On fire and ice and feedback loops

Gavin Starks
4 min readJul 14, 2021


Photo of dark clouds over a cityscape with a river in the foreground and boats in the middle ground. (CC-BY)

I tend to avoid posting bleak/doom-laden things as (a) there’s already a lot of that about, and (b) it doesn’t help bring us a sense of agency. The purpose of this post isn’t to increase panic or fear, but to call each of us to action—in whatever capacity we might have.

There are times where it’s important to remember why we’re working on things with such urgency, why (some) rules need to be broken, why we just don’t have time to keep discussing ‘if’ we should try a thing and just try it.

We desperately need our leaders to really lead, and we (all) need to give them the mandate and confidence to lead (which is more than difficult given the state of politics).

But today, a bit of a personal tipping point. This news is difficult to really internalise, although the Guardian actually manages to overstate it (it’s not the ‘whole’ Amazon, but ‘only’ about a fifth of it).

My summary is that substantial regions (about 20–30%) of the Amazon rainforest now emitting more CO2 than it can absorb.

If you pause to consider the feedback loops that kick in here: our recent very public and global learnings about what the word ‘exponential’ actually translates into. And we’re not dealing with ‘one virus’, we’re dealing with compound, interwoven feedback loops.

  • On Rainforest becoming a source instead of a sink?
    More emissions = more heating = more fires = less forest = more emissions.
  • Similar feedback loops exist in the Arctic.
    More emissions = more heating = more melting = less ice = less sunlight reflected = more heating.

And for humans?

  • More emissions = more heating = parts of Earth become uninhabitable* (see ‘wet bulb temperature’)= mass migration = war.
    * especially equatorial regions, South America, Middle East, Southern Europe (or we could increase AirCon = more power + resources = more emissions)

and, in case we thought we might solve that bit somehow:

  • More emissions = more melting = sea level rise = parts of Earth become uninhabitable* = mass migration = war.
    * including coastal cities like London, New York, Shanghai. [by mass migration, I mean 100M+ people]

I’d love to see the research that links these feedback loops together: a truly multi-dimensional systems model that could indicate the real rate of change.

The imperative, as it has been for some time, is to act now.

The cost of delay isn’t ‘having to invest more in sequestration later’, it’s avoiding war.

We should move to a war economy now, as we did with Covid, and *shut things down now*. Invest in rebuilding a cleaner, equitable future. I’m not at all convinced we can run business-as-usual and build-the-future at the same time: the incentives are just not there with the right mandates. The pace isn’t right.

There is also *amazing* work being done on many fronts, by amazing people. But [to me] it’s still not enough, or fast enough.

The urgency of action should be the same as we’ve employed over the last 18 months, with all the lessons learned that if we delay — it’s worse; if we ‘relax too soon’ — it’ll be worse.

We spent multiples of our GDP creating the industrial revolution, we now need to do that again. [we’re trying to do our bit on the data revolution side of things over here]


Wet-bulb temperature

Research paper published today on the Amazon

And, in other prescient news