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Climate–society feedbacks and the avoidance of dangerous climate change


The growth in anthropogenic CO2 emissions experienced since the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important disturbance operating on the Earth’s climate system1. To avoid dangerous climate change, future greenhouse-gas emissions will have to deviate from business-as-usual trajectories2. This implies that feedback links need to exist between climate change and societal actions. Here, we show that, consciously or otherwise, these feedbacks can be represented by linking global mean temperature change to the growth dynamics of CO2 emissions. We show that the global growth of new renewable sources of energy post-1990 represents a climate–society feedback of 0.25% yr−1 per degree increase in global mean temperature. We also show that to fulfil the outcomes negotiated in Durban in 2011, society will have to become 50 times more responsive to global mean temperature change than it has been since 1990. If global energy use continues to grow as it has done historically then this would result in amplification of the long-term endogenous rate of decarbonization from −0.6% yr−1 to −13% yr−1. It is apparent that modest levels of feedback sensitivity pay large dividends in avoiding climate change but that the marginal return on this effort diminishes rapidly as the required feedback strength increases.

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Figure 1: Effects of climate–society feedbacks on growth dynamics of CO2 emissions and climate.

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We thank P. Young and M. Raupach for their comments on early drafts of the manuscript. A. Grübler kindly supplied the global primary energy-use data. A.J.J. and D.T.L. were supported under EPSRC research grant EP/I014721/1. C.N.H. was supported by Lancaster University.

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A.J.J. conceived and carried out the analysis. A.J.J., D.T.L. and C.N.H. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to A. J. Jarvis.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Jarvis, A., Leedal, D. & Hewitt, C. Climate–society feedbacks and the avoidance of dangerous climate change. Nature Clim Change 2, 668–671 (2012).

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