The Climate-Investment Negative Feedback Loop


By Thomas Andrew Simpson

Edited by Jordan Dannenberg

            In this day and age, it is widely accepted that climate change is here to stay, and the widespread consensus is that humans are to blame. I am not here to pull out the facts and debate about human responsibility. It’s not that this debate is over–there will always be people who disagree both ostentatiously or ideologically, or both. However, with the substantial agreement that humans are the culprits of climate change, it has become apparent to lawmakers that one of the biggest goals of governments worldwide in this century will be responding to the causes and consequences of global climate change. Furthermore, one of the key ways for governments to battle climate change is through mass transit expansion in the form of large scale initiatives such as high-speed rail. From the liberal democracies in Europe and America to the Communist Party of China, high-speed rail is becoming a go-to for infrastructure development because the governments see this as a win-win. Infrastructure investment solves problems and puts people to work, which is arguably the clearest goal of much of what government does. High-speed rail in California will take planes out of the congested Californian sky, cars off the standstill freeways, and provide much needed manufacturing jobs. Will it be expensive?[i] Yes, but Californian voters approved it anyway.[ii] Recently, however, this plan to combat climate change and better the Californian environment has come under a bipartisan attack.

California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom, recently broke rank with Governor, and fellow Democrat Jerry Brown, by coming out against the approved high-speed rail project[iii] that is supposed to revolutionize transportation throughout the Golden State.[iv] However, despite the benefits, Lt. Gov. Newsom saw the expenditure on high-speed rail as something his state could not afford right now, instead stating that the state needed to invest in water infrastructure that would keep up with the growing pressure climate change is putting on the existing systems.[v] Despite the political implications of falling out of line with party, or perhaps in an attempt to be on the right side of history, the Lt. Governor dealt a major blow to a cornerstone of the Governor’s plans for California.

While high-speed rail is an important policy task, there is an argument gaining popularity that it is no longer the most important issue. These critics argue that it is a long-term, pricey, investment that cannot be put ahead of more pertinent issues, such as the growing water crisis. This makes sense, because the effect of climate change on the water supply in California is significant. Michael Kiparsky from Cal Berkley quantified this in January, 2014, writing:

In sum, modeled impacts of warming scenarios from 26°C affect streamflow magnitude (decreases from 412%), timing (shifts from 521 days earlier), while increasing agricultural demands by 1.45.8%. The net effect of these changes is that modeled surface water supply reliability decreases in each district.[vi]

It is clear that climate change will ultimately wreck havoc on the water supply of California, which besides providing drinking water, also provides hydroelectric power in many places. It seems clear that California is going to be widely affected by climate change that is already set into motion.

The key here is, “already set into motion.” Climate change that is occurring now does not seem to be reversible. We don’t know how to rapidly removed greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. That’s why the politicians’ objectives are to limit the effects of climate change through managing the results and preventing future damage. The example of people abandoning high-speed rail for water resource investment is a sign of what is to come. We are currently seeing a new pattern emerging. This is a negative feedback loop, in which the consequences of climate change are forcing us to divert investment capital from initiatives that can reduce climate change and instead invest in trying to control the consequences of climate change.

There is a question that should be raised by what is happening in California: what exactly is this negative feedback loop and what will it mean for our future? The climate-investment negative feedback loop is an emerging cycle that will come to dominate the public policy decision matrix. We will be handicapped to prevent the climate change by our previous inaction. As shown in Figure 1, the climate-investment negative feedback loop occurs as the consequences of climate change siphon money from investment in prevention and instead force that money to be diverted into reacting to the changes. This is obviously troubling, but it looks on the surface like it could be worse while in fact, it quite possibly could not. Once money is divested from prevention, climate change itself will only get worse. While it is unclear whether our society could spend enough to fully prevent drastic changes, it is very clear that this is going to make that already uphill battle incredibly worse.

The problem here is not the words of Lt. Governor Newsom. The problem here, along with climate change as a whole, is not caused by a single point source. The cause of this negative feedback loop is the same as that of climate change–actions of the past were blind, either by choice or by limited knowledge, and have conferred drastic effects on our environment. It is now up to our society, led by our lawmakers, to head off this cycle. Whether we can do it or not is still in the air, but it is becoming clear that our procrastination has certainly made this more difficult.

Figure 1: The climate-investment negative feedback loop (author’s creation)

[i] Connecting California: Draft 2014 Business Plan (2/7/14).

[ii] California Proposition 1A, High-Speed Rail Act (2008).

[iii] CarlaMarinucci (2/19/14). California high-speed rail dealt blow by Newsom’s about-face. The San Francisco Chronicle, (accessed 2/22/14).

[iv] “Welcome” California HIgh-Speed Rail Authority. (accessed 2/20/14).

[v] Marinucci.

[vi] M Kiparsky et al. “Potential Impacts of Climate Warming on Water Supply Reliability in the Tuolumne and Merced River Basins, California” Plos One 9.1 (2014): 12.