Xi Jinping started 2019 with a series of major speeches on risk. Hundreds of senior officials from across China were summoned to Beijing to hear his message: destabilisation and turbulence are on the horizon. Officials were warned to watch out for “black swans”—events that are unforeseen and take us by surprise—and “grey rhinos”—events that are highly likely and generally known, but are consistently ignored. One year later, China was in the grips of a public health disaster of epochal significance as Covid-19 swept out from Wuhan.
As we start another year in which communities around the world are braced for more storms, heatwaves and floods, there are three lessons the pandemic can teach us about the growing risks resulting from the environmental crisis.
Younger generations are already well aware of the growing burden placed on their shoulders by the inaction of today’s—and yesterday’s—leaders. But soon young people will be the leaders themselves—and they will lead in a world acutely destabilised by the cascading consequences of environmental shocks.
Worry more about food wars than flooded cities
As Xi noted, in a globally connected world, risks spread rapidly and exacerbate other problems. Covid-19 started as a health crisis but soon graduated into a financial crisis, an economic crisis, a social crisis, a political crisis. This is “systemic risk” in action: effects ripple out through our interconnected societies and economic systems, causing chaos far beyond ground zero.
Understandably, we often focus on the localised impacts of the environmental crisis, like the wildfires or hurricanes that regularly grab headlines. But on the current trajectory—to and beyond 1.5C of heating and with continued destruction of biodiversity—it’s the systemic effects of the environmental crisis that we should be most concerned about.
Take Canada for example. The extraordinary summer heatwaves and the destruction of the village of Lytton rightly attracted global attention. Yet less attention was paid to the ongoing effects, such as how forests lost to wildfires made landscapes vulnerable to this winter’s flooding, which then destroyed roads and railways. This disrupted freight movements to major ports, worsening significant trade problems resulting from the pandemic.
By the 2030s, more than 400m people a year could be exposed to temperatures that will make it almost impossible to work, as the global rise edges above 1.5C.
The cascading consequences for economies, health and migration could be far greater than the immediate effects. As Chatham House has concluded, such impacts “can be expected to cause higher mortality rates, drive political instability and greater national insecurity, and fuel regional and international conflict.”
A world of 1.5C or more of heating, the continued loss of biodiversity and the destabilisation of the nitrogen cycle and other life support systems is a world of persistent and constantly evolving destabilisation. This world could only be decades away.
Younger generations will have to lead in a turbulent world
The average age of a world leader is 62. This means emerging millennial leaders will likely lead the world’s governments and businesses by the 2040s and 2050s, when the systemic risks of the environmental crisis are expected to reach fever pitch. Within the remaining span of a millennial’s career, the world must reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, suck vast quantities of carbon from the atmosphere, halt biodiversity loss and repair nature. The cascading impacts of environmental destabilisation will make this unprecedented set of challenges even harder.
When considering the huge intergenerational inequities of the crisis, we often focus on school children (“act now to save their future.”) But perhaps we should also ask whether the leaders of the 2040-2050s will be ready to carry on the fight to avoid catastrophic environmental change under worsening, chaotic conditions.
This brings us to the next lesson of the pandemic. Decisive action must be taken to pre-empt and prepare for threats, but stability can breed complacency. For many of us, Covid-19 was a black swan. But from the perspective of governments and health agencies, it was a grey rhino.
Experts had been warning that the next pandemic was overdue, but governments weren’t adequately prepared. Xi’s 2019 speeches are eerily prescient of Covid, yet China fumbled its initial response. The US and UK were rated as some of the countries most prepared for pandemics and scoffed at China, yet they suffered more than most other nations.
Just because we can identify risks it doesn’t mean we will take adequate action. Unprecedented environmental shocks happened last year, yet governments couldn’t muster adequate action at COP26 in Glasgow.
But we are not doomed to short-termism. Societies can act against threats they identify in advance. Early in the pandemic, some nations, such as South Korea, acted on the lessons of previous pandemics to suppress the spread. While it seems unlikely that current leaders will take emergency action on the environmental crisis, emerging leaders can be better prepared to carry on the fight as its effects worsen.
Rapid environmental change can be fought with rapid changes to societies
Young people’s feelings of eco-anxiety and the general rise in pessimism are understandable, considering the task ahead. It seems easier, in a culture of dystopian films and political mistrust, to assume that nothing will change and that populations will turn on each other or look inwards as destabilising environmental impacts inevitably grow. Some scientists, politicians and commentators now warn of societal collapse.
This brings us to the third lesson of the pandemic, one nearly all of us saw first-hand. When destabilisation came, people organised mutual aid groups, while NHS and care staff delivered extraordinary levels of energy and support. Millions volunteered to help with the vaccine rollout. The closest we got to “collapse” was some people buying too much loo roll; more people clapped in celebration of key workers.
As younger generations prepare to face the vast challenge of the worsening environmental crisis, they should take notice of these dynamics—and be better prepared to encourage the positive collective action communities are ready to take.
Indeed, while scientists are kept up at night by the prospect of “tipping points” in natural systems—abrupt, irreversible and potentially catastrophic changes in the environment—such moments also occur in societies, for the better. We’re already seeing this with the collapse in energy prices from renewable sources and in the explosion of youth activism, both of which seemed unlikely even five years ago.
Black swans and grey rhinos can also be forces of extraordinary change. Working to trigger those tipping points as we enter the bumpy ride of the coming decades is a foremost task for emerging leaders.