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Climate Feedback Loops

·4 mins

If you pay much attention to the mainstream media, you’ve likely heard the phrase “energy transition” thrown around, which alludes to an ongoing global effort to transition away from fossil fuels and move toward so-called “green” energy sources1. As much airtime as this catch-phrase gets, there’s little evidence to support any transition2.

The Kyoto protocol was adopted in 1997, and as you can see below it had little to no effect on pollution, as you can see in the measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere. It does not take a gifted mind to see the problem, any five-year-old child could tell you we’re going in the wrong direction (and that same child today will pay the price in the future).

CO2 since Kyoto
CO2 levels since 1997, the year the Kyoto protocol was adopted

Other climate treaties have come along since 1997, and none of them have had a measurable impact on reducing pollution. No matter how much CEOs try to tell us they’re doing everything they can to reduce pollution, at the end of the day the data shows that we keep extracting more fossil fuels every year, and the rate of pollution continues to accelerate exponentially.

While it’s marvelous that electric cars have become mainstream, they’ve had no appreciable effect on actually reducing pollution because–as it turns out–most of the energy required to produce and operate these cars is still supplied by fossil fuels (even though the cars themselves may be much more efficient).

It’s true that eventually, we might reach a tipping point where there’s enough wind, solar, and nuclear generation capacity to start phasing out fossil fuels, but Jevons paradox almost guarantees this will never happen. As more alternative energy sources come online, it will drive down the overall cost of energy, and demand will increase in response to cheaper energy.

Feedback loops #

We also have a variety of feedback loops to worry about. There are the big climate feedback loops, which are not yet well understood, but it’s unlikely they will work in our favour, as the data currently suggests3.

Climate change feedback loops
Climate change feedback loops

One feedback loop not often discussed is the human-induced carbon climate feedback loop. The human loop is simple: as climate change accelerates, we’ll need even more energy to survive in an increasingly hostile climate. Because we refuse to put a price on carbon, fossil fuels will ultimately be used as the first choice to meet this increasing demand.

Human feedback
Human-induced climate feedback loop

The only way to escape this feedback loop is to put a price on carbon (i.e., a carbon tax). The only real problem with a carbon tax is that no government wants to do it because of the fear that it may slow economic growth (which is a legitimate concern, it most likely will slow economic growth). The alternative, of course, is cataclysm.

1.5°C is a pipe dream #

Staying below 1.5°C is a pipe dream, and we’ve essentially already passed 2°C4. There’s no putting the proverbial cat back in the bag at this point, as we have no way to undo the pollution on the time scale necessary to arrest climate change.

2°C achieved
We’ve already hit 2°C

2°C represents catastrophe, and going well beyond 2°C (which is very likely on our current trajectory) amounts to a series of extreme global catastrophes, a subject best left to science fiction authors to explore. One book I greatly enjoyed was The Ministry for the Future.

In 2023 and 2023, global temperatures started rising rapidly, and we began seeing 6 sigma deviations from historical means5. Surface sea6 and air7 temperatures have deviated significantly, especially in the North Atlantic in 2023 and 2024. In the mainstream media this has been attributed to El Niño, though this framing tends to ignore the overall effect of climate change and feedback loops.

So what now? #

I have nothing to offer in terms of solutions, other than to say that you should do what you can to enjoy life while you’re still able. I don’t believe there’s adequate political will to solve the crisis, and I don’t believe that we have the technology or capability to do so while simultaneously increasing the GDP every year, year after year, without engaging in war (i.e., the situation is zero-sum, and for the West to survive the Global South will be sacrificed).

At the very least, if you’re able to vote, you can try voting for candidates that offer real solutions to the climate crisis: a carbon tax levied at the point where the carbon is removed from the ground (i.e., the fossil fuel companies need to pay).

  1. There’s much debate about how green green energy is. As it currently stands, a great deal of pollution is generated by the extraction of raw materials, production, transportation, and installation of wind, solar, and nuclear power sources. Theoretically, solar and wind could eventually meet the base load requirements, but there’s no evidence in the data we have that this is happening at any significant scale. ↩︎

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