Preparing for ‘the perfect storm’

The World Systems Model applied to mapping climate change impact fragility to inform resilience building

Daniel Christian Wahl
Jul 6 · 6 min read
Mapping the Impact on the UK of Climate Change Impact in Other Regions of the World (Hodgson, Leicester, Wahl & Hodson, 2011)

Recently I reposted an excerpt from ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’ in a Facebook group called ‘The Ecology of Systems Thinking’. The piece introduced the World Systems Model and the World Game that my friend and mentor Tony Hodgson developed together with some support of the International Futures Forum clan of which I am grateful to be a member.

You can read that excerpt ‘The IFF World Systems Model’ here.

While I had posted the same book excert a few times before over the last 3 years, this time it suddenly sparked a lively response and interest. Someone asked about different practical applications and in response I dug out some work Tony and I did together with our colleague Graham Leicester and Rebecca Hodgson in 2010 for the UK government’s futures unit ‘UK Foresight’ at the time part of the Ministry for Business Innovation and Science.

The unit was headed by Prof. Sir John Beddington who in 2009 tried his best to alarm the policy makers and parliamentarians of the imminent danger of the approaching energy, food and water shortages caused by the rise in demand for all three of them at a time where climate change would both be getting worse if we tried to meet this demand with current methods and at the same time growing climate chaos would impact on our ability to provide those needs. He called this “The Perfect Storm” and predicted the storm to hit us hard by 2030.

Some important questions to ask if we want to avoid the Perfect Storm (Source: Prof. Sir John Bebbington, 2009)

The project we were working on was to provide some visual systems mapping for the complex interrelated factors that the UK had to consider if it wanted to prepare for the ‘International Dimension of Climate Change Impact’ on the UK. While we made it into the list of contributors to the report, in the end our mapping technique using the World Systems Model (WSM) was not adopted or used for that report.

In my response to today’s request for examples of WSM applications I remembered that Tony had the reports we wrote on his website. I spontaneously thought that this work and the approach/methodology we developed and employed might actually be of growing interest to people in a lot of places now that we are all waking up to the fact that we have to brace ourselves for drastic climate change impacts — already here and only likely to worsen over the next decades.

“Systems mapping, adopting a systemic perspective, was used as the fundamental approach for this work in order to address the evident complexity and interconnectedness of the subject matter. … In particular it explores the non-linear natureof climate change impacts and the typical system behaviour of ̳overshoot and collapse‘ common in systems from ecosystems to whole civilizations.

Climate change impacts are complex in three primary ways:

The science of climate change is inherently complex with a high degree of uncertainty

The impact of climate change is a function of a whole range of socio- ecological factors which themselves are complex in their own interactions

The human/ecological/climate as a total system is in many ways reflexive: i.e. what happens next depends on both human and environmental system responses. It is inherently a non-linear complex adaptive system.

Beyond this, the report addresses a further level of complex interaction. It does not look at the direct impact of climate change on the UK, but rather addresses the question:

What might be the impact on the UK of the impact of climate change elsewhere in the world?”

So I assume that by now you can get the level multi-layered interacting uncertainties that we had to deal with and somehow research, related, integrate meaningfully and represent visually to reduce complexity and give some form of dash-board indication. As the lead climate change researcher in our team working for the larger study, I loved the challenge and took a deep dive into the most up-to-date IPCC and other data at the time.

We had to make many assumptions and guess-timates to make this task at all something we could get a handle on:

“Other countries and regions will themselves be planning for adaptation, mitigation and climate risk management — some more effectively than others. Hence in order to appreciate the differential impact in practice of climate impact elsewhere, a measure of adaptive capacity or societal resilience has been estimated for each country and region under consideration. This allows an overall measure of vulnerability to climate change impact in different parts of the world; vulnerability being a function of a country‘s exposure to climaterisk and its likely capacity to cope in the eventuality that the climate change impact occurs.”

We decided to use the World Systems Model as a way to map complexity and interconnections while reducing the complexity of interrelated issues to the 12 nodes in the model which we had previously identified as key elements that have to be brought into life-sustaining and regenerative relationships if we can to create a viable system. The WSM can be applied at the scale of communities, cities, bioregions (something I look forward in doing more of soon) and at the national and planetary scale. This is called recursivity in systems jargon.

In a nutshell, we devided the globe in 17 regions, looked at the predicted impact of climate change on that region, chose to focus on 8 nodes of the WSM in particular, considered the effects of predicted climate impacts on those nodes in those regions, estimated (very roughly) the regional ‘adaptive capacity’ and used that and the impact research to come up with and estimate of ‘regional vulnerability’. These results where then related to the UK’s cultural, historical, political and trade relationships with that region to get a very rough idea how much climate impact in any of these regions would them impact on the UK. … all not an exact science, yes! … and yet, the messy complexity of hyper wicked problems is rather elusive to those sciences that aim to be exact or hope the keep up the myth of prediction and control.

Source: Hodgson, Leicester, Wahl & Hodgson, 2010

I must look into our work from back then in more detail again and see how it might be used for mapping the fragility of bioregions that are heavily dependent on international trade and to use that mapping to increase bioregional resilience (persistence, adaptive capacity and transformative resilience) to the turbulent time ahead!

Our 2010 work for UK Foresight is summarised in two rather large publications:

A Study of The Impact on the UK of Climante Change Impact in Other Regions of the World — Book 1: Impact of Impact

A Study of The Impact on the UK of Climante Change Impact in Other Regions of the World — Book 2: World Stories and Wider Implications

I will keep this piece short, as those who want to go deeper can follow the links provided.

Here are some patterns we distilled out. Please take them with a pinch of salt, as impact of impact in a dynamically changing system based on a synthesis of a limited data set of limited predictive certainty has clearly a level of vagueness of multi-layered uncertainty that can always be questioned and yet still might be useful to become aware of overall patterns of climate change impact and respond to them wisely.

Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

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Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

Daniel Christian Wahl

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Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

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