The Westminster Briefing

Feedback Dynamics and the Acceleration of Climate Change

Introduction, Contents and Contributors

Summary for Policy Makers

Presentation 1: An Introduction to Climate Dynamics

Presentation 5: Accelerated Climate Change and the Task of Stabilisation

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This leading edge scientific update was delivered to a packed audience in the House of Commons in June 2007. It was released in the approach to the Bali Meeting of the UNFCCC because it presents material not yet addressed by the IPCC, but which is absolutely critical to the decision-making process at and beyond that event.

Over the last two years there has been a profound shift in the scientific understanding of the behaviour of the earth's climate system. Although some specific feedback mechanisms were included in the more advanced climate models, the analysis of climate dynamics as a whole has proceeded far beyond that portrayed in the latest IPCC Assessment Report. It was not taken into consideration in the Stern Report, in the formulation of the Climate Bill currently before the UK Parliament, or in the process of target-setting of the present round of International negotiations.

Almost all of the systems known to affect climate change are now in a state of net positive (amplifying) feedback. Each feedback mechanism accelerates its own specific process. The output of each feedback is an input to all other feedbacks, so the system as a whole constitutes an interactive set of mutually reinforcing sub-systems.

This "second order" feedback system accelerates the rate of climate change and faces us with the possibility of a "tipping point" in the whole earth system. If we go beyond the point where human intervention can no longer stabilise the system, then we precipitate unstoppable runaway climate change.

The implication is that climate change is non-linear. Once set in motion it is acceleratingly self-perpetuating. There is then only a small time-window within which human intervention has any (rapidly diminishing) chance of halting the process and returning the system to a stable state. Failure to act effectively within that window of opportunity would inevitably precipitate cataclysmic change on a par with the five mass extinction events known to have obliterated almost all life on earth.

Strategically we have to generate a negative feedback intervention of sufficient power to overcome the now active positive feedback process. We then have to maintain its effectiveness during the remaining period of rising temperature, while temperature-driven positive feedbacks continue to operate. That is an extraordinarily difficult task, out of all comparison with strategies currently in place.

"Feedback Dynamics and the Acceleration of Climate Change" provided an essential briefing for every person and organisation involved in the UNFCCC Meeting in Bali. Beyond that it now lays the foundation for all future strategic engagement with the imperative task of climate stabilisation.