How can future leaders prepare for an environmentally-destabilized world?

The pandemic could be a warning from a future that poses an unprecedented challenge to the leaders of tomorrow.

Expert comment Updated 15 September 2023 Published 3 December 2021 3 minute READ

World leaders will be glad to see the back of another year of complex problems. The pandemic and its impact on health, the knock-on effects on labour markets and the recent surges in demand for goods as restrictions have eased are huge problems that together have disrupted the delicate choreography of global trade.

2021 can be seen as a warning from an environmentally-destabilized future.

Meanwhile, a summer of persistent drought and wildfires has given way to a winter of storms and floods, such as in Canada, where the effects of July’s extreme heatwave has left fire-damaged landscapes vulnerable to flash flooding and landslides. The resultant destruction of roads and railways has added to the disruption of Canada’s exports, multiplying supply chain problems.

In this way, the cascading problems of 2021 can be seen as a warning from an environmentally-destabilized future.

Cascading hazards

Two recent reports from Chatham House explore the increasingly severe risks of the climate crisis over this decade and through to 2040 and are part of a growing body of research on the cascading risks resulting from the climate crisis.  

They show that these risks aren’t just direct – such as extreme heat causing heat stroke – or indirect – such as damage to livelihoods resulting from disruption to work – they are also systemic.

The risk of extreme heat destroying crops on a large scale, for example, could have knock on effects to food prices which could then ripple through food systems and interact with, and multiply, existing problems across the world including political instability, poverty and inequality.

The severity of current environmental shocks indicates how much the world is exiting the stable conditions of previous centuries.

The severity of current environmental shocks indicates how much the world is exiting the stable conditions of previous centuries and entering a new ‘domain of risk’ where the relatively stable relationship between the natural world and our interconnected socio-economic systems is breaking down.

This domain could throw up all manner of threats, for example, complex impacts on food security could drive greater forced displacement in vulnerable regions worsening poverty, health and development in these places.

In turn, politically, the perception of crisis itself could be seized on by nativist movements in richer countries, deepening an emergent trend that combines anti-migrant scaremongering with fears of environmental crisis.

In contrast, worsening destabilization could provide opportunities for positive change. Understanding is growing of how ‘tipping points’ – sudden moments of rapid change – can drive constructive socio-economic change. Fridays for the Future and other movements, for example, have triggered some political change in recent years while tipping points in renewable energy have also been passed with solar power now cheaper than coal and gas in many countries. 

Unprecedented challenges ahead

These potential threats and opportunities are pressingly relevant for future leaders. The average age of current world leaders is 62 and emerging millennial-age leaders who are currently in their early thirties – around the median age of the global population – will reach this age in the 2040s and 2050s.

This means they could be leading in a world in which 4 billion people suffer persistent heatwaves, a third of cropland is affected by severe drought and there is around a 50 per cent chance of a synchronous crop failure in breadbasket regions. The resultant cascading effects would drive higher mortality rates, political instability and regional and international conflict.

The leaders of tomorrow will have to overcome the inherited burden imposed on them by the leaders of today who are failing to adequately mitigate and adapt to the environmental crisis as well as to undertake the unprecedented socioeconomic systemic changes needed to prevent a worsening future.

The failure to bend the emissions curve today, for example, places a greater demand on younger generations to do so in the future, and to preside over inventing and deploying the means of sucking excess emissions from the atmosphere.

Altogether, these burdens could prove severe. But managing them alongside potentially catastrophic changes to the Earth’s systems could mean future leaders, as well as the societies they lead, are simply overwhelmed.

Emerging leaders can be better prepared

The pandemic has shown us that there are huge differences in how prepared current leaders are to face complex crises. The unique window into the future afforded by our growing understanding of the environmental crisis means that future leaders can – and must – try to be better prepared to deal with these challenges.

Our project exploring how to help emerging leaders face up to the challenge of creating a more equitable, sustainable and peaceful world under conditions of growing destabilization, has shown that some communities are already facing up to this reality while academics are rapidly improving our understanding of destabilizing environmental systems and the growing risk of potentially catastrophic runaway changes.

The pandemic has shown us that there are huge differences in how prepared current leaders are to face complex crises.

These analyses are increasingly attracting the attention of policymakers, as well as leaders in civil society and business including financial institutions who are well attuned to complex risk.

But, while these efforts are necessary, they are not sufficient. Our understanding of complex cascading risks is worryingly incomplete and,  what’s more, it can prove beyond the ‘risk currency’ of some actors who do not see it as a priority compared to more pressing short-term considerations.

Where some action is being taken, in the finance sector for example, it is to improve performance under existing models, which can be an inherently defensive outlook. Instead, different models are needed to understand how to better prepare for the huge challenges ahead.

Militaries are often seen as leaders in forecasting future instability and these insights are increasingly being used to develop the defence capabilities of the future including by the UK Ministry of Defence. Insights on the evolving nature of risk form the basis of a process of experimentation to develop future-fit capabilities which are then adopted to form the basis of skills for future armed forces. Our research is exploring how similar processes of experimentation could be used to accelerate the development of leadership capabilities needed across a range of sectors beyond the military.

Emerging leaders can be better prepared contd.

Such an agenda should include improving analytical skills to comprehend and respond to uncertainty, developing mechanisms for greater global cooperation under worsening conditions and means of overcoming political obstacles to deliver equitable structural changes to societies.

More fundamentally, we need to recognize the huge emotional and psychological toll the environmental crisis is taking – and will increasingly take – and develop responses that strengthen hope even under worsening conditions.

Therein lies one of the biggest lessons for future leaders from the destabilization caused by the pandemic. In the face of fear and chaos, communities banded together, forming mutual aid groups and stepping up to help vulnerable people. Unlocking – and growing – that collective reaction to destabilization must sit at the heart of how future leaders can be better prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.