Covid-19, climate change, armed conflicts: world’s crises can lead to interconnected polycrisis

Source(s): Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

The world is currently experiencing a worsening polycrisis, caused by an entanglement and nonlinear amplification of many of the world’s crises, like the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and armed conflicts such as Russia’s war on Ukraine. This is the result of a new paper authored by an international team of scientists, including PIK Director Johan Rockström. The researchers establish a substantive definition for a polycrisis and deliver a theoretical framework to better understand and address the entangled driving mechanisms behind contemporary global crises.

The researchers behind the study, published in the journal Global Sustainability, define a global polycrisis as ‘the causal entanglement of crises in multiple global systems in ways that significantly degrade humanity’s prospects.’ Global crises arise when short-term and fast-moving triggers, such as political uprisings, price spikes or climatic extreme events, combine with slower and more enduring stresses such as growing socio-economic inequalities or climate warming. These developments can tip a global system such as food production, global security or financial markets out of its balance and into crisis. Interconnected with other troubled global systems, a polycrisis can emerge, which the authors argue should be understood and resolved as a whole rather than in isolation.

The authors identify three causal mechanisms that can link multiple global systems and produce synchronized crises. The resilience of one or more global systems can be affected by “common stresses”, the first mechanism. For example, an aging population can pose a challenge to both healthcare systems and the economy, as workforce shrinks and healthcare costs rise. “Domino effects”, as the second mechanism, occur when a crisis in one system affects the stresses in another, or causes a trigger event that pushes another system into crisis. For instance, the Covid-19 pandemic intensified the stress of socio-economic inequality, while prices for services and goods rose. Finally, stresses in one system may causally interact with a stress in a second system, which could then affect the stress in the first system. These “inter-systemic feedbacks” can dampen or further escalate the crises.

The authors emphasize the importance of addressing interconnected global crises as a whole, rather than treating them as isolated events. They also highlight the need for structural changes in global systems to mitigate the effects of interacting crises and to pave the path towards more sustainable futures.

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