Globalization refers to the increasing interconnectedness of individuals and social groups everywhere on the planet, and to the increasing inability of any particular social group to isolate itself from outside influences. The process has geopolitical, economic, cultural, and environmental dimensions.
However, globalization is currently in retreat, and any possible environmental benefits from it are in jeopardy. Causes of the current wave of deglobalization include: 1) the economic suffering imposed on workers in the most developed countries by globalization of the labor market (which has inspired efforts to reduce imports of manufactured goods), 2) the psychological shock of juxtaposing very different cultures (e.g. secular vs. religious) made possible by modern transportation and communication technology (hence leading to revivals of xenophobic fundamentalism), and 3) the political benefits to autocratic leaders from rousing nationalist fervor (hence leading to outbreaks of war, as in Ukraine).
The rise of nationalism and deglobalization is associated with a retreat from global environmental change issues, e.g. the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement by the Trump administration in 2017, and the anti-environmental policies of the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil. That kind of nationalism shirks responsibility for planetary scale problems and in practice is a false nationalism. It ultimately endangers all nations on Earth as the global biophysical environment deteriorates and ecosystem services to humans are lost.
Reformed globalization (reglobalization) is a new concept that could help overcome the dangers of deglobalization. Reglobalization would include stronger national and international efforts to reduce economic inequality and to extend the benefits of globalization more uniformly. It would mean a wide recognition that we live on a crowded planet, which must be managed collectively to insure continued delivery of nature’s services. Indeed, global environmental change issues could be the major driver towards an era of greater global unity.
With respect to the environment, reglobalization would include stepped-up green-tech transfer to developing countries for mitigation of climate change, stronger institutions of global environmental governance, and a revived commitment by individuals, institutions, and nations to global sustainability.
Environmental reglobalization will likely not have the prodigious force of the neoliberal globalization wave that began in the 1980s. Rather, it must be cultivated based on wide public awareness, active civil society organizations, and wise political leadership.
The technosphere is often described by way of analogy to the biosphere. In both cases, energy throughput supports maintenance of order.
In the biosphere, the source of the energy is mostly the sun, and the fuel is often carbohydrates derived directly or indirectly from photosynthesis. The energy captured by photosynthesis is used for maintenance of metabolism in existing biomass (autotrophic respiration) and production of new biomass (of all types), which is ultimately broken down in heterotrophic respiration. These terms can be expressed in terms of energy flux or carbon flux.
In the technosphere, the energy source is also mostly the sun in that the fossil fuels that currently power the technosphere have their ultimate origin in ancient solar energy.
The technosphere equivalent of maintenance respiration is the energy throughput not associated with materials production, e.g., energy for heating, cooling, transportation, and communication. The technosphere equivalent of biomass production is manufacture of material artifacts like cars and buildings, much of which is turnover (replacement of worn-out or non-functioning objects) and some of which is new (expansion of the technosphere). The combination of energy spent on maintenance and manufacturing could loosely be considered technosphere respiration.
To whatever degree that climate change induced technosphere energy consumption is supplied by fossil fuel combustion, i.e., business as usual, there will be more CO2 emissions and more global warming. This positive feedback loop (Figure 2) will frustrate global efforts to rein in CO2 emissions.
Another source of increasing energy demand will be the more rapid turnover of technosphere artifacts because of a changing disturbance regime. More fires, extreme weather events, permafrost melting, and sea level rise will all be destructive and require new construction. Again, we will see more demand for energy and eventually more warming (Figure 2).
The 3 mechanisms of positive technosphere feedback noted here do not consider other factors that will be increasing technosphere energy demand in the near future, particularly the demands associated with a growing global population and continued economic development (rising per capita energy use).
A few sources of downward pressure on total energy consumption are in play, including increasing energy use efficiency, increasing building insulation, and longer artifact turnover time. They point to the importance of efficiency standards (e.g., for air conditioners), building standards (for insulation), and product standards (for extending product lifetime). To the degree that improvements in these fields are driven by an intent to limit climate change, they represent a negative technosphere feedback to climate change (effectively a teleological feedback).
A shift of the global energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels would of course also limit the magnitude of the climate change that initiates these feedbacks in the first place. That worthy goal is technically feasible.
Every human being on the planet will experience an astronomical event on June 20 (2021). I refer of course to the June Solstice, the point in Earth’s orbit around the sun when daylength begins to shorten in the northern hemisphere and to lengthen in the southern hemisphere. The astronomical orientation is reversed in the December Solstice. Our ancestors were very attuned to these annual events, as evinced by the alignment of the megaliths at Stonehenge and at other ancient observatories. Most Earth dwellers now live urban lives and may give little thought to the orientation of Earth to Sun. I propose thinking about Solstice events in a new way – as a celebration of planetary citizenship.
Especially since the late 1980s, scientists have produced a drumbeat of reports documenting a range of global environmental change threats, notably climate change. The sum of environmental impacts from 7.8 billion people is driving the Earth system towards a condition that will cause vast human misery, and perhaps imperil civilization itself. Humanity clearly must begin to act collectively to mitigate our impacts on the environment. But we live in a world that is highly polarized and seemingly getting more so.
Humans are social animals, and generally identify with a circumscribed social group. However, because global scale problems require global scale solutions, we Earthlings must now begin identifying with humanity as a whole − quite a challenge for a species whose social instincts evolved when social groups were small bands of hunter gatherers. A unifying feature of a society is its shared culture, including myths, beliefs, and rituals. The new importance of the Solstice lies its contribution to an emerging global culture.
Several features make the Solstice a unifying event. One is that it is clearly a global phenomenon: everyone experiences it (albeit more strongly at high latitudes). The celestial mechanics of the Solstice are fairly simple, and contemplating the event stimulates thinking about global scale structures and processes − something which we certainly need to be doing to address the environmental challenges ahead.
A second relevant feature is that our understanding of the Solstice is science-based. Whereas the early celebrants at Stonehenge knew from their long-term observations only that the sun had reached its northernmost circuit on Summer Solstice or was beginning its return from the south on Winter Solstice, we can chart Earth’s orbit around the sun and understand that our planet is tilted on its axis, hence the pattern of seasonality. More broadly, we understand Earth’s climate system and how it is regulated by solar geometry, as well as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For the purposes of a needed common belief system, the scientific worldview wonderfully fits the bill. The advance of science now provides a growing intellectual heritage that all of humanity can share.
As to how the Solstice might be celebrated, most people on Earth can walk outdoors at sunrise or sunset on June 20th and note where on the horizon that the sun appears or disappears. The time of day and angle on the horizon are different at every location on Earth, but we all know it is a special day for the planet.
In a complimentary sense, this action would also help invigorate the local sense of place. Every year at any location, the two Solstice events will repeat − kind of a comfort really.
Traditional ways of celebrating the Solstice include decorating trees and lighting candles (Scandinavia). Occasionally, the media take notice. This year, wish everybody a happy solstice! Perhaps we can eventually make it a global holiday.
In this era of growing nationalism and anti-globalization, when the gathering storm of global environmental change means that the society composed of all humanity should be strengthening rather than weakening, we must search for unifying experiences and beliefs. Attending to the Solstice, be it the one in June or the one in December, is a way to relate to our planetary home and be reminded that we are all in this together.
Earth system scientists think of planet Earth as composed of multiple interacting spheres. The cryosphere is a term given to the totality of frozen water on Earth – including snow, ice, glaciers, polar ice caps, sea ice, and permafrost.
The cryosphere has a significant effect on the global climate because snow and ice largely reflect solar radiation, hence cooling the planet.
The multiple glacial-interglacial cycles over the last several million years were initiated by changes in sun/earth geometry (the Milankovitch cycles), but strengthened by changes in snow/ice reflectance along with changes in greenhouse gas concentrations.
Besides the positive feedback to climate change by way of reflectance effects (and release of greenhouse gases from permafrost melting), the diminishment of the cryosphere will have profound impacts on the technosphere.
The circulation of water through the hydrosphere on land is regulated in many cases by accumulation of snow and ice on mountains. That water is subsequently released throughout the year, thus providing stable stream flows for downstream irrigated agriculture and urban use.
The melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps will drive up sea level. If all such ice is melted (over the course of hundreds to thousands of years), sea level is projected to rise 68 m. The magnitude of sea level rise projected over the next 100 years for intermediate emissions scenarios is on the order of one meter.
Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will certainly slow the erosion of the cryosphere and should be made. The precautionary principle suggests we avoid passing tipping points associated with melting of the Greenland ice cap and the Antarctic ice cap. However, the momentum of environmental change is strongly in that direction.
Once these ice caps are gone, there is a hysteresis effect such that the ice does not return with a simple reversion to the current climate (e.g. by an engineered drawdown of the CO2 concentration).
The planet is headed towards a warmer, largely ice free, condition. The biosphere has been there before. The technosphere has not. Humanity will be challenged to develop adequate adaptive strategies.
Earth Day in 2020 is the 50th Anniversary for this annual gathering of our global tribe. Historically, it has been an opportunity to note declines in environmental quality and to envision a sustainable relationship of humanity to the rest of the Earth system.
This year, in addition to the usual concerns about issues like climate change and ocean acidification, Earth Day is accompanied by concern about the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic. A glance at the geographic distribution of this virus is the latest reminder that interactions with the biosphere, in this case the microbial component, can link all humans in powerful ways.
Environmental issues that were on the front burner when Senator Gaylord Nelson initiated Earth Day in 1970 were mostly local − polluted rivers, polluted air, and degraded land cover. These issues were addressed to a significant degree in the U.S. by passage of the Clean Water Act (1972), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). These were national level successes inspired by environmental activism.
Awareness of global environmental change in 1970 was only dimly informed by geophysical observations such as the slow rise in the atmospheric CO2 concentration. But by the 1980s, climate scientists began a drumbeat of testimony to governments and the media that the environmental pollution issue extended to the global scale and might eventually threaten all of humanity.
To help matters, economic globalization in the 1990s began uniting the world in new ways. Huge flows in goods and services across borders fueled a truly global economy. The level of communication required to support the global economy was based on the rapidly evolving Internet. It provided the foundation for a global transportation/telecommunications infrastructure that now envelops the planet.
A political backlash to economic and cultural globalization has recently brought to power leaders like Donald Trump (U.S.) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil). Their inclination is much more towards nationalism than towards global solidarity on environmental issues.
However, humanity is indeed united – in fear of climate change and coronavirus pandemics if nothing else.
Each year, the growing incidence of extreme weather events associated with anthropogenic climate change negatively impinges on the quality of life of a vast number of people around the planet. This year, billions of us are locked down in one form or another to slow the spread of a virus that likely emerged from trafficking in wild animals. In a mythopoetic sense, it is as if Earth was responding to the depredations imposed upon it by our species.
Philosopher Isabelle Stengers refers to the “intrusion” of Gaia (the Earth system) upon human history. The message from Gaia is that she is no longer just a background for the infinite expansion of the human enterprise (the technosphere).
Humanity can reply to Gaia with ad hoc measures like building sea walls for protection from sea level rise. Or we can get organized and develop a framework for global environmental governance.
There are many impediments to becoming a global “we” that will work collectively on global environmental change issues. Nevertheless, the incentives for doing so are arriving hard and fast. The diminishment of the wild animal trade in China in response to COVID-19, and the unintended reduction of greenhouse gas emissions globally associated with efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, signal that radical change is possible.
Fitting testaments to an emerging global solidarity about environmental issues would be eradication of commercial exploitation of wild land animals everywhere in the world, and stronger national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to current obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement.
Both initiatives of course face strong cultural and political headwinds. But Earth Day, as one of the largest recurring secular celebrations in the world, is an opportunity to think anew.
blog post noted that global land photosynthesis is clearly increasing
in recent decades. However, when we turn
to the ocean, the story is different (albeit more ambiguous).
About half of global photosynthesis takes place in the
ocean. Much of the resulting biomass production
(net primary production) is consumed, thus supporting a food web that includes large
marine animals like fish and whales.
Billions of people eat wild caught ocean fish each day as a source of
Photosynthesis in the ocean is frequently constrained
by nutrient availability. Hence, areas
where photosynthesis is high are often where upwelling brings nutrient-rich
deep water to the surface, or runoff from the land includes nutrients.
Earth system scientists now monitor global ocean photosynthesis using a combination of satellite remote sensing, direct measurements, and modeling. As always with global scale processes, there is significant uncertainty about the estimates and some regions show increasing net primary production (NPP) while other regions show decreases. Various studies have reached differing conclusions about trends in the global total, but a recent study suggested that ocean NPP is in decline (1998 – 2015).
Oceanographers are beginning to get an understanding of what is driving the decline.
A key factor appears to be reduced delivery of
nutrients to the ocean’s surface. The
causes are related to global warming, a process driven by rising concentrations
of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
An important mechanism that is slowing delivery of nutrients to the surface ocean is an increase in stratification associated with the general warming of ocean surface waters. A cap of warm water tends to reduce vertical mixing, which in turn reduces recharge of surface nutrients from deeper waters where much decomposition and nutrient release takes place.
Another process related to nutrient supply involves
the cycling of water from the surface to the deep ocean and back to the surface
(the thermohaline circulation). The
descending arm of this Earth-girdling loop of ocean circulation is based on
warm water brought north by the Gulf Stream.
That water cools, densifies, and sinks in the North Atlantic Ocean and
eventually returns to the surface elsewhere bringing with it nutrients from the
deep ocean. Recent measurements suggest
of that descending arm cause by a freshening of North
Atlantic waters driven mostly by melting of the Greenland ice cap.
A decline in ocean photosynthesis − the base of the
ocean food chain − likely translates into lower fish production. Fisheries all over the planet are already
under stress from many factors, not least of which is overharvesting. Ocean warming causes decline of coral (a
source of NPP), ocean
acidification reduces NPP of calcifying plankton, decreases
in ocean oxygen from reduced mixing and excess nutrient
runoff (coastal dead zones) force fish to migrate, and toxic waste inputs
(including macro-, micro-, and nano- plastics) reduce feeding efficiency. After decades of fish harvest increases, the
global catch peaked in the 1990s. Model-based projections
of ocean animal biomass suggest continuing declines with
further ocean warming.
Despite the immensity of the ocean, human impacts on
it are piling up. A new
narrative about ocean management is needed.
a part of the technosphere) cannot directly change ocean
circulation in an attempt to restore declining primary production and fish
production. We can only slow the
emissions of greenhouse gases, which would slow global warming and its associated
impacts on ocean mixing and circulation.
Stabilizing, then reducing, the atmospheric CO2 concentration
would also slow ocean acidification.
The time is now to support leaders who understand the
realities of global environmental change and are committed to working
domestically and internationally to implement policies that change the current
trajectory of the Earth system.
The future invades the present much more so in recent
times than was the case in previous generations. That’s because the global human enterprise
has initiated an era of global climate change – with potentially catastrophic
impacts on future generations. Thus,
humans must now worry more about the future than might otherwise be the
case. While we
still have time, humanity must alter course – we
must redesign the technosphere.
Earth system scientists have a responsibility to
discern coming changes to the Earth system as clearly as possible, and to evaluate
potential mitigation strategies. The
time horizon of these scenarios for global change are commonly on the order of
or perhaps several centuries. But examining
scenarios that play out over hundreds to thousands of years is also necessary.
In the course of writing a book
about global environmental change, I developed a rather dystopian
long-timeframe Earth system scenario. I
call it the Icarus Scenario. This story
of Earth’s future is based on emerging Earth system science knowledge about
past episodes of drastic global change over the course of geologic
history. On multiple occasions, tectonic
movements have initiated periods of massive greenhouse gas emissions (sound
familiar?) that led to strong global warming, followed by major alterations in
ocean circulation and chemistry, as well as profound changes in the biosphere
(including mass extinction events in some cases).
Humanity might now be initiating the next iteration of
sequence, and the Icarus myth seems an appropriate referent. Icarus was the figure from Greek mythology
who, with his father, constructed wings of feathers and wax. His father warned him not to fly too close to
the sun for fear of melting the wax, but Icarus got carried away with the joy
of flight. He indeed flew too close to
the sun, his wings disintegrated, and he crashed to his death on the ground.
A contemporary version of this myth might be manifest as the on-going build-out of the technosphere (with associated greenhouse gas emissions), warnings by scientists about the possibility of overheating the planet, continued fossil-fuel-based technosphere growth driven by an exuberant market economy, and global warming sufficient to push the Earth system through a series of tipping points that catastrophically warm the planet. Recent geophysical observations suggest the risk of initiating that sequence is increasing.
We can’t of course know the future. But there are several compelling reasons why
we as a global collective should grapple with the Icarus Scenario.
It is likely that the wealthiest people in the world
will be able to largely insulate themselves from impacts of climate change over
the next generation or so. Consequently,
supporting societal investment in mitigation climate change (e.g. the Green New
Deal) may not be a high priority.
However, if their legacy will amount to nothing in a somewhat longer
perspective, they might pitch in more vigorously (thanks Jeff
The Icarus Scenario also strengthens the rationale for
investing in climate change mitigation as soon as possible to reduce the
possibility of passing a threshold and being unable to reverse the trajectory of
the Earth system towards catastrophic warming.
principle is more readily invoked as the magnitude of a threat
increases, and the Icarus Scenario is the ultimate threat.
Being an inveterate optimist, I also formulated in my book a long-term Earth system scenario in which the technosphere builds a sustainable relationship with the rest of the Earth system. My Noösphere Scenario (pronounced like noah-sphere) assumes cultural evolution towards a high technology global civilization that self-regulates to avoid overheating the planet and consuming the biosphere. The root word nous refers to mind – Earth becomes a planet organized by collective thought.
The growth of the technosphere is changing the Earth system, pushing it towards a state that may be inimical to future human civilization . As technosphere capital − e.g. in the form of buildings, machines, and electronic devices – is increasing, biosphere capital −in the form of wild organisms and intact ecosystems − is decreasing .
Figure 1. Decline in freshwater, marine and terrestrial
populations of vertebrates. Adapted from
Ripple et al. 2015 .
The growth of the
technosphere has tremendous momentum and we must ask if it can be shaped and
regulated into something that is sustainable, i.e. able to co-exist with the
rest of the Earth system over the long term.
Figure 2. Earth system indicator trends 1750-2010. Adapted from Steffen et al. 2015 .
Why is the
technosphere growing so vigorously? Let’s consider three quite different
1. The most general driver of technosphere
growth is what systems ecologist Howard Odum called the “maximum power
principle”. It states: “During
self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power
intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and
efficiency” . Self-organization is a widely observed phenomenon, extending
from the funnel of water formed in a draining bathtub, to inorganic chemical
reactions that create arresting geometric designs, to giant termite mounds, and
indeed, to cities . Given
Earth’s vast reservoirs of fossil fuel energy, and a selection regime that
rewards growth, the technosphere will indeed tend to increase energy
consumption, matter throughput, and complexity.
2. Underlying much of the momentum of
technosphere growth is the global market economy. Capitalism is essentially the operating
system of the technosphere.
Corporations, the state, and workers are compelled to expand the economy
and hence the technosphere .
The market economy
rewards increasing efficiencies in production (to reduce costs) and often the
route to greater efficiently and greater economies of scale is by investment in
technology. Technical progress is now
the expected norm and investments in research and development are a part of
corporate culture and national agendas.
Economists refer to the “treadmill of production” in which “competition, profitability, and the
quest for market share has contributed to an acceleration of human impact on
the environment” .
Economic globalization has geographically extended the market economy to
the whole world.
3. Historically, war has been one of the biggest
drivers of technological expansion. In
the Parable of the Tribes, historian
Andrew Schmookler describes the sustained pressure on societies to conquer or
be conquered .
Technology advances certainly help in winning wars and national
governments invest heavily in research and application of technologies for
war. The Internet began with U.S. Defense
Department funding to build a communications infrastructure that was hardened
against nuclear attack.
Humanity has of course
benefited broadly as the technosphere expanded.
Billions of people now have standards of living rivaling those of
royalty a few hundred years ago. The
proportion of the global population living in poverty continues to decline.
But even before the use
of the term technosphere, scientists and philosophers had begun to question
whether technology was always a benevolent force. The
concept of “autonomous technology” suggests that the growth and elaboration of
technology can escape human control [10, 11]. The
possibilities for a nuclear holocaust or a greenhouse gas driven climate change
catastrophe are indicative of technology-mediated global threats.
What can be
The maximum power principle does promote energy throughput, but there is
plenty of scope for insuring that technosphere energy prioritizes renewable
energy. Carbon taxes may be the simplest
approach to rapidly driving down fossil fuel combustion. Comprehensive recycling, based on a circular economy, will help constrain
the mass throughput of the technosphere.
Finishing the global demographic transition  will reduce future demand for natural
Capitalism will not go away but could undergo a Reformation. That means more corporate
responsibility, better governmental oversight of corporate behavior, and increased
attention by consumer to the environmental footprint of their consumption.
The global incidence of physical war is decreasing, which will help slow
the growth of the technosphere. Wars are
often based on the threat of an enemy, but humanity may become more unified
based on the common threat of global environmental change. The Paris Accord is suggestive of the
The trajectory of the
technosphere is towards limitless growth.
However, we live on a planet – there are indeed limits to the natural
resources upon which the technosphere depends.
Humans are only a part of the technosphere, thus cannot truly control it
(13). But they can certainly shape it
. Likewise, the technosphere is only
part of the Earth system, thus cannot fully control the Earth system: quite
possibly, the Earth system will respond to the environmental impacts of the
technosphere with changes that suppress the technosphere and associated human
welfare. Improved understanding of
technosphere growth in the context of the rest of the Earth system is clearly
Gaia was originally a figure from Greek mythology: the
mother goddess who gave birth to the sky, the mountains, and the sea. Gaia was adopted by the Romans when they
conquered the Mediterranean basin, but her myth was largely abandoned with the
ascendency of Christianity by the third century CE.
The first revival of Gaia was a product of the nascent
Earth system science community in the 1970s.
Atmospheric chemist James Lovelock was impressed by the finding of geologists
that life had persisted on Earth for over 3 billion years despite a 25%
increase in the strength of solar radiation (associated with an aging sun), and
numerous catastrophic collisions with asteroids. He also understood that the chemistry of the
atmosphere − which provides oxygen for animal respiration, protection from
toxic solar UV-B radiation, and influences the global climate − was maintained
by the metabolism of the biosphere.
These observations led him to suggest that the Earth
as a whole was in a sense homeostatic, it was able to maintain certain life
enhancing properties in the face of significant perturbations.
In casting around for a name to give this organism-like version of the planet, he was inspired by author William Golding to revive the term Gaia. Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis went on to write many influential peer-reviewed papers, and later books, on Gaia.
By the 1990s, the question of what regulated the functioning
of the Earth system had become of more than academic interest. Earth system scientists had observed that the
Earth system was changing and begun to worry about possible impacts of those
changes on the human enterprise. Concentrations
of greenhouse gases were rising, stratospheric ozone was declining, and a wave
of extinctions was sweeping the planet.
Geoscientists were initially intrigued by the Gaia Hypothesis about planetary homeostasis, hoping perhaps that Gaian homeostasis might save us from ourselves. But by around 2000 they had largely rejected Gaia as an entity. Many of the feedbacks in the Earth system (see my Teleological Feedback blog) were positive (amplifying climate change) rather than negative (damping), hence not contributing to homeostasis.
The second revival of Gaia came predominantly from scholars in the humanities. Historians typically begin human history about 10,000 years ago when humans adopted an agricultural way of life. However, the discovery that humans have recently begun to alter the global environment on a geologic scale changes everything (as activist Naomi Klein says). The Earth system is no longer a benevolent background state that will provide a growing humanity with unlimited resources. Earth has a Gaian history that is now imposed upon by human history. The new field of Big History aims to juxtapose the geologic and anthropocentric time frames.
Historians needed a term to evoke an Earth system that
in a sense has its own agency, and scholars like science historian Bruno Latour
and philosopher Isabelle Stengers settled on Gaia. They emphasized Gaia not as a nurturing
mother, but rather a force that will smack humanity down if the current
trajectory of global environmental change continues.
In a recent hybrid interpretation, geoscientist Tim Lenton
and humanities scholar Bruno Latour have dubbed the newly revived Gaia as Gaia
2.0. This version refers to an Earth system on
which a sentient species has evolved and begun to alter the planet but has collectively
taken on the project of developing an advanced technological civilization (a
technosphere) that will live on the planet sustainably. That means comprehensive renewable energy, nearly
closed material cycling, conservation of biodiversity to support the background
metabolism of Gaia 1.0, implementation of multiple strategies to moderate
climate change, and forms of governance that facilitate self-regulation at
Earth system scientists commonly refer to feedbacks in the climate system.
A feedback loop within a system means that a change in one part or component of the system induces a change in another component that either amplifies (positive feedback) or dampens (negative feedback) the initial change.
The classic positive feedback related to global climate change and the Earth system is that warming of the global climate caused by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere results in reduction in snow cover and sea ice, which causes less reflectance of solar radiation, and hence more absorption of solar radiation by Earth’s surface, and more warming. A potential negative feedback is if warming increases evaporation, which causes more clouds, which reflect more solar radiation, and hence cool the climate. Most of the feedbacks in the climate system are positive.
By burning fossil fuels and pushing up the atmospheric
CO2 concentration, humanity is unintentionally warming the global
climate and inducing multiple climate system feedbacks.
A big question is whether humanity can collectively begin
to purposefully impact the Earth system in the form of a negative feedback to
climate change, i.e. begin to slow down the rise in greenhouse gas
concentrations and even begin to draw down those concentrations. This willful action would be a teleological feedback
to our unintended warming of the Earth system by way of greenhouse gas
A disturbing paradox about current climate change is
that by increasing the atmospheric CO2 concentration, humanity has
shown that we are the equivalent of a geological force. But humanity thus far is not organized enough
to purposefully shape the Earth system.
What we don’t have is much political will to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nor the right international institutions to manage a global scale response.
Political will comes from lots of sources, but maybe the most likely source is that as more and more people experience extreme weather events, sea level rise, and the other impacts of climate change, they will support mitigation efforts (e.g. a carbon tax). Australia in 2020 appears to be a test case for this proposition.
Also, we might hope for political leaders who understand
the situation and are committed to doing something about it.
Regarding global environmental governance, the size and strength of relevant international institutions are incommensurate with the challenge of global environmental change. At the very least, a stronger United Nations Environmental Program or a new U.N. World Environmental Organization is needed.