Connecting climate change

The factors behind climate change are complex, dynamic and interlinked

The Earth’s physical, chemical, biological and social systems are interlinked. Change one thing and the results can be far-reaching – and not easy to predict.

The Earth is a dynamic system, constantly changing. It may appear static because the underlying dynamics have reached an equilibrium state or because changes are occurring over very long timeframes.

The dynamics arise because different parts of the system interact with one another – chemicals react, waves erode coasts, animals eat one another.

Because there are so many parts to the system, it is hugely complex. Researchers therefore tend to focus on a subset of factors that are most relevant to their area of interest.

Nevertheless, in principle it is possible to describe the behaviour of a system in terms of the nature of the interactions between its different components. The relationship between them can broadly be defined as being of one of two types:

  • a positive response (e.g. more sunlight, more plant growth)
  • a negative response (e.g. more sheep, less grass).

Interactions are often complicated or nonlinear – e.g. how an element responds depends on the size of the change. A change may also affect itself, through feedback mechanisms:

  • negative feedback (more predators, less prey; predators starve and their numbers fall; prey recovers)
  • positive feedback (fish stocks run low, fishermen catch smaller fish; fewer fish reproduce, fish stocks fall further).

Negative feedback loops are stabilising forces and common in biological control systems and ecology.

Positive feedback systems, by contrast, can be powerful drivers of change. A major fear in climate change is that positive feedback systems could push us over a ‘tipping point’, whereby environmental factors begin driving temperatures up on their own. An example might be the sudden release of huge quantities of methane from melting permafrost or reserves buried under the oceans.

Systems that are highly sensitive to starting conditions are described by chaos theory. Although governed by rules, they appear chaotic and unpredictable. Chaos theory is often likened to the ‘butterfly effect’, a term coined by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz to describe a situation whereby the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the planet sets off a tornado somewhere else.

For people, the implications are far-reaching. Increased greenhouse gas emissions are not being harmlessly absorbed into the atmosphere. They are triggering profound chemical, geophysical, meteorological, biological and social changes. Butterflies’ wings are flapping like mad all over the globe.

References

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Health and Climate Change’ in January 2009 and reviewed and updated in September 2014.

Topics:
Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment
Issue:
Health and Climate Change
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development