Integrative Geopolitics: Climate resilience in a COVID-changed world

This essay is adapted from a keynote address delivered on the 50th annual Earth Day — April 22, 2020—for Lehigh University’s Earth Week 2020 Celebration.

The first thing we should note today is that we hoped in the spring of 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic emergency would abate, but it has persisted now for two and a half years. This was the context, at the time:

  • On the 50th annual observation of Earth Day, the COVID-19 pandemic emergency had so far taken 180,784 lives around the world.
  • With 2,611,182 confirmed cases at that time, nearly 7 out of every 100 people confirmed to have been infected have died.
  • To slow the spread of the virus and save lives, the everyday bustle of cities and towns around the world was shut down.
  • As a result, we learned that many of the core structures of what we call “the economy” are not well suited to deal with such a major disruption.

As of July 15, 2022, COVID-19 has taken at least 6,365,883 lives globally and 1,023,258 in the United States. The World Health Organization estimates that 15 million people have lost their lives to COVID-19, during the first two years of the pandemic. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle, Washington, estimates that COVID has killed between 17.1 million and 19.6 million people.

In April 2020, there was mounting concern about food security — not from the background of degradation of watersheds and ecosystems, but from supply-chain disruption, freezing of financial resources, trade restrictions, and commodities markets that don’t know how to react to this level of uncertainty. Even bees’ travel to places in need of pollination was disrupted.

We were witnessing in real time what happens when the flow of human capital and other resources is mapped to the wrong priorities, or blocked by forces that crowd out the most well-reasoned sustainable investment and resilience-building. Every small weakness in the system can turn into an impediment to saving, or sustaining, lives.

The thin line on the far horizon is New York City, seen across the water from just a few miles away. Human systems depend on vast natural systems—climate, watersheds, ocean, ecosystems, and the biodiversity they harbor. If those systems are stressed or degraded beyond a certain point, last-minute fixes will not help.

While governments were closing borders and limiting exports of many basic goods, including farm goods, and pledging unprecedented sums of money to aid industries and individuals within their own borders, the need for constructive international cooperation was becoming startlingly evident.

On Monday, April 20, 2020, the price for US crude oil went into negative territory for the first time in history. People were paying others to take oil off their hands, because no one would buy it, and there was nowhere left to store it affordably. This happened in spite of the unprecedented agreement among oil exporters to limit production—to push prices up, to make it easier to finance supply chains.

System-level constraints, far beyond the immediate considerations of investors and financiers, took over. This was more of a signal of the sharp decline in economic activity, and the lack of resilience in supply chains than it was a problem for consumers at the time. That signal suggested resilience failure was a growing threat to prosperity and wellbeing.

Every day brought more evidence of dangerous design flaws in supply chains. The compounding costs of our routine depletion of human and natural capital — from air and water pollution, climate disruption, undermining of biodiversity and ecosystem health and resilience — were also building up in the background.

Those design flaws interfered with food production and distribution, health services, energy, trade, banking, housing, infrastructure maintenance, and other everyday services. The background of compounding cost and risk magnified those disruptions and left even more people without help. A salient reality of the Anthropocene epoch was coming into focus…

Resilience and sustainability are not luxuries; they are imperatives.

An integrative geopolitics requires that we understand interacting systemic risks — such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, food insecurity, water scarcity, and climate disruption — as security concerns. Each of these plays a role in human security, national security, and planetary security. Destabilization at any of these scales can turn into destabilization of economies, nations, and regions.

What we do and don’t know about interacting system-design flaws, and the risks they create, will determine whether we are able to emerge from these moment of converging planetary-scale crises with a chance at sustainable health and resilience. Two years later, we know that the compounding cost of these cascading events is accumulating. A lot of the structural certainties of the pre-COVID world have not come back.

The Whole-Earth Active-Value Economy (WEAVE) knowledge graphing effort maps knowledge relationships between:

  • institutions, nations, and enterprise;
  • water, climate, and biodiversity resilience;
  • agriculture, food, finance, energy, infrastructure, science, shipping, watersheds, ocean health and resilience, forestry, and land use practices.

The WEAVE knowledge graph revealed something about access to and mobilization of resilience knowledge.

  • The eight subsidiary graphs at the right of the image above show traceable knowledge connections between specific institutions and knowledge in the areas listed above.
  • The first of the eight (top left of the right-hand panel in the image) is so faint as to be almost invisible. It traces only four known knowledge connections between a major company and the areas of concern mapped by the WEAVE graph.
  • In the early days of the pandemic shutdowns, that company was unable to make even a simple change in its distribution systems, and as a result wasted food that could feed millions of people.

In April 2020, it was already becoming evident that the great disruption sparked by COVID would generate major systemic shifts, driven in part by new habits developed during this time of crisis. We needed to choose between an assertive path toward multi-system recovery and resilience, or the ripple effects of the pandemic would drive us backward.

In July 2022, many now believe we are living through an ongoing multi-system resilience failure. Political, economic, and social signals all point to stresses that complicate each other and aren’t fading.

Oil prices have not only risen above zero; they have risen so far, fuel prices are hitting record levels and are pushing prices up in all sectors. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are facing hunger and hardship.

According to the World Food Programme:

“As many as 828 million people go to bed hungry every night, the number of those facing acute food insecurity has soared — from 135 million to 345 million — since 2019. A total of 50 million people in 45 countries are teetering on the edge of famine.”

This unprecedented crisis is part of a worsening storm of compounding risk. Meanwhile, our ability to properly address these threats is in doubt. Disinformation and a loss of trust in institutions has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. A sharp decline in early childhood vaccination is putting millions of lives at risk.

The New York Times quotes Unicef head of advocacy Lily Caprani:

“This is an emergency for children’s health — we have to think about the immediate stakes, the number of children that are going to die because of this… It’s not in a few years’ time; it’s quite soon.”

Our ability to access and act on factual information, our proximity to information and practices that support enhanced resilience and healthier outcomes, determines a lot about our level of access to safety and wellbeing. Institutions need to adapt to the multidimensionality of life in this time of compounding disruptions and cascading shocks.

It is also critical that institutions and services be accessible to communities in need. Macrocritical resilience — which ultimately determines the overall health and potential of nation states — requires vulnerable communities to be supported, served, and uplifted. Dr. Deborah Birx, in an interview with Devex, explained why entire regions struggled to mobilize COVID-related science data, prevention, and care:

“[Some regions have] dollar stores, but they don’t have primary care anymore. They’re an hour and a half from the closest hospital… I could hear people in Washington say, ‘Just go to your local doctor and talk to them about your vaccine status,’ and I was like, ‘there’s nobody there for them to talk to’.”

The smarter way forward is to plan toward a future of shared prosperity and resilience, at the human and planetary scales. Rapid material progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals can, and should, benefit everyone. No community is too rich to need that progress or too poor to be worthy of the generalized investment in that progress.

To distill the complexity of the converging and compounding crises we now face, we can look at five broad areas of action toward an integrative geopolitics that builds security at all scales:

  • Price on pollution — Negotiate the elimination of preventable harm; not doing so is costing us trillions of dollars per year in wasted resources, stability, and wellbeing.
  • Right to know — Use science to understand complex, compounding interactions between systems (natural and human).
  • WEAVE thinking — Value natural capital and human capital, by rewarding options that build structural, ecological, and human-scale resilience.
  • Decentralization — Include more voices; invest in science, health, information sharing, and zero-pollution methods.
  • Planetary health — Shift food system incentives to foster human health and prosperity, while safeguarding biodiversity.

We need to use the tools we have — some of which are just becoming available, or adapting to fit into the climate action toolkit — to stop rewarding industrial-scale practices that degrade and destroy the biosphere. We can use those tools to build a different kind of economy, which rewards resilience and development strategies that allow industry, prosperity, and everyday wellbeing to be sustainable.

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