Credit: IPPR

World Risks “Doom Loop,” IPPR Warns

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A new report by the Institute For Public Policy Research (IPPR) which calls itself “the UK’s leading progressive think tank,” warns that the world risks creating a “doom loop” in which we spend so much time and energy responding to the ever increasing effects of climate change — raging wildfires, disappearing lakes and rivers, rising sea levels, blazing heat, more powerful storms, crippling floods, and the like — that we lose sight of the need to address global heating. It’s like treating the symptoms rather than the disease, or devoting all our energy to filling sand bags while ignoring the tsunami rushing towards us.

The policy analysts at IPPR say, “The historical failure to sufficiently tackle the climate and ecological crisis could create consequences that challenge the ability of societies to tackle the root causes of this crisis. This is a doom loop — the consequences of the crisis and the failure to address it draw focus and resources from tackling its causes. We describe this as a ‘strategic risk’ to our collective ability to realize a transformation of societies that ultimately avoids catastrophic climate and ecological change.

“This dangerous dynamic extends to how prospects for tackling the climate and ecological crisis are framed. We explore a key example — the growing debate over whether it is now inevitable that global heating will breach the internationally agreed goal of 1.5°C.

“A systematic effort is needed to tackle threats and grasp opportunities for rapid environmental action thrown up by the deepening consequences of the crisis — to make the green transition itself more resilient. Otherwise, the world could head further into a spiral of accelerating environmental shocks and counterproductive, defensive reactions.”

The Doom Loop Awaits

Those arguing 1.5 C is still possible risk perpetuating the belief that today’s slow pace of climate action is sufficient, the researchers say, while those arguing it is not possible risk supporting fatalism that may lead to “extreme approaches” such as geoengineering, according to The Guardian.

Avoiding a doom loop will require a more honest acceptance by politicians of the great risks posed by the climate crisis, including the looming prospect of tipping points and the huge scale of the economic and societal transformations required to end global heating. This should be combined with narratives that focus on the great benefits climate action has brought and making certain that policies are fairly implemented.

“We’ve entered, sadly, a new chapter in the climate and ecological crisis,” said Laurie Laybourn, an associate fellow at IPPR. “The phony war is coming to an end and the real consequences now present us with difficult decisions. We absolutely can drive towards a more sustainable, more equitable world. But our ability to navigate through the shocks while staying focused on steering out the storm is key.”

There is a chart included in the research that is especially troubling. It shows the extent of carbon emissions reductions that will be necessary in order to keep global heating in check. Take a look for yourself. It is quite self-explanatory. While the need for steep cuts is increasing, the amount of carbon emissions is accelerating.

doom cycle
Credit: IPPR

Here is an excerpt from the IPPR report:

“Narratives which assume 1.5° C is lost have a political impact on what happens next, potentially discouraging action to realize transformational change. The shock of thinking the goal is lost might, for instance, inspire greater pressure on leaders to deliver deep changes. Alternatively, it could be viewed as proof that such change is unrealistic or even undesirable. In general, the growing chance of breaching 1.5°C and the challenges of realizing transformational change can be exploited by vested interests to argue for technologies that are underdeveloped, unproven, and potentially dangerous to sustain the status quo. [The fossil fuel industry is certainly banging that drum for all its worth.]

“Meanwhile, proven and deliverable changes such as large scale demand management, which also have vast co-benefits for health and the wider environment, are marginalized or ignored. The risks resulting from the growing chance of breaching the 1.5° C goal are an example of strategic risk in practice. Those seeking to achieve transformational change — including in policy, civil society, and business — should more actively manage this risk. A systematic effort is needed to tackle threats and grasp opportunities for rapid environmental action thrown up by the deepening consequences of the crisis: to make the green transition itself more resilient. Otherwise, the world could head further into a spiral of accelerating environmental shocks and counterproductive, defensive reactions.

“We propose responses across three areas:
Politics: Better anticipating and responding to narratives that favor delaying or blocking transformational change as temperatures approach 1.5°C as part of a wider process of developing environmental narratives befitting the deepening challenges of the crisis.
Policy: Decisively shifting beyond an incrementalist policy making mindset and placing policies that can realize a system-wide transformation at the heart of advocacy.
Analysis: Improving policy relevant analyses and accessible communication of the complex risks resulting from the deepening climate and ecological crisis.”

Laybourn tells The Guardian, “The thing I’m most concerned about is that we’re not factoring in the cascading risks to societies. It’s not just the big city-smashing storms we should be concerned about, it’s the consequences that ripple through our globalized systems. For the UK, it may not necessarily be the sheer cost of responding to disasters that’s the biggest distraction. It could be that it has to deal at the same time with a food price shock and resurgent nativism, playing off fears about so-called climate refugees.”

He said the narratives used to describe the situation were very important. For example, greener transport is not simply about switching to electric vehicles, but about better public transport and redesigned cities that allow people to be closer to their jobs, education, and healthcare providers. That in turn would require re-evaluating local authority budgets and taxes to implement the change.

Unfairness in climate policy could drive the doom loop, Laybourn said, because if people felt unaffordable changes were being forced on them, they would reject the need for a green transition. But, he added: “If you have fairness at the heart of things, it can instead be a virtuous circle, if you’re in a situation where people recognize that switching to a heat pump and having better insulation will be better for them regardless of the climate crisis.”

Making progress on climate action that does not get sidetracked by difficulties imposed by climate impacts is also crucial. “I’m a massive fan of citizens’ assemblies, because if people feel they have a role in decision making, they’re more likely to maintain their support, even in a future in which the shocks start to rack up. They become moments where we actually do build back better.”

The Takeaway

Laybourn’s prescription assumes, of course, the powers that be will permit such free and open discussions and don’t simply commit all who dare raise a voice in protest to long periods of incarceration. That chart above really says it all. Who here thinks there is a snowball’s chance in Hell of slashing carbon emissions as quickly and drastically as will be needed to avoid a full on climate emergency? Let’s have a show of hands. Anyone?

We are nibbling around the edge of responsible climate action, but we are nowhere close to taking the problem seriously enough. We are focusing on the water level in Lake Powell and the role of nuclear power plants in Europe, but we aren’t doing the heavy lifting that needs to be done to undo the damage humans have caused to the environment. It’s the equivalent of arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the water cascades in ten decks below.

It is time to awaken from our long slumber. We are destroying the Earth’s ability to support human life as we know it while building 9000-pound electric vehicles for the wealthy to support their “mine’s bigger than yours” mentality. Walt Kelly created his own graphic version of a doom loop when he said in his Pogo cartoon strip years ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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