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What’s a Climate ‘Doom Loop?’ These Researchers Fear We’re Heading Into One

Governments could soon be so overwhelmed with the consequences of climate change that they’re unable to address its root causes, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that researchers are calling a climate “doom loop.”

In a report published Wednesday by Chatham House and the Institute for Public Policy Research, two London-based think tanks, researchers warned that the climate crisis was already imposing incredible costs on nations as they deal with everything from increasingly destructive storms and wildfires to more frequent famines and human migrations. As those costs snowball, they said, it could force governments to dial back or even abandon their efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, leading to larger economic burdens in the future.

“This is a doom loop,” the researchers wrote in their report. “The consequences of the 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.”

One way to conceptualize this idea would be to relate it to home or car maintenance. If you’re facing a tight budget one year, you might skip patching up a leak in your roof or ignore the “check engine” light, telling yourself you’ll address the problems when you have more money. But by the time you call the roofer or bring your car into the shop, the water damage has spread or what was at first a simple oil change has cascaded into a series of part replacements, and the repairs will now cost far more than they had initially. So, you settle for partial repairs, or maybe you skip them altogether, and the costs spiral as the problems worsen.

In the report, the researchers point to African nations as a prime example of how this dynamic is already playing out. Citing a 2022 report from African Development Bank, the report notes that global warming impacts are costing the whole continent upwards of 15 percent of its annual GDP growth per capita, making it harder for nations to invest in clean technologies that may initially cost more up front to install.

In fact, some African leaders are now considering potentially lucrative deals with international oil and gas companies to open up their countries to new fossil fuel production, saying they need the money. That has drawn harsh criticism from local climate activists who say the deals jeopardize a more sustainable future.

The so-called climate doom loop is also playing out in the United States when it comes to issues like wildfires and flooding.

For years, officials in California and other western states have warned that increasingly destructive blazes were essentially creating a vicious cycle that sapped their budgets and made it harder to prepare for wildfires in the future. With wildfire seasons generally growing longer, with more intense fires each year, state and federal agencies have paid for the increased firefighting costs by siphoning funding from other programs, including ones that would thin the forests and help prevent the fires from happening in the first place.

Some states, as well as a 2018 federal program, have attempted to address this problem by providing additional funding streams for firefighting efforts. But a recent report found that states continue to burn through their wildfire budgets at record pace as climate change accelerates.

“The financial burden will continue to increase and increase,” Ryan Shane, an official with Nevada’s Division of Forestry, told my colleague Anne Marshall-Chalmers last month. “If the reimbursements are not happening in a timely manner, the scale of the impact that we’re currently feeling will just continue to increase every year.”

Meanwhile, U.S. homeowners living in flood-prone areas also stand to lose billions of dollars in equity as climate-fueled storms drive up flood damage, which in turn drains revenues for local governments that rely on property taxes for their budgets, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Nature Climate Change. Low-income homeowners stand to lose the most, the study said.

Those budget shortfalls could force governments to make tough decisions about what does and doesn’t get funding, Jeremy Porter, a co-author of the Nature study, told The Washington Post. “It could mean less revenue for infrastructure, for schools, for social services,” he said. “It actually impacts the entire community.”

But as policymakers face tough financial decisions, the researchers from Wednesday’s report said governments shouldn’t forget about the economic benefits of investing in long-term sustainability. During tough budget negotiations, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that officials decide to cut funding from climate programs that would actually help their cities reduce emissions and avoid even worse floods and wildfires in the future. 

“Or,” as the researchers said, “they can choose to go onto a footing to deliver pre-emptive transformational change.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

$121 billion

That’s how much money researchers say U.S. homeowners living in flood-prone areas could lose if property values incorporated current flood risk data. In fact, the study estimates equity in those places could fall by as much as $237 billion, with low-income homeowners set to lose the most.

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