An unbalance in nature, caused by mankind, could trigger an unbalance in human society that will re-impact nature and paralyze rational human response, initiating a potentially global, growing, catastrophic cycle. This article intends to contribute to the conception of a standard analysis approach or to the definition of a “standard tool” that is now acutely needed in order to harness the complexity of global warming.
Keywords: Climate Change, Systemic Instability, Adaptation, Matrix of Complexity
JEL classification: Q5, Q54, Q58
Suggested citation: Mastrojeni, Grammenos, Climate Change Calls for Global, Comprehensive and Integrative Risk Management (October 9, 2014). Review of Environment, Energy and Economics (Re3), http://dx.doi.org/10.7711/feemre3.2014.10.001
In the 1980s Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens paved the way for the growing popularity of a new idea: the “Risk Society”. Their concerns were focused on the insecurity brought by modernity and ever swifter changes in social balances due to fast technology improvements, pervasive dependence on communication etc.; but quickly – in the following years – there came the intuition that the risk society we were bound to face could have an environmental dimension.
There it is, it stands before our eyes: climate change, as a global and accelerating trend, is modifying the whole set of biophysical references on which human society is built, much beyond the undeniable fact that it will cause an increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. These are only the tip of the iceberg, the most immediate aspect of a comprehensive shift of paradigm. At a deeper level, the main effect of climate change is, and increasingly will be, to modify the availability, location, and conditions of access to a wide variety of commodities, goods and services. This, in turn, puts in motion vast cycles of
consequences that impact society, introducing a pervasive fluidity and unpredictability, leading to a true “risk society”.
In this perspective, the reflections that follow are intended to contribute to the conception of a standard analysis approach - or to the definition of a “standard tool” - that is now acutely needed in order to harness the complexity of the cumulative cycles of repercussions of global warming. This, in turn, becomes necessary for preparedness, in order to build a picture of coming changes and implied risks, in the line set by Priority Action 2 of the Hyogo Framework: identify, assess and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning. But not only: such a tool could show the potential to rationalize public policies in fundamental aspects that still seem to be neglected in decision making.
1.1 A sad fact: we chose to wait
Already in his groundbreaking Review of 2006, "The Economics of Climate Change", Sir Nicholas Stern pointed out that a moderate and bearable investment in mitigation now would prevent a much heavier investment in adaptation to climate change in the future. This conclusion – with few criticisms – is now widely accepted. Nonetheless, it is a fact: greenhouse gases missions, on a global scale, are on the rise. Therefore, irrationally, we opted for a bigger effort in the future to escape a lesser one now. It is only human.
The accent, thus, is on adaptation: a strategy which is obviously overlapping on - almost synonymous with - risk management. Add to this the fact that changes induced by global warming – as we will see - will impact most knots of societal balance, and we can conclude that “management” and “risk management” are bound to become themselves more and more overlapping perspectives: we truly will have to manage a “risk society”. But, what do we have to adapt to? Or - in other words, but it means exactly the same - what kind of risks do we have to prepare for?
1.2. Mankind and the ecosystem: the unbreakable cycle
More and more extreme weather events await us: almost everyone agrees. But, to what extent do they represent a risk? What chains of consequences do they set in motion? And what about non-extreme but progressive, wide impact, changes in climate patterns? And what if, as some models suggest, the whole climate system is heading to a general abrupt shift – a global and
permanent extreme weather event - in case we reach some tipping points? And, should we consider the fact that the impact of climate change on human society could come through other natural modifications caused by climate change, like ocean acidification and depletion, increase of areas of incidence of diseases, or prehistoric viruses frozen in permafrost waking up? Finally and most importantly, what will be the behaviors that the shifting climate paradigm will induce in human society? Strenghten its determination to mitigate and adapt, or foster conflicts and divisions that will paralyze mankind and leave it incapable of reacting in a united, effective, and coherent way?
Climate evolution – localized or general, abrupt or progressive – puts in motion cycles of consequences that oblige us to rethink the amplitude of two concepts: disaster and risk. Diminishing agricultural yields, for instance, cause migrations, pressure on urban areas, tensions for land and water, possibly violence, affect the capability of families to educate their children or to invest in the growth of their economic activity, and so on. The ever faster melting of the Arctic modifies maritime routes, opens a race for natural resources, destroys the life and culture of native Inuit populations, etc. Examples could be multiplied indefinitely, and
even what we labeled “Arab Springs” have been in part caused by climate change.
Do these dimensions – that go well beyond immediate damages to infrastructures or assets – imply risks? Are these dynamics a disaster? In our instinctive and classical way, these phenomena belong to other areas of planning and management. But, indeed, the risks management community cannot ignore them. And, summing them up, they are the key systemic risk mankind is facing, because a disorderly transition to a new climate paradigm brings about all the ingredients of mankind division and conflict: if the financial crisis of 1929 was enough to divide nations and ultimately bring them to World War II, what about a rapid melting of the Himalaya glaciers? A scenario in which the huge areas regularly irrigated by rivers born in the Asian chain swiftly become lands in which extreme droughts follow disastrous floods – glaciers act as reservoirs of water that regulate constant output -
means that hundreds of millions of people will be deprived of their livelihoods: if the same socio-economic dynamics that led to the last world war are triggered, in a region where four States – China, India, Pakistan and Russia – have nuclear bombs, we have the ingredients of World War III. An unbalance in nature, caused by mankind, this way could trigger an unbalance in human society that will re-impact nature and paralyze rational human response, initiating a potentially global, growing, catastrophic cycle. We have to understand this complexity and prepare for it. Above all, while we still have time, maybe in this light we understand what “adaptation” will really mean: possibly coping with a world of States’ failure, violence, famine, diseases, disorder, lack of services, and much more; and maybe finally we decide to seriously invest on mitigation, to escape from a horizon where risk management becomes number one priority for every individual and organization.
2. Attempts to harness complexity
With some historical exceptions – that at times brought to the collapse of entire civilizations – mankind was able to build a growingly complex society taking for granted a stable and unchanging ecosystem. Since we kick-started a trend of growing modifications, this reflects on all aspects of human life, inducing changes that cumulate, interact, and have to be monitored and managed. Awareness of such complexity dates back to the 1980s and emerged clearly in the logics of the first Global Environment Outlook, released by UNDP in 1997. Since then, various attempts to build a prism of interpretation and integrative management have been launched, many of them focused on risks. Here are just two examples:
Many more analyses of this kind exist and, notably, the latest editions of the Global Risk Report do place climate change within a framework of influences among various worldwide risks. Each contribution is extremely valuable where it highlights different nexus and perspectives and explores segments of this complexity. Nonetheless, the time is ripe to attempt to extract from them a standard predictive tool, simple enough to be practical but comprehensive enough to portray the complexity.
2.1 Gaia’s matrix
Repercussions and interferences among various dynamics and different sectors can be described in terms of a matrix, reflecting two aspects of globality: geographical worldwide interconnectedness and global systemic interconnectedness. Indeed, tackling climate change and its consequences is not a task that can be conceived in a national perspective so that, on a global scale, the aim of the matrix is to establish a relationship among different orders of factors. The problem is how complex should it be and which factors should it take into account. A long examination of the approaches undertaken so far suggests that a good balance
between simplicity and the need to cover relevant sectors is assured by investigating cyclical repercussions among environment, peace and stability, development, and human rights.
In this light, if our immediate goal is to assess likely impacts of global warming on human society, we could conceive and be guided by a unilateral matrix:
This provides a guideline to assess immediate impacts of environmental modifications on the most relevant aspects of mankind’s organization. Yet it is not enough: we are not only victims of a change that we have caused ourselves, we are also actors of its future developments and this fact emerges, while its implications become predictable, if the matrix becomes dynamic and multilateral:
This is not an easy tool to maneuver and we are far from being able to use it as a rigorous quantitative tool. Still, it gives the perspective of the interconnectedness of the planet and prevents illusions frequently created by analyses and forecasts run sector by sector.
The proposal is therefore to the risk management community to be the first to develop this approach; one that confronts as with a forgotten reality: we are part of the ecosystem, embedded in a web of reciprocal relations with it, not above nature as we proudly thought.
3. Conclusions and added value for the post 2015 framework for disaster risk reduction
This proposal seems to broaden too much the horizon of risk management but, with the times ahead of us, this effort is unavoidable. No planning of punctual actions in response to punctual events makes sense if it is the context as a whole that is bound to change. Predictability is not always there, especially for single catastrophic events; but to a certain extent, we can predict patterns – both natural and human, and their reciprocal interactions – in which we can organize punctual responses. Not only; this matrix – Gaia’s, Mother Earth’s matrix – actually reflects another attempt to rationalize human behavior represented by the so called “green economy” and by the attempt to measure national and mankind progress through much more articulate
indexes than the classic GDP. It is the matrix of a new, necessary, accounting of human performance that gives the whole picture: money, yes… but also human dignity, harmony with nature, peace and stability and more. It would be useful, and only normal, that the risk management community engages in the same perspective, contributing to bridge that gap between reality and an only monetary measurement of reality that has induced us in so many, tragic, mistakes.