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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Climate cartoon: when positive is a negative

Posted on 4 July 2010 by John Cook

Check out this cartoon by Neil Wagner at Science Friday. What makes it extra worthwhile is the exposition below his cartoon where he explains the concept of positive feedback and links to a bunch of useful webpages (including this one). For the record, I once had almost this identical conversation with Wendy about positive feedbacks (Wendy was the polar bear).

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Comments 1 to 3:

  1. Donella Meadows's "Thinking in Systems", posthumusly published in 2008 from Chelsea Green (USA) and Earthscan (UK), avoids the terms "positive" and "negative" with respect to feedbacks, and uses "reinforcing" and "balancing" instead. In my opinion, "balancing" may also be misleading, and "attenuating" or "stabilizing" seem better. I still usually use "positive" and "negative", though.
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  2. I hope we're not getting too politically correct in our terminology. The phrases "positive feedback" and "negative feedback" were first used by engineers in the 1930's who were developing amplifiers for the national telephone system. As a rule, negative feedback is good while positive feedback is bad.
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  3. It isn't a matter of being "politically correct", but of trying to improve our collective (so far) dismal track record of explaining climate science to a largely ignorant voting public. My background is econometric modeling as well as engineering, but I would be happy to help develop *any* alternative verbal (or conceptual) constructs that can help reduce the present confusion regarding climate change, and climate change modeling in particular. Those of us with specialized technical backgrounds all too often demand the general public first accept our often arcane terminology before being permitted to share our knowledge. Then we resent the mass media for misrepresenting the science. The cartoon is therefore right to call our attention to one of the most common examples of unintentional modeling obfuscation. We desperately need to clarify all this stuff in a way that helps the voters of the advanced democracies get behind greenhouse gas reduction programs. You can lead a bunch of horses to a drying water hole, but you can't make them think. Greenhouse Gaseous
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