THE WORLD Its entering a more difficult stage of the climate and ecological crisis, where its symptoms are drawing attention away from efforts to tackle its root causes, according to a new report published by the IPPR and Chatham House think tanks.

Huge resources are being deployed to respond to the growing number of climate disasters and complex crises linked to environmental destruction. But such demands could come at the cost of diverting effort away from the rapid switch now needed to decarbonise the global economy.

The report argues that this risks creating a vicious circle, or ‘doom loop’: the impacts of the climate and nature crises draw focus and resources away from tackling their underlying causes and the urgent steps needed to address them.

The report explores how this dynamic can be seen in the disagreement over how best to inspire the faster changes now needed to reach the internationally agreed 1.5C target for maximum global temperature rises. Some argue that declaring the target to be still in reach remains the most powerful motivator, but others believe that breaching the limit could be the ‘wake-up call’ that would spur activists and policymakers to step up their efforts.

But both stances can be exploited by ‘climate delayers’ who do not want to see rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and wish to block transformational change. Instead, these delayers recommend potentially dangerous and untested technologies, such as injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere to lower heating by the sun, or finding ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere on an implausible scale. Both could be used to justify continued fossil emissions.

The report urges a range of actions for governments and environmentalists in response to these dynamics, including:

  • Develop narratives that motivate even as the climate and nature crises deepen: as temperatures either reach or breach the 1.5C limit, alternative ways of discussing the issue are needed to counter delayer stories and spur transformational change.
  • Decisively shift the focus of environmental politics toward realising economic transformation: moving beyond describing the problem and setting climate targets to focusing more strongly on the economic policies needed to transform societies, such as an approach to public finances that enables the required government-led green investment.
  • Better understand the risks to the green transition as the crisis deepens: improving analysis of complex, cascading risks that could feed into the dynamic of the ‘doom loop’ by distracting from the drive for rapid decarbonisation and restoration of nature.
  • Train future leaders: ensuring that younger people are better prepared to lead the green transition despite the distractions and chaos of a world where temperature rises are close to or above 1.5C or even 2C.

The report likens the strategic risk to that facing a ship that sailed too long towards a storm on the horizon without significantly changing course. As the storm begins to engulf the ship, making the changes needed to escape it is ever more difficult for the crew, who are distracted by its immediate impacts.

Laurie Laybourn, associate fellow of IPPR and a visiting fellow at Chatham House, said: “It’s too late to avoid the climate storm altogether, and the challenge of navigating around a storm is very different to the challenge of navigating through it. Our ability to steer out of the storm is frustrated by having to manage the impacts of the storm on the ship.

“This is an analogy for the challenge facing environmentalism as we head closer to 1.5C of global heating. The worsening symptoms of the climate and ecological crisis – storms, food price shocks, conflict – will increasingly distract us from realising action to tackle its root causes.

“Slower decarbonisation and restoration of nature will create worse crises, which could undermine the support and resources needed for the green transition. Breaking out of this doom loop requires governments, businesses, and environmentalists to more actively pre-empt these threats.”

Henry Throp, a co-author and research analyst at the Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator, said: “Governments and businesses have so far been unable to realise the rapid and systemic transformation that the UN says is needed to limit global heating to 1.5°C.

“As global temperatures tick up ever closer to the 1.5°C threshold, collective narratives are needed that can convey the accelerating, cascading dangers and spur rapid transformative change.

“These narratives must challenge actors and assumptions that delay action on climate change and should create the basis, direction and momentum for a climate transition aligned with nature restoration and opportunities for sustainable development.”

* Read: 1.5C – dead or alive? The risks to transformational change from reaching and breaching the Paris agreement goal here.

* Source: Institute for Public Policy Research