Reflections from the Wednesday afternoon theme plenary session “Connectivity theme plenary III: Teleconnected vulnerabilities and global systemic risks”

This final theme plenary session explored the fascinating and path-breaking topic of teleconnections and global systemic risks. Chaired by Victor Galaz (Stockholm Resilience Centre), the session explored the social-ecological systems dimensions of “global systemic risks” and “teleconnected vulnerabilities”. Big words, but extremely important for understanding how we can work towards sustainability transformations in a hyper-connected world. These ideas basically refer to the ways in which causes and impacts of environmental and social change are linked across the globe. For example, financial decisions made on Wall Street may cause natural resource depletion in the Amazon. So how can we better understand these interlinkages to more effectively address social-ecological challenges?

The first speaker was Beatrice Crona (Royal Swedish Academy of Science) who spoke about recent work exploring the interlinkages between finance, security, and social-ecological systems. Issues of finance and security are central topics in the global systemic risk community, but not in the social-ecological systems community. Crona observed that risk emerges from our inability to predict problems under complexity and interconnectedness. This involves: nonlinear dynamics and cascading effects, but also governance institutions that are ill-suited to dealing with emerging global systemic risks. The paradox for governance is that it’s very hard to deal with both linear and nonlinear risks within the same governance architecture.

Three key patterns emerging globally are: 1) consolidation, 2) networks with scale-independent effects, and 3) standardization of practices.

Increasing consolidation of power and control over resources includes networks of corporate control and natural resource ownership, and even consolidation in the banking sector over recent decades in places like the UK and US. This creates massive vulnerability built into the global financial system.

Networks of resource and financial flows are increasingly global, which starts to create scale-independent effects because some nodes become so critical to delivery of goods/services.

Standardization of practices occurs as paradigms and practices become enshrined and taken-for-granted globally. For example, Master of Business Administration programs that propagate a single type of thinking across the world.

These issues were illustrated through the example of biosphere finance to examine how management decisions about forest biomes (e.g. in the Amazon, Russia, Canada) are connected to financial actors far away that underpin those activities. The key message from this work is that to meet the Paris climate change targets and avoid ecological tipping points, we really need to engage with financial actors and linkages.

Beatrice Crona

The second speaker was Malin Mobjörk (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) who spoke about climate-related security risks. This involves a complex intersection of topics across: natural resources, human security, climate system, and societal stability. In fact, Mobjörk insightfully reflected that the incredible complexity of interconnections across these areas reveals the futility of traditional statistical approaches to understanding relationships and risks. Key challenges in understanding climate-related security risks are: the multi-dimensional nature of the issue, multiple possible intermediating mechanisms, context-dependency, and the nature of the risks faced (e.g. systemic, compounding, both instant and delayed). Importantly, there is a conscious shift from talking about “threats” (which imply something external) to “risks” (which imply something within the system).

These ideas were illustrated through an example of the climate-conflict link in East Africa. Four possible mechanisms have been observed for understanding how climate and conflict are related: 1) worsening livelihood conditions, 2) increasing migration and changing pastoral mobility patterns, 3) tactical consideration of armed groups, and 4) exploitation of local grievances by elites.

However, these four mechanisms may overlap, operating simultaneously but playing out over different timeframes. Interestingly, climate-conflict linkages may sometimes be incorrectly attributed in the literature. For example, conflicts may be initiated by local groups strategically at certain times, such as following seasonal rains when there is more vegetation cover. This highlights the importance understanding the context in order to interpret the actual causal mechanisms of conflict in a particular place.

The discussion probed further into the speakers’ thoughts about the implications of a hyper-connected world, and for understanding resilience in this context.

Mobjörk provided interesting reflections from outside the resilience community on opportunities for mutual learning between human security and resilience researchers. Mobjörk observed that resilience researchers have much to offer the human security field, particularly for understanding the social-ecological dimensions of human security issues, and interdependencies between different communities across the globe. Conversely, the human security field can offer resilience researchers rich insights into aspects such as power, interests, and political dynamics that are critical for finding opportunities for change towards sustainability.

Crona reflected on some of the key challenges for furthering our understanding of global systemic risks from a resilience perspective. Lack of available data is a critical issue: for example, it can be extremely difficult to obtain financial data to examine the role of the financial system (e.g. debt loads of companies). There is also a lot of theory-building work that needs to happen to bridge resilience ideas with the ways of thinking of the business/finance community. Furthermore, identifying hidden linkages is a key challenge: “We know things are complex and correlated, but we sometimes don’t even know what we’re looking for”.

This was an extremely interesting session, and highlighted work that is really pushing the frontiers of resilience thinking in out-of-the-box directions. I am excited to follow this work, because it has potential to re-frame our view of global sustainability problems in fundamental ways in coming years.

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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