How Can We Stop Global Warming?


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Surface Earth System Feedbacks 

Dr. Michael Tuckson

This section is mainly based on Hansen et al (2008) Hansen (New Scientist, July 2007) Houghton (2004) and Flannery (2005).

Human created greenhouse gases (GHG) are causing the surface of Planet Earth to warm above its natural temperature and change the existing climate. Feedback on the whole tends to raise the temperature even further. Feedbacks or feedback loops are process output factors causing inputs that tend to change the rate of the process. Whereas positive or amplifying feedbacks increase the rate of the process, negative feedbacks decrease the rate of the process. The terms positive and negative here are purely biophysical and have no meaning for human values. In the case of surface earth systems, fast feedbacks take place within hours to years, while slow feedbacks appear within decades or centuries, and very slow ones, thousands or millions of years. All positive feedbacks tend to cause a further temperature rise or warming and all negative feedbacks cause a relative cooling. Also the feedbacks interact with each other.

Fast positive or amplifying feedbacks include:        

  • Surface ocean warming causes evaporation producing water vapour that acts as a GHG causing further warming roughly doubling the temperature.
  • Surface ocean heating reduces the net rate at which carbon dioxide is dissolved in the ocean (from1.8 gigatonnes carbon per year in the 1980s to1.6 in the 1990s) . Some that is dissolved is re-released and possibly dissolvedd again in an ongoing cycle.
  • Surface ocean absorption of carbon dioxide increases the acidity that in turn lessens the oceans ability to absorb carbon dioxide contributing to the above change.
  • Sea ice and snow cover melting reduces sunlight reflection increasing warming eventually by about 20 percent.
  • High cloud formation from water vapour adsorbs more radiation from earth and emits more radiation than reflects sunlight. Cloud effects are uncertain making prediction difficult.    
  • Temperate and tropical forest fires release carbon dioxide due dieback and fire


Slow positive feedbacks include:

  • Melting of land ice sheets will decrease reflection further
  • Increased carbon dioxide emissions and reduced carbon uptake due to forest fires, diseases and pests, increased breakdown of forest debris through respiration. A 5 degree increase in temperature increases respiration by 40 percent.
  • Changes in vegetation at high latitudes decrease reflection
  • Increased methane emissions from permafrost and ocean sediments mainly at high latitude.

Negative feedbacks include

  • A rise in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere causes fertilization of plants causing faster plant growth and so increased uptake of carbon dioxide.   
  • Increased low cloud tends to reflect more than radiate and so tend to cool the earth. 
  • Increased cloud formation raises snow over large land ice sheets 
  • Marine dimethyl sulphide, derived as a bi-product of zooplankton grazing on phytoplankton in cold regions, is diffused to air in turbulence and oxidized to aerosols that stimulate cloud formation that predominantly reflects sunlight, cools the ocean and increases phytoplankton production  
  • A major negative feedback could result from increased ocean evaporation and increased rainfall over the ocean that in one region reduces the salinity, in another reducing sinking and thus can reduce deep currents, and thus shallow currents in the North Atlantic causing cooling there.
  • Desertification from global warming causes increased wind erosion that gives rise to globally spreading dust that reflects sunlight. The dust also fertilizes the ocean and other lands causing increased take up of carbon by water and land plants. But given that the erosion reduces the soil fertility in arid but still usable land it reduces carbon uptake there - a longer-term effect.

It is predicted that positive feedbacks will in total become stronger than negative feedbacks. When the surface earth system becomes dominated by positive feedbacks, as will happen if it gets out of human control we could call it a feedback system, while we are still alive.

Just to show how ‘new’ the concept of feedback is in earth systems to some people, my 845 page 1998 edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Science has no comment on feedback in earth systems even though James Hansen and his various teams have been modelling them since at least 1984. Now they are threatening our existence. 

Note that the ultimate tipping stage in surface earth systems has little equivalent in the social sciences, where although writers occasionally refer to tipping points, very few need be permanent in terms of the human future. An exception is the death of non-written languages, and the cultures of which they are a part. Global warming will certainly hasten this process.

Other than feedbacks, aerosols from industry, motor vehicles and forest burning have an important cooling effect on specific regions, including a direct effect on sunlight and an indirect effect by contributing to the formation of mainly low clouds. Aerosols also support plant growth as they diffuse light and thus significantly increase uptake of carbon dioxide.

The case for keeping aerosol pollution going until alternative ways of stopping warming are in place should be considered.

Apart from fossil fuel emissions, forest destruction is causing emissions while timber plantations (not reforestation) are increasing carbon absorption. The potential for carbon uptake by tree planting, timber construction and burying biochar in soil is significant.


  Copyright © 2009 Michael Tuckson.  All Rights Reserved 

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 Michael Tuckson

The website author and publisher, December 2009.


Easy Summary


We must try to understand up-to-date climate science coming out over the last few years that warns of possible disaster. Ice shelves and sheets are melting much faster than before. Global temperatures are rising, with oscillations due to ocean oscillations. Natural causes are minor compared with pollution. This understanding must be spread by advanced adult education, especially among the powerful. As many readers as possible must spread understanding.


Denier leaders are funded by the fossil fuel, tobacco and similar corporations and/or are ideologues. Their arguments are always against, not considering pro and con, as with real science. They rarely call for better understanding, just attempt to confuse. None are climate scientists. Their motivation is salary and weak government, not salary and discovery. Either they do not care about their descendants or they do not understand the probable future.


We must put more emphasis on the short-term greenhouse influences such as methane. Carbon dixide must be captured from the atmosphere. Also we must lead with behaviour change before appropriate technology spreads. Birth control is important in some regions. Job-time sharing and retraining can reduce any unemployment resulting from mitigation measures. Mitigation must be coordinated globally by government and citizens in modern sectors. City pairing could be useful.