The basic mechanics of climate change are familiar: Burning fossil fuels increases the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, causing the planet to retain more heat. However, the climate system is complex, and changing the planet’s temperature can also change the natural world in ways that release still more greenhouse gases. These are feedback loops, or ways that global warming can accelerate itself in a vicious cycle.
Is it possible these feedback loops could send us past a point of no return—a tipping point where humans no longer have the power to slow climate change? Not exactly, says Andrei Sokolov, MIT research scientist and an expert on climate sensitivity. Over longer time periods, he says, the Earth will balance itself out through corrective measures, such as the ocean absorbing carbon dioxide from the air. In the short term, though, the warming effects of feedback loops may make our planet a decidedly unpleasant place to live.