Humans have caused this environmental crisis. It’s time to change how we think about risk

flood 19

(Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Nathanial Matthews, Program Director, Global Resilience Partnership & Patrick Keys, Research Scientist, School of Global Environmental Sustainability


Global environmental risks caused by human activities are becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, with far-reaching consequences for people, economies and ecosystems.

We are now in the Anthropocene – a geological epoch where humans are a dominant force of change on the planet. The Anthropocene is characterized by an increasingly interconnected and accelerating world.

This hyper interconnectivity and pace of change demands that we reconceptualize risk. The architecture that connects crises causes their impacts to ripple out in unpredictable ways. This was widely seen in the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which had significant impact on food prices that ultimately drove land grabs in Africa, Asia and South America.

International policy groups have made several, increasingly sophisticated efforts to capture complex risks, using frameworks such as The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Reasons for concern regarding climate change risks; and the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

While environmental risks – such as water stress and extreme weather – play a growing role in these assessments, the literature on global systemic risk has hitherto been dominated by finance and technology. This is, in part, due to the value placed on markets and technological solutions. Although all of these initiatives contribute in important ways to current understandings of global risks, none of them are able to fully capture the human–environmental processes that are shaping new systemic environmental risks.

A recent paper published in the journal of Nature Sustainability, emphasizes the need to embrace concepts of global, human-driven, environmental risks and interactions that move across very large scales of space and time. This is not just a question of adjusting quarterly financial outlooks to consider the next five or ten years. The non-linear and complex reality of humanity’s changes to the entire Earth system, require us to look much further forward and backward in time.

How Anthropocene risk interacts with more traditional notions of risk.
Image: Nature Sustainability

The authors highlight four case studies that examine different dimensions of Anthropocene risk. For example, it turns out that groundwater extraction for Indian irrigation leads to increased rainfall in East Africa. However, if India moves towards more sustainable groundwater extraction, that could lead to a trade-off in countries that may now be reliant on changed precipitation.

Another case study considers coastal megacities and the long-term prospects of sea level rise. By 2100, global sea levels could rise by as much as two metres, with some regions experiencing even higher levels. That is a problem for investments being made today in built infrastructure that is intended to last for 50 years or more.

The Anthropocene as a concept is itself a contested notion. The idea that all of humanity is somehow responsible for the current crisis does not reflect the reality. Specifically, a significant amount of the world’s wealthy and powerful accrued their wealth and power on the back of carbon emissions. This disparity between those that emitted carbon and became rich, and those that have not emitted carbon and remain poor, is a defining feature of Anthropocene risk.

It may seem odd to emphasize power imbalances when considering global environmental risks. However, the non-linear and complex reality of the Anthropocene suggests that the prevailing international order will not last, and that addressing our past and present problems is necessary to chart an equitable and sustainable future.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

The wealth and power that many organizations and people have accrued while emitting significant amounts of carbon should be mobilized, in significant part, to start addressing the pronounced environmental and social injustices that are perpetuating these Anthropocene risks. This is already occurring to some degree, but needs to be accelerated.

As the world enters a new era of surprise and uncertainty, a pronounced opportunity exists to embrace a different economic model for the future. This requires doing things differently, such as engaging with social and environmental justice organizations.

Acclaimed physicist Richard Feynman once said: “If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”

Humanity has never faced the types of changes that we are facing today and will continue to face in the decades to come. The scale of economic, environmental, geopolitical, and social changes that the Anthropocene will bring to our doorstep has no precedent. So, as Feynman suggests, the door must be left open to allow new ideas and solutions to enter in.

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