Tom Atlee: Feedback Dynamics in Climate and Society

Civil Society, Cultural Intelligence, Earth Intelligence
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Feedback dynamics in climate and society

In the debate over climate change, I find myself paying more attention to authorities who highlight important positive feedback loops through which a warming atmosphere triggers increased climate change. Their troubling scenarios come not from innate pessimism but from paying attention to system dynamics.

A feedback loop is a systemic dynamic through which outputs re-enter the system, magnifying (positive feedback) or balancing (negative feedback) the conditions in the system. For a positive feedback loop, consider a wealthy person who donates to a candidate and gets legislation favorable to his business, so that he can make more money to support candidates who pass favorable legislation, etc. His investments (output) generate returns (input) which he reinvests (output) ad infinitum, steadily increasing his stock of money as he repeats this feedback process.

Feedback dynamics have a powerful impact shaping what happens next in a system. To the extent we understand the feedback dynamics, we gain insight into what will happen next in a system and, perhaps most importantly, what we might do about it.

So here are four major positive feedback dynamics impacting the rate of climate change. They involve reflective ice, methane, oil reserves, and trees, and they cause the atmosphere to continue to warm faster than we would expect if we didn’t take them into account.


Feedback loop #1 – ALBEDO:

Feedback loop #2 – METHANE RELEASE:

Feedback loop #3 – ARCTIC OIL

Feedback loop #4 – DYING/BURNING TREES:


The same dynamic happens with collective intelligence in society.

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