Reflections from the Tuesday morning session “Teleconnections, globalisation and resilience”

This session provided cutting-edge insight into thinking about “teleconnections” in global change and sustainability problems. The concept of teleconnections refers to causes or drivers of a problem that is ‘far away,’ either geographically or institutionally, but has a key impact on a problem of interest. For example, water management of a basin may be linked to with atmospheric moisture flows across or between continents, or distant decisions made in global commodity chains. This is an extremely exciting frontier topic in resilience research!

The first speaker was Lan Wang Erlandsson (Stockholm Resilience Centre) who spoke about atmospheric moisture flows affecting rainfall across river basin borders. Typically, water management paradigms over recent decades have focused on integrated management within river basins, yet growing awareness of teleconnections breaks apart the coherence of this lens, revealing the importance of broader forces (teleconnections) affecting water management at a local level.

Wang Erlandsson’s discussed telecoupling between moisture/rainfall patterns and the sources of this atmospheric moisture, and the problem that land use change in one place might cause less rainfall for another – seemingly far away – place. Examples from the Yangtze Basin in China, the Amazon, and the Congo were used to illustrate these issues. Furthermore, vegetation-atmosphere feedbacks can self-amplify due to both local land use change and land use change in source regions. This reveals new transboundary relationships beyond watersheds that need to be considered.

The second speaker was Magnus Nyström (Stockholm Resilience Centre) who spoke about teleconnections in global biomass production systems (eg agriculture, marine). Nyström argued that the overall trend emerging is that humanity is turning natural ecosystems into global intensified production ecosystems. This creates risks for the resilience of these systems: for example, if the systems collapse or other spill-over effects occur, who bears the costs in the globally-distributed production systems?

Evidence is pointing to an increasing structural vulnerability in global production systems, in at least two key ways: 1) altering the disturbance landscape because suddenly there may be new drivers of problems that did not previously matter, and 2) the emerging global infrastructure of this system masks loss of overall resilience. This work maps the anatomy of these systems (e.g. connectivity, diversity, feedbacks, implications for risk and resilience), including different types of teleconnections, including biophysical (eg evaporation, temperature, dust) and socioeconomic (eg input-output links in global production chains).

The third speaker was Fred Boltz (The Rockefeller Foundation) who spoke about the centrality of water within unfolding global transformations. He argued that water is a “master variable” that we should give a lot of attention to for understanding social-ecological transformations in the Anthropocene. This is because it is implicated in many of the changes occurring, and is deeply tied to human wellbeing.

Longstanding water problems – such as, water stress, scarcity, damming, and groundwater depletion – are simmering under the surface of many other issues, and are getting closer and closer to triggering cascading global problems.

The Rockefeller Foundation is actively engaging with these issues and are working on understansing it better. For example, it has developed the City Resilience Index which helps define general resilience of cities. The Rockefeller Foundation is also currently developing the City Water Resilience Framework to apply resilience ideas in river basin contexts.

The session chair, Prof. Carle Folke (Stockholm Resilience Centre), observed that many new complex political issues and tensions arise around issues of teleconnections. Nyström pointed out that interestingly, we lack basic knowledge of ownership of freshwater. For example, who are the companies that control water globally?

A participant raised a question that pointed to the difficulty of “what to do” with new insights about teleconnections: the domain of forests is already extremely complex with its own links to drivers at different scales, but then linking this to water makes everything even more complex.

Wang Erlandsson observed that while there is a lot of research on the biophysical side, and some from the policy side, they are not well integrated at present. Nyström further observed that you can also take multiple different perspectives in analysing teleconnections (e.g. institutions, sectoral systems like food, actors), and it is a challenge to integrate these.

Fred Boltz observed that for water we need to look not only at nested vulnerabilities and risks, but also masked vulnerabilities and risks, and that land and water in food production is chronically under-valued but global markets and supply chains do not take account of real risks and costs of substitutability.

This was a fantastic session exploring a cutting-edge topic. The main thought I was left with, was: what does this means for the governance and politics of dealing with teleconnections?

For example, in the water sector we have struggled for decades to manage water in “integrated” ways (which has been emphasised by the dominant discourse), but if we now consider the vast array of possible teleconnections, then it becomes an even more complex and confusing situation to deal with.

Moreover, the politics of teleconnections are likely to be an extremely sensitive issue. For example, if one country claims to be impacted as a result of the environmental policies from another country that is physically far away, who is responsible for dealing with the impact? How to deal with this remains to be seen, but is guaranteed to be a hot topic in future sustainability debates!

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:
James Patterson is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), Vrije
University Amsterdam, working in the area of environmental governance. His current research focuses on climate change adaptation in cities, with a particular focus on institutional innovation and change. He also has a keen interest in sustainability transformations, collective action, and science-policy interactions.

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