Many scientists are worried about certain greenhouse gas "feedback loops" that could lead to rapid and irreversible climate change. But if the world delays on a climate change agreement it will be political feedback loops we should be nervous about. Only by creating a strong international agreement soon, while international cooperation is at a historic high, can we hope to avoid both the greenhouse gas feedback loops and the spiral that could stop us from doing anything about them.
Climate change feedback loops are self-reinforcing cycles; problems that echo off each other and quickly spiral out of control. Here’s how it goes: Melting tundra in Siberia releases methane into the atmosphere, which raises the water temperature, which melts sea ice, causing more solar heat to be absorbed by the oceans. The situation snowballs and becomes increasingly harder to contain. A similar chain of events could result if we don’t manage an world-wide treaty before these effects are triggered. If we miss the window, the rising thermometer could set off a chain that will push the global political climate into a dangerous feedback loop—locking us into permanent inaction on climate change.
To negotiate a lasting agreement, the world needs three key ingredients: prosperity, stability, and cooperation; each at levels that are unprecedented in human history. Without enough of any one, a climate treaty will either never come into being, or fall apart during implementation. Right now, we are in relatively good shape: no world wars, developing nations on the rise despite a steep recession, and generally warm relations among countries. But as temperatures creep up, global warming will cause a runaway political climate as well as runaway climate change. Here are some broad examples of how the climate change feedback loops and political feedback loops can dangerously intertwine:
1. Higher temperatures cause rising sea levels, water shortages, wildfires, leading to severe economic disturbances. Economists have predicted that unabated climate change could knock 5% off of the global economy. This will exacerbate the delicate negotiations between developed countries on one end, some of whom are already stingy in the face of the recession, and developing countries which will be even less likely to be willing to make cuts as climate change starts to take a bite out of their GDP. And if a wimpy treaty is signed that is too weak to stop the worst climate change impacts, then countries in economic straightjackets will fail to live up to their commitments—speeding up emissions and feeding back into the climate change loop.
2. Scarce resources will create instability. If business leaders are right and water is the new oil — we can expect shortages to lead to wars and dislocation. Environmental refugee exoduses will surely cause unrest—Bangladesh alone may have millions of environmental refugees, pouring a mass of impoverished people into an already instable region. In China, the new wave of prosperity, and promise of more to come, constitutes a major portion of the legitimacy of the national government; reductions in economic growth could undercut that legitimacy and lead to political unrest. Facing internal threats, governments may lock down or lash out, leaving little patience for creating or maintaining a global warming compromise.
3. If prosperity and stability fall, cooperation will quickly follow. Desperate leaders facing volatility and weak economies do not tend to make good neighbors. One of the classic responses to internal threats is to identify an external enemy. Free trade regimes, which, however you feel about their economic merit, inarguably create meaningful bonds between nations, may fall in the face of protectionists or nationalist pressure. The time needed to build trust and respect will be spent posturing and grandstanding for domestic audiences.
The current climate talks are becoming more encouraging as India and China begin to signal their willingness to sign a treaty. This is good news; as tenuous as this negotiation may be now, it will only become more so as temperatures rise, resources become more scarce and political relations become destabilized. It would be wise for nations to take advantage of the relatively high levels of global prosperity, stability, and cooperation to build the architecture for a climate change agreement before any of these feedback loops are triggered. Beginning now, we may cut our emissions in time to avoid the two downward spirals—scientific and political—that could fuse into a double helix of inertia.
In addition to being Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, Michael A. Livermore is the author, along with Richard L. Revesz, of Retaking Rationality: How Cost-Benefit Analysis Can Better Protect the Environment and Our Health (Oxford University Press, 2008).