areas. You’ll never guess what factors are associated with more suicides. Nah just kidding you’ll totally guess, it’s more gun shops and less health insurance coverage, obviously.

  • I’m not saying I don’t believe this report about being able to “reverse” aging using growth hormone and diabetes medications in a study involving only nine white men. Okay fuck it, yes I’m saying I don’t believe this report about being able to “reverse” aging using growth hormone and diabetes medications in a study involving only nine white men.

  • Good news, we’re learning more about the terrifying few hours after the Chicxulub asteroid struck, eventually killing off the dinosaurs. It doesn’t sound fun.

  • Definitely look at these award-winning wildlife photos.

  • Once again, I’m gonna beg for your digital approval here, and ask that you hit that little “like” button below or above this piece, if you made it this far. Tell your friends, loved ones, coworkers, bosses, underlings, baristas, and Home Depot associates to subscribe, and then tweet/facebook the shit out of this post. I will love you forever. Thank you.

notes from [gestures around]

Hello from abroad! We left the US a bit more than a week ago, with no particular return date in mind. We’re in Bali, in Indonesia, at the moment.

The town we’re in is called Lovina, on the north side of the island, and everyone here wants to take tourists out to see the dolphins. Lovina even has a dolphin statue as its pseudo-centerpiece. We’ve been offered a dolphin tour approximately 125 times. And the more times we’re offered, the less inclined we are to actually go.

I’d already read a few anecdotal reports of how distressing the dolphin-watching scene can get, with dozens of boats crowded into the same stretch of ocean until the pod is spotted, at which point all those boats maneuver around the dolphins to get a better view. Sounds like a totally healthy way to appreciate nature, right?

Then last night we talked to a bartender who, after offering to connect us to whatever dolphin boat operator he has a deal with, acknowledged that the numbers of dolphins around Lovina have dropped precipitously in recent years. Too often, we’re all just Lennie, petting that little puppy directly into the ground.

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