Landing : Athabascau University

Unit 2.1 Understanding Global Environmental Change Through Delayed Feedback

Understanding global environmental change is complex and includes multifaceted factors such as diverse ecological systems and the interactions between human activities and the environment. These interactions create a complicated relationship that shapes the world’s climate and ecosystems.

Researchers use a wide range of methods and concepts to explore and understand these systems, one of which is delayed feedback. This concept plays an important role in grasping the dynamics of global environmental change, such as how changes in one part of the environment can manifest delayed and unexpected effects in other parts (Meadows, 1997).

Global environmental systems, whether they involve ecological communities or social structures, are categorized as complex adaptive systems (Preiser et al., 2018). These systems are composed of interconnected elements and receive diverse inputs from their environment. They exhibit unpredictable behaviour and can adapt to changes over time. These systems also resist complete comprehension when studied in isolation and without consideration of their broader environmental context (Deadman, 2018; Preiser et al., 2018). Researchers must adopt a holistic approach that considers the interconnectedness and adaptability of these systems.

Feedback loops are at the core of complex adaptive systems, regulating the flow of information, energy, and matter within the systems (Preiser et al., 2018). These loops operate in two primary ways: negative and positive. Negative feedback loops act as stabilizers, maintaining balance by regulating processes to prevent excessive growth or collapse. On the other hand, positive feedback loops amplify changes within the system that can lead to instability or outcomes that are not expected. A key aspect of feedback mechanisms in complex systems is the time it takes for feedback effects to manifest, as their lengthy delays can reduce the effectiveness of feedback in regulating the system effectively or cause unintended consequences (Meadows, 1997; Preiser et al., 2018).

Delayed feedback is especially relevant regarding global environmental change because it suggests that the impacts of human activities on the environment may not show up immediately (Meadows, 1997). This delay complicates the timely identification and response to causes and consequences, highlighting the need for long-term strategies and policies that account for intergenerational effects.

Acknowledging these complexities can help researchers refine their predictive models and enhance their ability to foresee how environmental changes will move through interconnected systems (Meadows, 1997).

In summary, delayed feedback emphasizes the importance of considering delays when analyzing global environmental systems. It is essential for making informed decisions and implementing effective strategies to address environmental challenges. By recognizing the significance of delayed feedback, researchers can deepen their understanding of environmental complexities and meaningfully contribute to preserving the planet and future generations.


Deadman, P. (2018, July 11). What is a complex system?  Vimeo.

Meadows, D. (1997). Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system . Whole Earth Magazine, 91, 78–84.

Preiser, R., Biggs, R., De Vos, A., & Folke, C. (2018). Social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems: organizing principles for advancing research methods and approaches. Ecology and Society, 23(4).