Unintended Consequences?

We’ve broken the climate, and now we must fix it! Ever since massive increases in carbon and other greenhouse gas (GHG) outputs were linked to climate disruption, this message has been the fundamental driving force behind the responsible approach to climate change. But, despite good intentions, there exists a seemingly-forgotten issue that is inconsonant to the agenda of simple reversal.

The fact is we are dealing with a non-linear dynamic system. And, at every point, external stimuli affect the system in different ways. In the early days of climate science this fact was typically held close in hand, but as the stakes have risen, the focus on doing the opposite of what we are currently doing has taken center stage. The potential problem with this approach is that the system has changed since the beginning of the industrial revolution – in fact, it has been continually changing – and it is not a given that changing variables (CO2, CH4, CFC, etc.) within the current system will bring it back to an earlier state. Theoretically, there is the likelihood that the system could settle into a brand new state.

W. W. Kellogg and S. H. Schneider put it best in their 1974 entry in the journal Science, “The system that determines climate, on a regional or global scale, contains a variety of physical processes, many of which are fairly well understood individually. The biggest difficulties arise when we attempt to consider their interactions in nature, since these interactions create many feedback loops that act to amplify or dampen our small disturbances. In consequence, our climactic system is a highly nonlinear, interactive system…”

So what does this mean? If definitely does not mean that action to reduce GHG emissions should not be taken – sustainable practices focused on local living and renewable energy is the best way for societies to exist with minimal environmental impact. This simply means that returning to previous states of equilibrium is not a given as the attractors within our climate system may have changed indefinitely.

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