Feedback Loops and Global Warming

December 15, 2021

Earth Emergency premieres Wednesday, December 29 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Stream Earth Emergency now.

Most people have heard of global warming, but few people – including policy makers – understand how environmental feedback loops amplify global warming even further. Actor and activist Richard Gere narrates the film Earth Emergency, which examines how human activity is setting off dangerous warming loops that are pushing the climate to a point of no return – and what we need to do to stop them.

(L-R): Richard Gere, Greta Thunberg, the Dalai Lama

The documentary Earth Emergency includes interviews and insights from leading climate scientists, Greta Thunberg, The Dalai Lama, and others. The film is a follow up to Climate Emergency: Feedback Loops , a series of short films that are streaming now on the film site. The sites’ educational guides explain feedback loops, the role of forests, permafrost, and more; for instance, the albedo effect, which is about the reflectivity of snow and ice at the earth’s poles in the Arctic and Antarctica that provides a cooling effect.

If I could ask one thing of you, it would be to educate yourself…spread that knowledge, spread the awareness to others,” said Greta Thunberg in a release. “Most people I know haven’t even heard of feedback loops or tipping points, chain reactions, and so on. But they are so crucial to understanding how the world works.

An explainer about feedback loops for students is offered by The Global Monitoring System of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce). The illustrated guide is useful for adults, too, and includes,

Feedback loops come in two flavors: positive and negative. A negative feedback
loop reduces the effect of change and helps maintain balance. A positive feedback
loop increases the effect of the change and produces instability.

In this case, the positive and negative naming of the loops do not indicate whether the feedback is
good or bad. In climate change, a feedback loop is something that speeds up or
slows down a warming trend. A positive feedback accelerates a temperature rise,
whereas a negative feedback slows it down.

One example of a positive – and dangerous – feedback loop is this, from the Arctic: if the frozen permafrost layer warms and releases heat-trapping gases as a byproduct, the gases can warm the atmosphere. The processes of carbon dioxide and methane release and reabsorption in the Arctic permafrost area are complex. Scientist Dr. Kevin Schaefer provides a good explainer on the National Snow and Ice Data Center site, including a bonus: an amazing photograph of a steppe bison that lay frozen in permafrost for 36,000 years before it was discovered in 1979.

Earth Emergency premieres Wednesday, December 29 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN.