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If you’re not thinking about the climate impacts of thawing permafrost, you should be

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Layers of permafrost. © US Geological Survey/NASA

Earth’s permafrost is thawing, and indigenous communities in the Arctic and scientists around the world say it’s high time this alarming loss of ground ice receives the global attention – and dedicated research – it deserves. As this phenomenon reshapes landscapes, displaces whole villages, and disrupts fragile animal habitats; it also threatens to release dangerous microorganisms and potential carbon emissions that have been locked in ice for thousands of years. 

Tuvalu’s Minister of Justice Simon Kofe made headlines during COP26 this past November by addressing the UN climate conference while standing knee-deep in seawater.

“We are sinking,” he said, highlighting the existential danger that climate change fuelled sea-level rise represents to the world’s low-lying island nations.

The video from Tuvalu went viral. The image was impactful, like those coming from fellow Pacific Islands Kiribati and Fiji in recent years, showing entire towns being moved further inland as villages slowly succumb to the sea around them.

A similarly troubling, but much less eye-catching tragedy is occurring on the opposite side of the globe: The Arctic, where rising temperatures are shrinking ancient glaciers, thinning sea ice, and warming and thawing the planet’s permafrost.

Permafrost is ground below the Earth’s surface that has been continuously frozen for at least two consecutive years and in most cases, for hundreds or thousands of years. It extends over a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, including many regions that are not covered in snow.

This frozen ground is present beneath large parts of Alaska, Canada and Siberia, where people, mostly indigenous communities, have lived, worked, and hunted for hundreds of years.

Displaced by climate change

“In my future and our youth’s future, I picture our community being completely relocated,” Eriel Lugt, a 19-year-old Inuit indigenous activist from Canada’s Arctic region, tells UN News.

Although heartbreaking images of malnourished polar bears struggling to cope with changes of the Arctic landscape might be now embedded in our brains, the thought of entire human settlements having to be relocated or of indigenous communities having to rethink their traditional way of life is not something we hear much about.

“When I first learned about climate, I was in grade 9 and I hadn’t realized that climate change was happening so rapidly in my own community, right in front of my eyes”.

Indeed, for years her hometown, Tuktoyaktuk, has been suffering the consequences of our melting cryosphere.

“Here in Tuk our whole land is on permafrost,” she explains, “The thawing is completely changing our land structure, and with that our wildlife is also being affected.”

The melting of this frozen ground below the surface that covers about 9 million square miles of the north of our planet is barely visible to us, but its effects are not. Roads, houses, pipelines, even military facilities, and other infrastructure are collapsing or starting to become unstable.

Many northern villages such as Tuktoyaktuk are built on permafrost, which when frozen is harder than concrete. But as the planet rapidly warms – the Arctic at least twice as fast as other regions – the thawing ground erodes and can trigger landslides.

Moreover, the reduction and change of sea ice leave coastal villages more vulnerable to storm surges.

“Our community is known for having fierce winds, and every summer there would be days when the wind just makes the sea level rise, so that’s another problem we face… Each winter I notice still that the coast loses about an inch of land,” Eriel highlights.

Some of her neighbors who lived right in the tundra above the beach have already been forced to move inland.

“The ground was basically caving in under their houses,” she said.

Consequences on human health and access to water

Susan M. Natali is a scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center*, she has been studying permafrost thawing in the Arctic for over 13 years.

I can see the changes, it’s devastating. I don’t even know if I can communicate the magnitude of how this is impacting people. They are literally having to prop up and raise their houses (off the collapsing ground). This is something they might have done in the past maybe once a year, and now they’re doing it five times a year because their houses are tilting,” she describes.

Dr. Natali explains that the thawing permafrost is also causing fuel storage units to collapse, and she notes that landfills that had once been in dry areas are now leaking waste and toxic materials such as mercury into lagoons and rivers.

“Rivers are where people get their water and their fish, so there are human health impacts… The thawing it is also causing some river banks to erode making it harder to access clean water,” she adds.

Another problem is that many communities move across the land in the winter using frozen rivers and lakes that are not “freezing” enough anymore.

“This is not only a health risk, but it is also impacting people’s accessibility to food. There are so many things going on… this is a multifaceted problem impacting both natural systems and social systems… This is something that is a reality now for people who are living in the Arctic, and it’s been a reality for a long time.”

Humans and wildlife

Eriel Lugt is no stranger to the scientist’s affirmations, her people have been on their land for hundreds of years, knowing where to hunt and how to travel, but now they are being forced to adapt.

“The ancestors taught generations and generations where we need to go while travelling, like which routes of the ice and land are safe to go by. With the climate changing, the land has become dangerous because our hunters are not so sure anymore what’s the safest route to take.”

The Inuit indigenous communities are not the only ones that have had to learn how to adapt.

According to Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, coordinating lead author of the Polar Regions Chapter of the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere, and Head of Conservation for the Artic Program at WWF, animal habitats and living conditions are also being transformed.

“The Arctic is going to warm two to three times as much as the global average over the course of this century. So, when we’re talking about 1.5C degrees globally, we’re talking about 3 degrees in the Arctic”, he explains.

This means more frequent heatwaves during both winter and summer, with some of what he calls ‘indirect effects” already happening.

“Heatwaves lead to wildfires and insect outbreaks on land and together this weakens the ecosystems, and they basically burn. They get very vulnerable to defoliation from insect outbreaks, which have cascading effects through the entire ecosystem, making it very difficult for the Arctic species to exist in these places,” Dr. Sommerkorn adds.

The expert says that however, there is not an immediate extinction of Arctic species in many places because, just like some human settlements, they are moving further north to escape warming.

“We are seeing desperate accounts of wildlife. For example, Caribou escaping the summer heat and these wildfires. Also, on the sea, we are seeing a complete takeover of previously Arctic marine ecosystems by boreal fish communities. There are impacts that you can see anytime you are up there.”

Dr. Sommerkorn adds that however, the northward migration of species, or in biological terms “range shifts”, has some hard limits in places such as Siberia, where are very few islands north of the coastline.

Why care? The global impacts

But why should the entire world care about what is happening in the Artic? Dr. Natali explains that what is happening there impacts the future of the entire planet.

“There’s so much carbon stored in permafrost, and it’s frozen now. It’s locked away, and when that thaws, it then becomes vulnerable for being released into the atmosphere to exacerbate global climate change,” she tells UN News.

Plant and animal material frozen in permafrost – called organic carbon – does not decompose or rot away. But as the permafrost thaws, microbes begin decomposing the material and release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

“Permafrost contains organic soil that’s been building up for thousands and thousands of years. It’s a fossil carbon pool that it hasn’t been part of our earth system for many thousands of years,” Dr. Natali emphasizes.

Dr. Sommerkorn adds that even under low levels of global warming, permafrost thawing could represent the emissions of a medium-sized country.

“And they could grow much more… that is what we know. What we don’t know is how much of that will be compensated on-site. So how much more new plants will be growing on permafrost soils? Taking that carbon back in? But these emissions will be coming,” he explains.

He gives the example of peatlands in Scotland, the host of the latest UN Climate Conference COP26 and a country working to reduce its emissions by more than 50 percent before 2030.

Peatlands are terrestrial wetland ecosystems in which waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing (and releasing carbon).

“They are fighting big time and don’t have a solution yet for the legacy emissions from drained peatlands that were made available for farming and forestry. Once you drain them it’s basically what will happen to permafrost soils once they start thawing deeper in many places: you just commit to centuries of emissions and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Right now, emissions coming from peatlands drained decades ago are almost one-fifth (18 per cent) of Scotland’s emissions. The country is now in a race trying to restore these vital carbon sinks.

“It is a strong and steady contribution at a time when we are desperately trying to keep within our atmospheric budget for Scotland… permafrost carbon will (also) come at a very, very inconvenient time to us.”

But unlike drained peatlands, thawing permafrost cannot be reversed in a human’s lifetime while the global temperature keeps increasing.

Moreover, when permafrost thaws, so do ancient bacteria and viruses in the ice and soil. These microorganisms could make humans and animals very sick.

According to NASA, scientists have discovered microbes more than 400,000 years old in thawed permafrost.

The need for science and adaptation

Back in 2019, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) called the thawing of permafrost one of the top 10 emerging issues of environmental concern. At that time, the southern permafrost boundaries in the Artic had receded northwards by 30 to 80km, a significant loss in coverage.

In 2020, UNEP supported a study on Coastal and Offshore Permafrost Rapid Response, where residents of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the western Canadian Arctic participated.

Hundreds of people attended a call for a community science day in “Tuk.” The study concluded that people living along the Arctic coast generally appreciate the efforts of the scientific community to better understand permafrost processes and change.

However, they have rarely been directly involved in the science, provision of logistics support, or, most importantly, guiding scientific research towards issues of importance for Arctic peoples.

UNEP called for incorporating traditional ecological knowledge of coastal environments and processes in research programmes wherever possible.

“It’s amazing to me how people are dealing with this. Because you know, there’s not a support system. I can only speak for the United States, but there is not a support system in place to deal with climate change adaptation. It’s almost as if climate change is happening faster than science can keep up and happening faster than policy can keep up. There are people dealing with this almost on their own and piecing together support to deal with this, there’s no governance framework,” highlights Dr. Natali, who recently testified on the issue before the US Congress.

Newtok, a village in Alaska, became one of the first communities in North America to be displaced due to climate change.

Its residents, the Yup’ik tribe, have seen their town crumble little by little due to thawing permafrost, with water taking over to the point they had already decided to move.

Since 2019, they have been progressively relocated to the new village of Mertarvik, which is nine miles away.

A lack of visibility

Meanwhile in Canada, in September 2021, Tuktoyaktuk residents were told that protecting their town from climate change would cost at least $42 million and that any such protective measures could only be “guaranteed” to last until 2052.

In an effort towards adaptation, engineers have undertaken different options to protect the coastline, one of them, putting down layers of Styrofoam insulation and geotextile to protect the permafrost from rising temperatures.

Tuktoyaktuk is eroding away at an average of two metres per year. At the current rate, the entire island will be gone by 2050 unless mitigation is put in place. Other North American and Siberian communities could see a similar fate.

Eriel Lugt and her people know this. For two years now, she has been working in a climate monitoring programme where she goes with other locals to retrieve samples of the land and register any changes.

“I personally think that if enough people worldwide really knew the situation of climate change and if leaders acknowledged it more, then it would be dealt with.

Ms. Lugt and three other young Inuit activists had the opportunity to tell the story of how their town is dealing with a changing climate during COP25 in Madrid in December 2020.

They shared a trailer of Happening to Us a movie they made in collaboration with their Community Corporation, as well as Canadian filmmakers and academics.

Is there a solution?

Dr. Natali explains that while we can’t now reverse permafrost thaw – because it has already started – ambition is key to avoid the worst of it.

I think even under our most ambitious scenarios (for reducing global carbon emissions and subsequent warming), we’re going to lose, you know, probably 25 per cent of surface permafrost, and then some of the carbon that’s in there will go to the atmosphere. But this is much better than less ambitious scenarios which could take us to 75 per cent thaw. Permafrost is a climate change multiplier and so it needs to be an ambition multiplier,” she stresses.

For Dr. Sommerkorn, there still is not enough general understanding of the long-term effects of changes in the cryosphere (frozen elements of the world) at the decision-making levels.

“These changes have a direct link to the ambitions for 2030. The IPCC said it clearly: We have to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels if we want to stay below 1.5C (warming) without overshoot, and cryosphere doesn’t grant us the luxury of overshoot… We will trigger thresholds of melting that cannot be undone. It is very, very hard to regrow glaciers. It is basically impossible to grow back permafrost under raising temperatures”.

The expert explains that by reducing emissions and rates of warming, we are also reducing rates of melting and sea level rise, and giving people time and methods to adapt.

We have to urgently make decisions now when we plan for infrastructure, cities etc., and we can in parts of the world that have technical help and the funding…others need global help in adaptation funding,” Dr. Sommerkorn adds.

An urgent call on world leaders to act

The Head of Conservation of the WWF was part of a group of scientists and polar and mountain communities who called on leaders at COP26 to devote more attention to the dire global impacts of glacier and ice sheet loss.

“For too long, our planet’s frozen elements have been absent from the climate debate at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) even though their crucial role in determining the future for more than a billion people and our climate is becoming even more clear,” he said at the time, asking the COP organizers to create a dedicated space to discuss actions to be taken in response of the cryosphere crisis.

According to permafrost expert, Dr. Natali, not incorporating important Earth system feedback such as greenhouse gases resulting from frozen ground thaw, makes reaching the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement nearly impossible.

“It’s a big enough challenge to get nations to make the commitments and take action. But imagine that we’re not even aiming for the right target, which is essentially what’s happening right now because we’re not even doing the math right, because permafrost is not properly and fully accounted in the bookkeeping, and because people aren’t thinking about it,” she warns.

She adds that while physically controlling the emissions from permafrost in the ground is not feasible, getting the science to the place where it needs to be and getting that information in the hands of the public and policymakers is.

“Actions we take elsewhere have a multiplying effect, right? The more we reduce fossil fuel emissions, the more we protect forests… this way we are also, in turn, reducing the emissions that will come out of permafrost and the impact on northern communities,” she says.

No longer an early warning

Scientists are asking that a thematic day be set aside during the next round of UN climate talks, COP27, for a dedicated dialogue on cryosphere, to discuss with leaders the impacts and consequences of the changing landscape.

“It is not enough to look at previous IPCC reports and to carry over our understanding that the melting of cryosphere and its effects in the polar regions are an early warning signal. No, at this point there are actually no longer an early warning signal, they are driving climate change and impacts globally,” Dr. Sommerkorn highlights.

The expert notes that the preamble of the COP26 final outcome text reads: We need to guarantee the intactness of ecosystems, including the cryosphere.

“Just saying that is already showing that the matter has not been fully taken into account and fully understood, so we will be asking for such communication to go forward,” he adds.

For Dr. Sommerkorn, Glasgow left the world an increased possibility of ramping up the contributions through the Paris Agreement, and this forward momentum should be used to achieve the 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.

“I think the happy message here is that it is actually in our hands. We made some advances on good global governance at COP26. It’s not all disastrous, but we must find ways to actually translate that into urgent action. And that’s the key to the cryosphere crisis”.

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The climate crisis is a health crisis

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With one in eight people worldwide threatened by a lethal heat wave in South Asia that’s already taken close to 100 lives, it’s time we recognize that the climate crisis is a health crisis.

This is not an isolated issue. In South Africa, recent floods took over 400 lives, across the Sahel violence and insecurity are on the rise as people struggle with hunger, malnutrition and other factors made exponentially worse by climate change, and in place like Colombia, health and food security are at risk as floods displace communities and trigger disease outbreaks. 

This is the most pressing health and humanitarian challenge of the 21st century. A quarter of a million people are expected to die every year from climate change between 2030 and 2050 if we do nothing about it, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. According to recent IPCC Climate Change Report, climate change has harmful impacts on human health ranging from mortality from extreme events, morbidity from increasing temperatures and heat waves, malnutrition and disease susceptibility.

And for the first time ever, the IPCC Report includes mental health as a key area impacted by the climate crisis, noting that climate change has adversely affected the physical and mental health of people globally.

People are losing their homes and loved ones as conflicts flare over scarce resources in places like the Lake Chad Basin, and they are redlining on stress as we deal with the prolonged impacts of COVID-19 and the spectre of other zoonotic pathogens that will rise as heat and environmental damage push animals out of their traditional zones, according to Harvard

And even as countries and communities emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, it is evident that the pandemic has reinforced pre-existing structural inequalities, accentuated systemic challenges and risks, and threatens to reverse hard-earned progress across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Climate change is expected to further worsen the risks. We are already witnessing “irreversible” damage from climate change. According to the IPCC report, over 3 billion people – nearly half of the world’s population – live in “contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.” And the direct costs of climate change to the health system – not including health determining sectors such as agriculture, water and sanitation – is estimated between US$2 and $4 billion a year by the WHO.

Rethinking climate and health

Climate change adaptation will be one of the key highlights of this year’s Climate Talks in Egypt. World leaders have the chance to connect the dots between health, food security, livelihoods, sustainable economic development and climate actions as we come together to accelerate the ambition of Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement and sprint to achieve the lofty goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Most Nationally Determined Contributions have identified health as a priority concern. At COP-26 over 50 countries committed to build climate resilient and low-carbon health systems. These include 47 countries, representing over a third of global health care emissions. Fourteen countries have also set a target date to reach net zero carbon emissions in their health system before 2050.

There are a number of entry points that can assist countries in reaching these goals. The main opportunities come from adaptation interventions that contribute to food and water security, climate-informed health planning that can be inserted into National Adaptation Plans, early warning systems for climate-sensitive infectious diseases, capacity building for health facilities to build the protocols and prepare for the changing health needs that are arising as a result of the climate crisis, public health education campaigns, and community-level investments in water and sanitation facilities and other infrastructure that prevents the spread of disease.

When you think about it as a whole, the climate-health crisis is amazingly complex. In places like Egypt, people need air-conditioning units just to survive the 120-plus degree days. But more AC means more greenhouse gases. So, we also need to rethink economic development, incentives for renewable energy, and reduction of hydro-chloro-fluorocarbons and other pollutants that are literally poisoning our planet.

We also need to rethink climate resilience in our cities, on the farm, and in the marketplace, redefining how we approach commerce and economic development as we adapt to the new challenges of the 21st century.  

Piloting climate-health actions

The good news is that we are making progress.

With funding from the Global Environment Facility Special Climate Change Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and WHO supported local governments to pilot climate change adaptation efforts to protect human health in Barbados, Bhutan, China, Fiji, Jordan, Kenya and Uzbekistan.

In Barbados, community-based public health campaigns supported the safe use of wastewater. In Bhutan, the government has advanced its ability to predict climate-sensitive infectious diseases. And in China, three pilot cities have implemented a heat-health warning system.

With funding from the GEF, UNDP is partnering  with the WHO to build resilient health systems in Least Developed Countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Timor-Leste, and Small Island Developing States such as Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Among the various outputs, the programmes will advance climate-informed health planning and early warning systems, build capacity at health facilities, implement public health campaigns, and support localized community actions directed at the climate-health crisis.

There’s a bigger picture here. In the end, projects designed to address food and water security, advance ecosystem-based adaptation, or enhance livelihoods, will help us in addressing these interconnected issues. In partnership with governments, donors, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders, UNDP’s current climate change adaptation portfolio is geared to benefit 126 million people through US$1.6 billion in investments from the vertical funds and bilateral donors, as well as an additional US$3.8 billion leveraged from partners.

This good start, but far shy of the US$20 to US$40 billion in yearly spending for climate change adaptation called for at the Glasgow Climate Talks.

It’s critical that we take a systems-wide approach, embrace new technologies and new ways of working, engage with the private sector, and activate locally led climate actions if we are going to address this crisis.

Millions of lives hang in the balance. It’s time we step up and make climate action – and climate-health action – a global priority. This is our investment in planet Earth, our investment in future generations, our investment in a better world. 

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Marine life is on the brink of extinction: Climate reality is a real issue

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With the dynamic nature of the 21st century, no one really knows what is going to happen next and which state of life we might be exposed to. As a 23-year-old master scuba diver committed towards finding out how individuals can collectively prevent climate change from turning into one of the most daunting issues in the world; I knew I had to do something. Our daily actions, our eating habits, and even something as small as switching off the light switch before leaving the house all adds up towards the reality of climate change. Why do we have to wait until this issue reaches its last stage in order to start treating it as the reality it is? Climate change exists and it’s high time we start fixing our mistakes.

While human beings are fond of discovering life beyond Earth, mapping almost every piece of land in the entire world, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to ocean life. There were approximately 2,00,000 in 2021 named marine species while this is only 10% of what actually exists underneath the surface of the Earth. I want people to realize that even though climate reality has already started deteriorating our lives, we can start now in order to stop it!

The ocean embodies life underneath the surface of the Earth. While being terrifying, the ocean provides a sense of tranquility and calm like no other. You can let go of the streetlights, the constant honking and the murmuring of eternity. When I decided to take my first dive, I was deeply shaken up, but that adrenalin rush led to the best feeling in the world. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, between 2014 and 2017 around 75% of the world’s tropical coral reefs experienced heat-stress severe enough to trigger bleaching. I realized that I can use my love and passion for scuba diving in order to do my bit and help conserve marine life. Swimming with a variety of species of fish and algae teaches you a whole lot about a new ecosystem. The way in which the school of fish syncs itself harmoniously into a rhythmic pattern of swimming, the free movement of brightly colored corals, and the beautiful bubbles.

While on the surface everything seemed apparently alright, when I started going deeper into the layers of the ocean, it suddenly made my jaw drop. The coral went from being colorful to entirely bleached and white. The marine life around me had seemingly started to disappear and in a very anticlimactic manner, everything started to come together. With increased fishing as an effect of increased demand in the market, certain species of fish were wiped out from the face of the Earth.

It was at that moment that it hit me like a wave, the importance of saving marine life. The water bodies are filled with marine life, and almost 80% of the world’s marine life is found underneath the surface of the ocean, while still being a big mistry for us. It is also thought that between 70-80% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by marine plants, nearly all of which are marine algae. While climate change might seem like an impossible concept to some, the truth is that it is now more real than ever and with only one dive, you can witness the reality with your own eyes.

The ocean is turning into a graveyard full of bleached corals and dead marine life which one will find hard to believe unless they see it on their own. This is where diving can be used as an impactful tool to facilitate the realization of reality. When you go deeper into the ocean you will not be able to believe what lies in front of you, but unfortunately we have done that to the ocean’s aquatic life to sustain our life on the surface above. If with one drive you can feel the difference then ask yourself, why not? It is high time we get ourselves to face the issues we have been avoiding and falsifying for this long. It is time we take responsibility for our actions and fix them as best we can.

Because of how baffled the deteriorating marine life had left me, I initiated India’s first ever diving grant providing upto Rs.70,000 to fund individuals who want to explore the ocean and help conserve marine life. Soon this initiative started catching more and more attention from those passionate about the same cause. We soon turned into a team of like-minded individuals fighting raising awareness about climate reality and presented scuba diving as a means to an end, the end of climate change and the extinction of marine life. With the help of Coral Warriors we can help save the future generations, we can act now to save the world’s coral reefs from bleaching before it’s too late.

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Legitimacy of Values during Climate Change

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Post-industrial and neo-technological societies have rigorously separated the stories of cultural values and those of the earth’s nature and climate.  Human civilizations have been fully dependent on the wilderness of nature and the particularities of climate for their survival and success for millennia.  It is understandable that this decoupling in the 20’th century was inevitably perceived as a desirable outcome.   For some years now these two stories are coming together once again meshed by the increased unpredictability and volatility of extreme climate events and their recorded and proven impacts on society at large.  They are coming together at a time of repeated signs of perceived and real social and economic fragility, which if not absorbed and equitably remediated may trigger systemic changes.  Many complex constructs are used to define systemic change. Among them are some traditional ones of economic shock and of increased volatilities in financial markets.  More tangible and physical constructs appeal to unique economic issue such as of the widening gap in insurance coverage.  Most recently some modern constructs of climate inequality bring together the stories of nature and social issues on the same conceptual and policy plane.  All of these constructs and stories contain an element of social fragility. These formalized concepts are part of a language, which is built to abstract from reality and to adapt to academic, scientific and policy research and its consecutive conversations.  Yet, these are not only theoretical constructs, but also tangible stories describing social catastrophes already experienced in recent historical realities. The misfortunes of climate change, pandemic and armed conflict emphasize the fragility of our modern society. These experiences of stress, destruction and loss have vividly erased the distinction between the economic and political impact of natural, health and man-made catastrophes and the sheer human disaster and suffering.  They have also raised the need for an immediate examination of the sustainability and legitimacy of many current cultural norms.  This process of examination is intended to lead to a proposition that for a cultural norm to be legitimate it must be found socially sustainable and socially resilient. The resilience of a social system becomes a requirement for its own legitimacy.  It is well understood and accepted that a social order must protect the life, property and essential liberties of the people who belong to it to be found legitimate. The cultural definition of social resilience and sustainability may vary to some degree across geographical regions and political systems but there is some broad consensus. There is even less divergence in understanding that social resilience in itself becomes the indispensable foundation for systemic legitimacy. 

Social resilience for the purpose of this analysis is defined as the ability of a society to adapt and absorb large shocks and externalities caused by excess climate volatility and unpredictability.  In general resilience is achieved through preparation for extreme, highly unfavorable, and catastrophic outcomes oftentimes cascading through all nodes of the systemic structure. Systemic architects build tiers of reserves and pockets of conserved energy, which are designed to absorb catastrophic shocks. Still systemic reserves and endurance are an exhaustible resource. Once such resources are depleted, catastrophic shocks through a process of network contagion may have deep cascading effects into social and economic layers, previously considered riskless. Such impacts may lead to systemic collapse and full or partial reorganization of many systemic nodes and layers. The processes of collapse and reorganization may be gradual and of evolutionary nature, but it may also be of a sudden and catastrophic nature. In both cases social resilience towards environmental and climate shocks and catastrophes can never be infinite.  Remediating the impacts of climate and natural disasters in an equitable manner becomes a common measure of societal endurance.  The various degrees of this systemic ability to provide equitable remediation and then recovery from a catastrophic shock have become a comparative metric of systemic resilience.  Systemic stability thus becomes a measure of the veracity of social and political systems.  Once systemic and social resilience is brought into macro-economic and macro-financial policy discussions, there grows a need for providing a transition and mapping in definitions and measures. This is not a transition and remapping of exclusively and purely technical definitions. This transition is also about a redefinition of a cultural measure – being a measure of value, which must be associated with the legitimacy of current economic and political enterprises. Furthermore, this transition must be about providing information and a degree of evaluation of the durability and longevity of its underlining social establishment. A cultural measure thus must contain valued societal information. This transition is also required to both stimulate and defend the need for a revision of cultural values in such manner that they unquestionably enhance systemic legitimacy.  This new dominion of cultural values must contribute to systemic sustainability and thus must have systemic resilience at its core to be legitimate. 

The process of economic globalization at a time of lower climate predictability, at a time of growing volatility in extreme natural catastrophes provides this very ground necessary to intertwine the stories of nature and social values. These premises allow an examination of a twofold need for both redefinition of values and for reclaimed systemic legitimacy. The foundations of the current version of the global economy can be traced back to about forty years.  The first phase of globalization is about economic growth and accumulation of wealth.  It is about the advancement of technological knowledge and building of interconnectivity among regional and national financial, trade and economic systems.  These were years of continuous economic growth.  They fostered the progress of the established model and the acceptance of its very outcomes.  The economic statistics of the period were convincingly reinforcing the intellectual and technical analysis.  Absolute and per capita gross domestic product metrics were rapidly raising.  The proverbial tide was lifting all boats – big and small. GDP growth as a measure of the economic effectiveness of the system assumed unlimited and boundaryless resources.  This economic success blunted our intuition accumulated from historical experience and our historical cognition gained from studying natural sciences and mathematics.  These exact sciences have always maintained that every physical system and every physical process have boundary conditions and limitations. Once these boundary conditions are breached, otherwise and previously stable systems and processes collapse or may perform in chaotic and shockingly unrecognizable manner.  From first principles of system’s theory, it is established that breaking through one boundary condition may be sufficient to shock a system and throw it into a state of chaos or collapse.  In the last two decades we have broken through three such boundaries of stability – these of efficient markets, of the resilience of global health, and of the predictability of the earth’s climate as a vital natural resource. The breach and exhaustion of these limits reveals previously hidden costs of our economic model at a time of  disruption and instability.  At present there is no recognizable political system, which can survive, let alone succeed without economic growth being its primary objective.  Furthermore, for three centuries, since the onset of the industrial revolutions, the expansion and intensity of our drive towards growth and wealth rendered to second order the values of environmental protection and maintaining the stability and predictability of the earth’s climate.

In this inevitable entanglement of risk factors, cultural values and measures of systemic legitimacy, there is a critical component, which is rarely discussed.  This is the impact of moral hazard. The scenario of its emergence has been experienced previously in other settings and can be foreseen with certainty. The measurements of disaster and shock in health and economic systems and their contagion effects upon social fragility have been observed and presented to the public discourse. Counter measures of remediation are also defined and refined. Both types of measures are examined and validated by technical and political authorities and thus may become reflected in established policy. During this process there is an element of moral hazard of such policy innovation being implemented only in physical, statistical, economic and health metrics but not yet becoming deeply embedded in cultural values, that are well accepted in society.  It is still by no means necessary that this process of exploration, investigation, and policy definition in itself will lead to a transition in cultural values.  There is no mandatory social provision or entity that requires this transition to take place or makes it inevitable. Such a transition to a new set of cultural values cannot be mandated. It cannot be enforced. If moral hazard is allowed to become the preponderant ethical concern in the process of value transition, itself accelerated by rapid systemic change, then systemic legitimacy will be endangered.  Thus, the only mechanism which remains to facilitate a transition to a new set of moral values is a widely accepted necessity at all societal levels to ensure the survival of systemic legitimacy.

The development of the global economic system is one process where an emerging transition and mapping of new cultural values may express itself for observation.  A transition and remapping of value must then overwhelm all other considerations to become embedded in the values representing the second phase of globalization.  The only intellectual force which is capable of accomplishing this drive is the search for systemic survival and legitimacy.  By this logic the second phase of globalization should establish itself to be about managing common and existential threats from natural catastrophes and extreme climate events as much as it would be about economic growth and wealth accumulation. A new global economic system is thus deemed timely for design. This one must balance twin objectives – growth and wealth creation on one side with sustainability and preservation of natural, human and climate resources on the other. The importance of balance among these two objectives is undisputable.  However, the instruments of balance are far from being yet available.  The current economic model is fully and well equipped with all the instruments and techniques of causing a profound disbalance.  To pursue the objective of economic growth and accumulation of wealth tools and frameworks refined over hundreds and in many cases over thousands of years are well established.  These are goods, commodities and financial markets with their domestic and international trade agreements and their investment and growth policies.  The mastery of economic growth presents a danger of allowing self-deception to grow in society of its mastery over nature. The lessons learned every day from climate science reveal elemental forces that can bring about a redefinition of the path of civilization.  These same earth and physical sciences show society with every newly compiled scientific report that the story of growing climate unpredictability and its adverse outcome of extreme catastrophic events is also a human story.  Balance rather than mastery should be the only sustainable and legitimate principle in the further development and unfolding of this story. To pursue a balance with a new set of values, which center on preserving natural and climate resources, at present society is inadequately, and better still, quite ill equipped for the task.  We are unequally equipped to pursue balance and hence the most likely outcome is disbalance and inequality of outcomes.  The hard task has become not whether and when but how to find with urgency a new set of moral values which will underwrite this story of balance and stability.

Our current civilization and its economic model have honed and perfected instruments and processes for economic growth for many years.  This drive to succeed economically to accumulate wealth has become genetically engrained in many who subscribe to the values of contemporary civilization.  It has become a part of the human story.  So far this has been a tremendously positive story of our civilization. Now a time has come, where a natural resource upon which this drive depends so thoroughly and unequivocally, namely the predictability of earth’s climate, has run short of its previously unquestioned stability.  There are no social preparations for this turn of things. A comparison is highly illustrative between the enormous accumulation of tools, treaties, international and state structures on trade, development, and investment to what we have to manage and balance a newly defined instability. The modern pace of knowledge creation and technological development allows states, societies in general, to quickly build a comparable machinery of institutions, treaties, and processes for managing this risk, and to ensure sustainability and predictability of this natural resource of earth’s climate. This can be done in a relatively short period of time.

The essence of these two human activities – the pursuit of economic growth and the preservation of a fundamental natural resource, defined as the stability and predictability of climate can no longer be mutually exclusive. Societies have trained themselves to succeed in the former for many generations and yet they are only in the first generation to face the need to be equally effective in the latter. The time of a single generation must be sufficient to raise a civilization to the magnitude of this task.  This amounts to a shift in cultural values.  The definition of economic success must and will continue to encompass growth and wealth accumulation.  An updated and modern definition must balance these with environmental sustainability, personal and public health, and general well-being.  Market and economic stability and success are no longer sufficient to define systemic success.  This transition of values must hold true at the level of the corporation, the public sector, an administrative region and even the sovereign state and the international institution. The interconnections between the lack of climate predictability, excess climate volatility and the emergence of new frameworks of values in economic and political activity are not straightforward and linear. Herein the technical definition and social perceptions of the concept of systemic stability are changing.  The new and emerging technical definition implies moral sentiment.  Work aimed at accomplishing the definition of systemic success is a work to gain ownership of the present and the future. The criteria of systemic stability now become a set of shared values and shared technical definitions. While technical definitions are much easier to change values alter through a much slower process of evolution, transition, and remapping.  Organizations, regions, states which can provide this desired stability will be defined and accepted as successful both in economic and social terms.  The alternative will be considered systemic failures.  If an institution cannot be the source of its own stability and sustainability, then it is by all laws of nature and economics a failed entity.

The mechanics of markets, trade, and investment work without the intervention of a hegemon.  Nonetheless they tend to have self-correction and recovery memories and capabilities and thus provide their own state of stability.  However, at present, both cultural traditions and market frameworks are missing a moral sentiment needed for fostering sustainability and recovery of a natural resource as vital as climate stability and predictability.  Only until recently, this resource was deemed to be boundless.  The transition and remapping of values will require that now this resource is seen as a basic tenet of the legitimacy of social cultures. In a broader perspective it is evident that climate issues are local, institutional, and individual and they impact communities and organizations differently.  Thus, for a transition to a new set of cultural values to take place the work and preparations needs to take priority. The lack of a globally accepted framework and a hegemonic plan of action with an existing philosophical current deeply vested in resolving these challenges emphasizes the need for collaboration.  Resolving and managing a global crisis of an essential natural resource without core and periphery, without clearly defined geographical and social hierarchies is a collaborative effort of the largest possible scale.  A framework of collaboration will withstand the pressures of chaotic action born from the lack of rigid contractual frameworks.  This collaboration is vitally needed at all systemic levels – the state and region, the corporation, university, and the non-governmental, civic, and military institutions.

In a new regime of torrential change in a global system lacking a pronounced hegemon, agreement is unsurprisingly hard on who should bear the cost of action.   In such a circumstance there simply cannot be an authoritative prescription of who should define the mitigation of risk and its consequences.  On the level of cultural and social values there cannot be an authority which demands the right and the obligation to change a person’s or a social group’s way of life.  Hence it is essential to treat global climate risk as a unifying concept of common human heritage.  The concept must be allowed to evolve into an item of collaboration and to allow various degrees of its adoption. Out of this collaborative effort climate and health stability fostering services would be generated and simultaneously would become sources of newly created economic and social wealth.  This new kind of wealth creation is driven by both the self-interest of all actors, and by the process of collaboration and collective understanding of the vital challenges at hand. Systemic stability, which includes climate and health factors relies for its success and endurance on this accumulation of self-interest and collective interest.  At the human level this is an opportunity to connect the story of society and its desire for growth and its hidden pitfalls with the story of the tremendous power of the earth’s nature and its climate.  Particularly in the advanced post-industrial and neo-technological societies these stories have been kept far apart for far too long.  The excess volatility of climate, the accumulation of knowledge on the impacts of climate’s unpredictability are creating a societal opportunity to rethink these two stories.  We must weave them together again, as our ancestors have always done this in the past.

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