The nearer global heating approaches to the agreed 1.5ºC limit, the greater the risk it poses to the green transition itself — Institute for Public Policy Research
In the context of climate change, “positive feedback loops” are usually thought of as describing physical processes. For example, warming melts solar-reflecting Arctic ice, exposing the dark water upon which it floats. That water absorbs more heat from the sun than ice does, so, once exposed, it warms more quickly and in turn hastens the melting of more ice, which exposes more water to sunlight, which melts more ice. Ironically, such positive feedbacks often accelerate negative developments — negative at least in terms of our efforts to limit global warming and its impacts.
But while positive feedbacks are well understood in the realm of physical phenomena, the idea that they also could affect the trajectory of climate-change economics, impeding or paralyzing our attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, was only recently explored by analysts from the British think tanks Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and Chatham House (CH). In 2023, they published a paper titled 1.5ºC — Dead or Alive, in which they called a hypothetical, downward-spiraling diminishment in our economic capacity to reduce greenhouse emissions a “doom loop.”
The central argument from the IPPR/CH paper states: “This is a doom loop: the consequences of the [climate] crisis and the failure to address it draw focus and resources from tackling its causes, leading to higher temperatures and ecological loss, which then create more severe consequences, diverting even more attention and resources, and so on.”
They go on to argue that the vast changes needed to “limit global heating and restore nature” must be accomplished in a very short time frame while, simultaneously, “societies are being called upon to respond to the relentless, damaging symptoms of the crisis.”
Is such a doom loop feasible? Inevitable?
It would appear to be highly unlikely if we simply account for the direct economic losses associated with recent climate-enhanced weather events. As respected meteorologist Jeff Masters reported in the online journal Yale Climate Connections,“the planet was besieged by 42 billion-dollar weather disasters in 2022, and the total damage wrought by weather disasters was $360 billion.” Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund estimated total global GDP for that year to exceed $103 trillion. So, that’s roughly 0.3% of GDP lost to weather damage in 2022. Even if weather disaster costs grow by 10% per year between now and 2050 — the year by which we hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero — the losses would still only amount to roughly 1.3% of that year’s projected global GDP. That hardly threatens to blow our potential energy-transition budget.
However, weather-disaster costs are only part of the picture. Major climate-related economic setbacks will likely result also from climate migration, deforestation, agriculture losses and voluntary and involuntary population reduction.
The UN projects there will be one billion displaced people on the planet by 2050. Most will be internal or external climate refugees, and they will be an enormous drain on every country’s economy through the loss of their productivity and the expenses incurred as they try to accommodate or exclude these refugees.
Desiccation from warming, massive fires and logging will likely kill off most of the world’s remaining forests — five percent of Canada’s boreal forests went up in smoke this year alone — depriving us of their resources while adding to another warming feedback loop as forests turn from carbon sinks to carbon sources. Agricultural losses and population decline will also play their debilitating roles.
As the chart above illustrates, much of this GDP loss will occur in developed countries, which also have the most potential to invest in a green transformation.
The examples go on, but the message is this: Modeling how these factors could affect global GDP, while difficult, is urgent if we are to avoid becoming trapped in an economic doom loop.
NOTE: A short article explaining the Statistica graphic above states that, counterintuitively, “According to a research paper published in late 2019 through the U.S. nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research, some developed economies are among those who will suffer most – financially – from climate change.”
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.