A central lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic for environmentalism is that it needs get more serious about risk. The pandemic has proven a classic example of a systemic shock: a health crisis graduated into a financial crisis, an economic crisis, a social crisis, a political crisis and so on. Last year, worsening environmental shocks met the cascading consequences of the pandemic. The stable natural conditions in which our globalised world developed is now ending and a new era of systemic risk is emerging.
It is right – for scientific, humanitarian and communications reasons – to focus on direct, localised impacts of the environmental crisis: those eye-grabbing shocks, like extreme weather, that visit physical destruction on a particular place. The village of Lytton in Canada became the latest evocative illustration of the worsening crisis after it was devastated by wildfires as temperatures shattered records.
The knock on effects of a crisis can be more serious
But, often, the far more severe consequences of the environmental crisis are the complex knock on effects, which can be missed as media attention turns to the next immediate crisis. In Canada’s case, the forests lost to summer wildfires made landscapes vulnerable to this winter’s flooding, which destroyed roads and railways. This disrupted freight movements to major ports, worsening the significant trade problems resulting from the pandemic.
This is systemic risk. The effect of environmental shocks in one place ripple out through interconnected economic and social systems, exacerbating other problems.
By the 2030s, more than 400 million people a year could be exposed to temperatures that make it almost impossible to work, as the average global rise edges above 1.5oC. The consequences of this for economies, health, social cohesion, migration and the risk of conflict would be incalculable.
By 2040, the probability that crops in four major food growing regions will lose more than ten per cent of their harvest could increase to around 50 per cent (it’s currently around zero). The cascading consequences of such a shock could be far greater than the immediate effects. As one Chatham House paper concluded, such impacts “can be expected to cause higher mortality rates, drive political instability and greater national insecurity, and fuel regional and international conflict.”
Temperature rises will have major socioeconomic impacts
This means we should give far more weight to the cascading effects of temperature rises on societies. It’s easy to get lost in the quantitative simplicity of headline temperature rises and projections of how many people will be in heat stress by a given date. But that can underplay the full risks we face. An analysis of the cascading effects on social and economic systems can change our model of what temperature rises, biodiversity loss and nitrogen cycle destabilisation mean.
Such an analysis underlines the need to stay below 1.5oC and reduce the destruction of nature fast by rapidly transforming societies and economies.
But the world still isn’t taking emergency action. This means that recent reports on the systemic risks of the environmental crisis could be losing their value as warnings of what can be definitively avoided. Instead, it might be prudent to read them as increasingly accurate descriptions of the state of the world in which the next stage of the fight to avoid catastrophic environmental change is fought.
Just as the pandemic changed the political and economic context for environmentalism, the worsening effects of the environmental crisis will do so for society and the economy in widespread, rapid and unexpected ways.
Recognising risk doesn’t guarantee the right response
What will be the impacts on the net zero agenda? How will these conditions affect the struggle for a green new deal? What political forces will be unleashed by this destabilisation, and who will benefit electorally? These questions should increasingly become part of medium term planning for those working on the environmental agenda, who are well positioned to act as a conduit between the science and those with expertise in how societies could respond to worsening shocks. The parlous response of the UK and USA to the pandemic – countries that topped rankings of pre-pandemic preparedness – shows that just recognising the existence of a risk doesn’t guarantee an effective response.
Better anticipation of, and being prepared for, a future of growing systemic risk is particularly important for younger generations. It is they who will become leaders in the 2040s and 2050s when these risks increase significantly. And it is they who must be capable of realising sustainable, equitable and resilient societies under these conditions.