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To tackle the climate “doom loop”, embrace the hope spiral

Managing our emotional reaction to the climate crisis is as vital as our policy response.

By India Bourke

It’s always useful when someone names a monster, and this week that task fell to the Institute for Public Policy Research and Chatham House think tanks. Their new paper described as a “doom loop” the way climate disasters risk syphoning resources away from efforts to lower emissions and restore nature, and lead, in turn, to yet further warming and loss.

Doom loops are not confined to the external world, the paper argues – they begin with us. Of particular potency is debate around whether or not the world will breach the Paris Agreement’s advised limit of 1.5°C of global warming compared with pre-industrial levels. Claiming that a breach is already inevitable could encourage fatalism or support for risky and potentially harmful solutions like geo-engineering. On the other hand, failing to sufficiently recognise the extent of the risk of a breach may breed complacency.

The IPPR and Chatham House researchers have some helpful proposals for policymakers. These include more honesty in outlining risks and the scale of response to the climate crisis that is needed. As their emphasis on communication suggests, people’s emotional reactions are just as important as policy actions. Procrastination can lead to feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame. If these are not acknowledged they can turn into anger. Take, for example, the vitriol directed towards Greta Thunberg when she dares to call out inaction.

To counter the emotional doom loops, therefore, we should perhaps reach instead for spirals of hope. And while the paper’s authors don’t carry their imagery that far, the doom loop’s counterpoint is almost irresistible. It’s even mirrored in nature: from the pinecone’s helix to the snail shell’s whorl.

Such alternative patterns of response would recognise that new information can reverse the direction of a doom loop. They would accept that the costs of the green transition are significant, but also note that inaction would be costlier because of escalating climate impacts and would miss opportunities for growth. They would acknowledge that, yes, many green technologies rely on harmful mining, but fossil fuel extraction requires much more.

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This thinking is now becoming evident within the Labour Party’s positioning. In a recent column Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, stressed again that green energy is the right answer for both the economy and the climate: “Those of us making the case for a more urgent, swift transition are making the case for a better world now – not just disaster avoidance in the future.”

Just as doom loops come in many forms, therefore, so perhaps can the hope spirals that will lead us out.

Read more:

Seven ways to make leaders act on climate change

Would there still have been climate change under socialism?

Amitav Ghosh: “Climate change is becoming an all-out war”

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