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12 December 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 2:33am

The Four Feedbacks of the Apocalypse

A call to guard our future and the future of our children against the self inducing effects of globa

By Oliver Postgate

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your eyes, and also, if you have tears to shed, prepare to shed them now. For I am not joking. I write about the future.

Not so much about our own future, but about the future of our children and of the world in which they hope to live, the world whose atmosphere we are fast poisoning beyond recovery, the world that is moving inexorably towards chaos and death.

I say inexorably, not because the climate is necessarily beyond recovery, but because our politicians and leaders are in a dream-time in which they cannot bring themselves to entertain the reality of the situation and seek the action that might save it.

Yes, they have recognised the onset of global warming. True, they have sought and chosen convenient predictions. In the bright light of these, long-term ‘targets’ have been identified, and plausible programmes adopted.

As a result, global warming has recently moved from being an emergency to being a political subject, with the government adopting the so-called ‘gradualist’ approach which allows several decades in which to work towards putting in place corrective measures to limit its effects without undue disturbance. There is also the ‘urgentist’, approach which allows about a quarter of a century in which to move to a relatively carbon-free industrial situation.

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But in general terms the world seems to have decided to go on as usual for now and not do much about global warming until not having done it is seen to have become sufficiently damaging to justify political action.

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By then it will be too late, because the feedbacks will have taken over.


These are simply effects which, once under way, become self-inducing.

The current situation has been caused by the fact that for the last twenty years, to service our vastly extravagant economy, we have been emitting massive quantities of extra carbon-dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect created by this ever-increasing concentration is causing global warming, which in turn is beginning to cause the feedbacks.

There are many of them, but these are the main ones:

1. Chemical. The effects of the warming and acidification of the ocean surface is to reduce its capacity to absorb CO2 and also inhibit the growth of plankton which used to absorb CO2. So more CO2 is left in the air to add to the effect.

2. Greenhouse gases. Global warming will be (or already is) thawing out quantities of methane frozen in the Arctic tundra. This is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. It will cause even more methane to be thawed out, which will not only add to global warming but will also cause the peat-bogs to decay and later catch fire, releasing immense quantities of CO2 into the air.

3. Ice. The polar ice-caps and the glaciers of the great mountain ranges are melting fast. Vast areas of India, China and America rely on melt water for irrigation. Once there is no more melt water these will suffer desert-drought and starvation. The Amazon will shrink and the rain-forest, now a great absorber of CO2, will die off and decay, releasing its CO2.

4. Reflectivity. As the polar ice recedes, the area will darken and absorb more of the sun’s heat, thus melting more ice until there is none left. This will unbalance the delicate temperature equilibrium between earth and sun. Then the earth will gradually become hotter and hotter until, after many decades, a new equilibrium is reached,

The future?

As things are, we can look forward to going on more or less as usual, but, if we take no action to reverse global warming and prevent the triggering of feedbacks, we shall be moving into a future of gradual decay, a future in which, one after another, what are called ‘weather-patterns’ will change. The snow may forget to fall.

One day the rains will not come, or maybe come as a flood. The bright ice will slowly melt into the dark water, and the green that grows to feed the fish will not appear. Starving whales may beach to die.

At each of these stages, the political climatologists will simply revise their predictions in the light of what is happening and then go on as usual. After all, their predictions were never more than conjectures. Conjectures do not take blame.

At the same time, piecemeal, slowly but at an increasing rate, the heat will change the face of the world. Forests will die, deserts will spread, and massively charged storms and hurricanes will smash through cities as the seas rise and slosh into them. Life, if it can move, will edge towards the poles where the ice that once cooled the world may have left behind some tillable land. But, in the desperate struggle for survival, our massive armouries of killing machines will have come into their own and there will be very few left undead, to scratch a living in the savannah that was once Siberia, while it lasts. After that there could be nothing. And maybe nobody left to remember that there ever was anything.


The current situation is that if immediate action were to be taken to cut and ration the man-made emissions of CO2 and every known technical means employed to bring the atmospheric CO2 swiftly down to the lowest possible level, the world could probably be saved within the few years that may remain before the feedbacks become established. But to do that would call for action that would be unpopular and, to say the least, disruptive.

However, that action could have one significant aspect which could, fairly quickly, recover the situation and so restore a reasonable standard of living.

It is this. Many forms of carbon-free alternative energy are already about: wave-energy, solar energy, wind-power, hydro-electric energy, geothermal energy – even nuclear energy. The trouble so far has been that, with plentiful carbon-based energy available, there has been no real commercial incentive to develop these.

But, once the supply of carbon-based energy is cut, there would be an instant, fully-fledged market for large-scale alternative energy systems waiting. The rich oil companies would be in there like beavers, cracking hydrogen from water in the Congo. They would go drilling, not for the black stuff but for heat, and, to crown it all, nobody would bother to fight wars for oil any more!

Although their own grandchildren, like ours, may fry if they do nothing, our politicians still believe that they cannot act until they know they have sufficient, fully-expressed, public support already in place. To take the sort of action that could save the world calls for courage and a real willingness to face real facts. Those are qualities they will not have unless we ourselves display and demand them.

© Oliver Postgate
10th December 2006.