Show an ad over header. AMP

How climate change feeds off itself and gets even worse

Climate change is like a snowball effect, except, well, hot.

Why it matters: Like a snowball begins small and grows larger by building upon itself, numerous feedback loops embedded in our atmosphere and society are exacerbating climate change.

Driving the news: Scientists are well acquainted with feedback loops, but the often wonky topic doesn’t break through into the mainstream despite its importance to how much the world warms and how much we respond to that warming.

  • As we soak up the last of these hot summer days, and extreme weather hits parts of the country, today seems a fitting time to break this down for those of us without a Ph.D.

Here are six feedback loops in science and beyond.

Air conditioning

How it works: Climate change is making our summers hotter, so we use more air conditioners, which emit greenhouse gases, which heats up our planet more, so we use even more AC, which heats up our planet even more ... You get the cycle.

  • This is an easy-to-understand feedback loop, but it’s not going to have a big impact> on our emissions, says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the research group Breakthrough Institute.
  • The bigger impact is likely to be population growth in developing countries in hot parts of the world, like India, getting AC to survive their ever-hotter weather.

Water evaporation

This one’s more technical but far more consequential for Earth’s temperature than the AC example.

How it works: The atmosphere heats up as we emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

  • This warmer air leads to more water evaporation from water and land.
  • This evaporation results in water vapor, which itself is a greenhouse gas and traps heat.
  • The increased amount of water vapor in the atmosphere retains ever more heat, which leads to more water evaporation, which results in more water vapor, which....

Between the lines: This type of feedback loop more than doubles the amount of global warming, says Hausfather.


This is a type of feedback that has only recently begun to be included in climate models, says Philip Duffy, climate scientist and president of the nonprofitWoodwell Climate Research Center.

How it works: It’s like a massive freezer thawing atop the world, Duffy says. Nearly a quarter of Northern hemisphere land has permafrost underneath it.

  • As the warm worlds, organic matter — plants and dead animals frozen for tens of thousands of years — starts to decompose. “Those decomposition processes emit greenhouse gases,” Duffy said.
  • Scientists estimate that there's twice as much carbon locked up in permafrost as is already in the atmosphere, Duffy says. "The potential to amplify warming is huge.”

Albedo feedback

This is similar to permafrost. It’s why you feel hotter in black clothes compared to white clothes.

How it works: Lighter surfaces reflect heat more, so as ice and other cold places get warmer (i.e., the Arctic and other permafrost), their ability to reflect heat diminishes and they soak up more heat.

  • “As the world warms, expect a lot of ice and snow to melt, which uncovers darker surfaces, which will result in more warming,” said Hausfather.

Between the lines: This phenomenon, combined with the permafrost one, helps explain why the planet's poles warm faster than the rest of the world.


How it works: Trees, by definition, embody carbon. So when wildfires burn them down, carbon dioxide is emitted.

  • As the world warms, temperatures get hotter and places get drier, creating tinderboxes for when wildfires do start.
  • The hotter the world gets, the bigger wildfires will be (in some places like California), the more CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, which heats up the world more, which will exacerbate wildfires more ...

Policy and economic paralysis

Unlike most policy challenges, climate change gets worse the longer we take to address it.

How it works: The longer we wait to address climate change with major government action, the bigger the policy needed and the bigger economic impact that policy will have.

  • But the bigger the policy and economic hit get, the harder the politics get.
  • So we wait longer still, making the required policy and economic impact ever bigger, which makes the politics even more difficult.

Yes, but: Plausible future scenarios also exist where the impacts of a warming world grow so intense and/or clean-energy technologies become so cheap that eventually these aforementioned feedback loops are broken.


How it works: It takes global cooperation to address climate change, given its global nature. But climate change impacts different countries differently, so they're more likely to act on their own, and in their own self-interest.

  • But if there's no global cooperation, climate change continues to get worse — prolonging the adverse impacts on different countries, and giving them even less incentive to cooperate with other countries and more incentive to act on their own.

The bottom line:

“The possible scenario that is a real nightmare is if we don’t control human emissions, nature takes over and we lose control of the warming, because of these emissions from natural systems.”
Philip Duffy, climate scientist

TikTok gets more time (again)

The White House is again giving TikTok's Chinese parent company more time to satisfy its national security concerns, rather than initiating legal action, a source familiar with the situation tells Axios.

The state of play: China's ByteDance had until Friday to satisfy national security concerns raised by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), which is chaired by Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin. This was the company's third deadline, with CFIUS having provided two earlier extensions.

Keep reading... Show less

Federal judge orders Trump administration to restore DACA

A federal judge on Friday ordered the Trump administration to fully restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, giving undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children a chance to petition for protection from deportation.

Why it matters: DACA was implemented under former President Obama, but President Trump has sought to undo the program since taking office. Friday’s ruling will require Department of Homeland Security officers to begin accepting applications starting Monday and guarantee that work permits are valid for two years.

Keep reading... Show less

Bay Area counties to enact stay-at-home order

Counties around the San Francisco Bay Area will adopt California’s new regional stay-at-home order amid surges in cases and ICU hospitalizations, health officials said Friday.

The big picture: California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a three-week stay-at-home order on Thursday that would go into effect in regions with less than 15% ICU capacity. Despite the Bay Area’s current 25.3% ICU capacity, health officials from Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara, San Francisco and the city of Berkeley are moving ahead with a shelter-in-place mandate in the hopes of reducing risk.

Keep reading... Show less

Podcast: Former FDA chief Rob Califf on the COVID-19 vaccine approval process

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing two emergency use authorization requests for COVID-19 vaccines, with an outside advisory committee scheduled to meet next Thursday to review data from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

Axios Re:Cap digs in with former FDA commissioner Rob Calif about the EUA process, the science and who should make the final call.

The U.S. economic recovery needs rocket fuel

Data: BLS. Chart: Axios Visuals

Friday's deeply disappointing jobs report should light a fire under Congress, which has dithered despite signs the economy is struggling to kick back into gear.

Driving the news: President-elect Biden said Friday afternoon in Wilmington that he supports another round of $1,200 checks.

Keep reading... Show less

CDC: It's time for "universal face mask use"

The CDC is urging “universal face mask use” for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, citing recent case spikes as the U.S. has entered a phase of “high-level transmission” before winter officially begins.

Why it matters: Daily COVID-related deaths across the U.S. hit a new record on Wednesday. Face coverings have been shown to increase protection of the wearer and those around them, despite some Americans' reluctance to use them.

Keep reading... Show less

Saudi Arabia and Qatar near deal to end standoff, sources say

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are close to a deal to end the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf following U.S.-mediated reconciliation talks this week, sources familiar with the talks tell me.

Why it matters: Restoring relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar would bring a sense of stability back to the Gulf after a 3.5 year standoff. It could also notch a last-minute achievement for the Trump administration before Jan. 20.

Keep reading... Show less

President of Soros foundation leaves amid speculation of potential Biden role

Patrick Gaspard, who served as ambassador to South Africa under President Barack Obama, is stepping down as president of George Soros' Open Society Foundations, fueling speculation that he'll join the Biden administration, potentially as Labor secretary.

What to know: Before his stint as ambassador, Gaspard was Obama's political director in the White House, drawing upon his experience in the labor movement to advance Obama's legislative agenda on health care and financial services reform.

Keep reading... Show less



Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories