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How do we make sense of ecological crises that cascade across spatial scales and that propagate from ecological to social and economical systems? Considering a number of recent crises events with clear ecological dimensions – ranging from the 2008 food crisis (video below) to the spread of plant disease Ug99 in East Africa and parts of the Middle East – there is actually quite little research on the sociopolitical dimensions of ecological crises events.
The results of our work have just been published in the journal Public Administration in an article entitled “Institutional and Political Leadership Dimensions of Cascading Ecological Crises”. Here we elaborate a range of difficult political challenges that emerge though different phases of a complex crisis: early warning, sense making, response and post-crisis learning. As we elaborate, even though there are several examples of successful governance of ecological stresses and crises, cascading ecological crises are:
• notoriously hard to detect in advance due to their underlying complexities,
and poor monitoring systems.
• challenge the decision-making and coordinating capacities of actors at multiple
levels of societal organization due to their cascading and recombining capacities.
• are prone to blame games, which hinder post-crisis learning and reform.
Think Globally Radio recently posted a number of great interviews. Here is one interesting one with political scientist, and renown author Thomas Homer-Dixon from University of Waterloo (Canada) – one of the world’s leading scholars on the intersection of environment, security and crisis.
Direct link to the interview can be found here.
Volcano eruption is certainly one, but which are other possible global surprises? In 1994, the Aspen Global Change Institute organized a two week workshop on global environmental surprise. The results form this workshop can be found in Stephen H. Schneider and colleagues 1998 article “Imaginable surprise in global change science” (Journal of Risk Research, 1(2)). By “imaginable surprise”, they mean
The event, process, or outcome departs from the expectations of the observing community or those affected by the event or process. Seen from this point of view, surprise abou t one or another aspect of climate change is an after-the-fact reaction to an observation or new scientific finding that, in some sense, lies outside our range of expectations.
In the list of 40+ types of surprises, you find not only volcano eruption, but also, just to mention a few:
- A reduction in ‘conveyor belt’ oceanic overturning leading to cooling at high latitudes occurs, despite general (but slower) global warming.
- Heat stored in the ocean at intermediate depths is released to the atmosphere, leading to rapid warming.
- Dimethyl sulfide emissions decline with reduced sea ice, causing cloud brightness to decrease and warming to accelerate.
- Dimethyl sulfide emissions change with sea-surface temperature change.
- Synergism of habitat fragmentation, artificial chemicals, introduction of exotic species and anthropogenic climate change affect ecosystems in unforeseen ways that reduce biodiversity.
- Geo-engineering is practised intermittently by only a few nations causing international political conflicts and greater environmental instability.
Don’t say you weren’t warned….