Assessing the cascading impacts of natural disasters

By Asjad Naqvi and Irene Monasterolo from the IIASA Advancing Systems Analysis Program

Asjad Naqvi and Irene Monasterolo discuss a framework they developed to assess how natural disasters cascade across socioeconomic systems.

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The 2021 Nobel Prize for Physics, was awarded to the topic of “complex systems”, highlighting the need for a better understanding of non-linear interactions that take place within natural and socioeconomic systems. In our paper titled “Assessing the cascading impacts of natural disasters in a multi-layer behavioral network framework”, recently published in Nature Scientific Reports, we highlight one such application of complex systems.

In this paper, we develop a framework for assessing how natural disasters, for example, earthquakes and floods, cascade across socioeconomic systems. We propose that in order to understand post-shock outcomes, an economic structure can be broken down into multiple network layers. Multi-layer networks are a relatively new methodology, mostly stemming from applications in finance after the 2008 financial crisis, which starts with the premise that nodes, or locations in our case, interact with other nodes through various network layers. For example, in our study, we highlight the role of a supply-side production layer, where the flows are trade networks, and a demand-side household layer, which provides labor, and the flows are migration flows.

Figure 1: A multi-layer network structure

In this two-layer structure, the nodes interact, not only within, but across layers as well, forming a co-evolving demand and supply structure that feeds back across each other. The interactions are derived from economic literature, which also allow us to integrate behavioral responses to distress scenarios. This, for example, includes household coping mechanisms for consumption smoothing, and firms’ response to market signals by reshuffling supply chains. The price signals drive flows, which allows the whole system to stabilize.

We applied the framework to an agriculture-dependent economy, typically found in low-income disaster-prone regions. We simulated various flood-like shock scenarios that reduce food output in one part of the network. We then tracked how this shock spreads to the rest of the network over space and time.

Figure 2: Evolution of vulnerability over time

Our results show that the transition phase is cyclical and depends on the network size, distance from the epi-center of the shock, and node density. Within this cyclical adjustment new vulnerabilities in terms of “food insecurity” can be created. Then, we introduce a new measure, the Vulnerability Rank, or VRank, to synthesize multi-layer risks into a single index.

Our framework can help inform and design policies, aimed at building resilience to disasters by accounting for direct and indirect cascading impacts. This is especially crucial for regions where the fiscal space is limited and timing of response is critical.

Reference:

Naqvi, A. & Monasterolo, I. (2021). Assessing the cascading impacts of natural disasters in a multi-layer behavioral network framework. Scientific Reports 11 e20146. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17496]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Let’s not be arrogant about climate change adaptation

By Marina Andrijevic, researcher in the IIASA Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

Marina Andrijevic tackles some inconvenient but fundamental issues around climate change adaptation.

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Anyone who followed climate-related headlines this summer would have noticed a more than usual amount of talk on climate change adaptation. As it goes with sudden epiphanies in aftermaths of humanitarian disasters in our Western realities, this time we’ve come to realize that we need to seriously think about doing some adaptation.

To be fair, the realization that adaptation is inevitable has for a long time been somewhat of a taboo in the “woke” climate policy and activist circles (the author of this blog is a millennial and would like to acknowledge that the reader’s idea of a long time in climate policy might be different). Admitting that there might be no other option but to adapt to whatever the locked-in effects of climate change are, is arguably defeatist and gives in to the notion that mitigation alone won’t cut it.

While this might be yet another depressing but accurate reflection of the reality under climate change, portraying adaptation and mitigation as different but equally urgent actions could set a dangerous trap if it produces ideas such as: if we adapt enough, perhaps our economies and energy systems won’t need to change so much.

Even if it would be enough (which it wouldn’t), adaptation will not necessarily just happen once we recognize it needs to be done, because the needs and abilities for it operate on different time horizons and geographical scales. Many parts of the world that need adaptation will not necessarily be able to take action, so we have to be very careful when we count on it as a solution to climate change.

This is where we must tackle some inconvenient but fundamental issues about adaptation. Climate change research, especially the areas positioned at the “interface” with policy, could play a crucial role here. In this role, it must be very prudent and avoid doing a disservice to decision makers, and even worse, to people affected by those decisions. In other words, the scientific assessments need to be careful when assuming for whom, where, and how adaptation can reasonably be expected.

We tried to illustrate why this matters in our recent paper that looks at the capacity of populations to adapt to heat stress. We used air-conditioning as a popular, albeit not (yet) climate-friendly adaptation option. My coauthors and I understand that air conditioning could well be maladaptation, meaning that it causes more harm than good in the long-run. Adaptation practices, however, it turns out, are quite difficult to measure, while installed air conditioners can literally be counted, which makes them handy for plugging into our statistical models. We contend with access to air conditioning currently being a good enough example of access to adaptation and promise to assess more options in the future.

Our paper shows how the capacities to protect against heat stress vary widely around the world. Like with many other unjust manifestations of climate change, people in the world’s hottest areas also have the least means to adapt. We found that countries with more income, more urban areas, and less income inequality, are also the ones where more people have access to air conditioning.

This does not come as the world’s biggest revelation, but it conveniently allows us to make informed guesses on how access to air conditioning might change in 2050 or 2100. This is possible because the research community has already engaged in a group effort to propose five different futures with regard to GDP, urbanization, and income distribution (in climate jargon: the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways or SSPs).

Coupling the potential rates of air conditioning with the people exposed to heat stress based on projections of climate models, lets us calculate the cooling gap – the difference between people exposed to heat stress and people who can protect themselves against it with the use of air conditioning.

Depending on whether we find ourselves in the best- or the worst-case scenario of socioeconomic development could mean anywhere between two billion and five billion people globally unable to protect themselves against heat stress with air conditioning in 2050. This range only grows with longer time horizons, with Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia being the areas of the world where these differences are the starkest.

We hope that our paper will motivate further investigations of potential gaps in adaptation that point to insufficient adaptive capacity and help to identify the areas and populations most at risk, as well as what additional work needs to be done in terms of socioeconomic improvements before we can reasonably expect adaptation to take place. Our findings on the importance of factors beyond just GDP, suggest that helping communities to build their adaptive capacity doesn’t mean only throwing money at them (although that would make for a decent start!), but international efforts must focus on issues such as eradicating inequalities, supporting smart urban development, strengthening institutions, and providing education.

So, let’s not take it for granted that we will all be able to adapt either now or in the future. Eliminating the causes of climate change must remain the number one policy objective that will help to reduce the need for adaptation in the first place. But number two could be helping communities that have no option but to cope with what’s already coming at them. Highlighting in our research what the implications of different adaptive capacities are for preservation of livelihoods, is a small step towards achieving this.

Reference:

Andrijevic, M., Byers, E., Mastrucci, A., Smits, J., & Fuss, S. (2021). Future cooling gap in shared socioeconomic pathways. Environmental Research Letters 16 (9) e094053. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17411]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Strengthening the resilience of our global food system while advancing its transformation

By Frank Sperling, Senior Project Manager in the Integrated Biosphere Futures Research Group of the IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

Frank Sperling shares his reflections on issues around sustainable and transformational food production in the context of the UN Food Systems Summit.

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Bringing together stakeholders from around the globe, the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) calls attention to the opportunities, challenges, and promises that the transformation of our food systems can hold to advance sustainable development.

This transformation needs to happen, while the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic reminds us of the manifold vulnerabilities embedded in our food systems, the inter-dependence of our societies, and the entanglement of human and natural systems. The increases in weather and climate extremes that can clearly be attributed to climate change, ongoing biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and pollution further illustrate that food systems need to manage a broad range of compounding risks and pressures that play out over different spatial and temporal scales. Advancing and securing gains towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not only require meeting multiple economic, social, and environmental objectives, but also demand pathways that ensure a safe navigation through a treacherous and shifting risk landscape. But how do we build resilience into the food system while transforming it at the same time?

Great strides have been made in technologies and practices that can help food systems manage existing and emerging risks. For example, on the production side, timely access to seasonal forecasts and early warning information coupled with extension services can help farmers to make the right decisions for planting and to anticipate, adapt, and cope with possible shocks. Precision agriculture, which harnesses advances in technology to ensure optimal health and productivity of crops and soils, can reduce the need for inputs. Diversification of livestock and agricultural traits can help farmers to reduce production risks in marginal environmental conditions.

Minimizing the spillover risk of zoonotic diseases, mitigating, and adapting to climatic and environmental changes place additional demands on food systems, but also offer new opportunities. Living sustainably requires comprehensively managing land use, enabling for food production, but maintaining and recovering critical ecosystem goods and services, such as carbon and biodiversity. It requires advancing nature-based solutions, where nature is seen as an ally and not an adversary in delivering on development objectives. Strengthening natural capital accounting and incentivizing environmental stewardship by rewarding actors in the food system for efficient and sustainable management of natural resources, and appropriately informing consumer choices will be important ingredients in reducing the environmental impact as well as environmental vulnerabilities of food systems.

The transformation of the food system is an ongoing process. It is therefore important to understand the impact of different changes across the system. Shifts to healthier diets can have important co-benefits in reducing pressure on the environment and natural resources. Such transformation implies, however, that shifts in demand are also matched by shifts in supply, reflecting appropriate adjustments of agricultural production. To accommodate such system shifts and facilitate system transitions over time, the social resilience and adaptive capacity of society must be addressed accordingly.

Food systems operate at different scales, ranging from local to global. Consequently, the role of trade in ensuring food security and human welfare across a range of contexts is critical. Several countries are already dependent on food imports. Trade can help the food security of regions where agricultural activities become less viable with progressive climate change. At the same time, the changing exposure to socioeconomic and environmental risks arising from the increasing inter-connectivity of societies and economies also need to be addressed, as illustrated by the current pandemic. The evolution of food systems has been largely shaped by a drive for efficiency. We must now consider carefully where efficiency needs to be (counter)balanced with an effort to promote greater diversity, and where we must build in greater redundancy to help manage the variety of risks facing food systems.

Forward-looking approaches aimed at transforming food systems towards greater resilience and sustainability will require a suite of measures within, as well as outside food systems. Such measures entail helping livelihoods and sectors to reduce their vulnerabilities and risk exposure, while also enabling the agility of food systems to manage future risks, avoiding lock-in of structures, which would become mal-adaptive over time. Achieving such transformation will depend on increased collaboration and trust building across sectors, enabling innovation in technologies and practice, strengthening of training and capacity development, and on the improvement of safety nets for reducing vulnerabilities to shocks and managing the social transition. Above and beyond, it requires re-calibrating the connection of food systems with other sectors and systems, such as health, environment, energy, and infrastructure.

The UNFSS in conjunction with the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (UNFCCC COP26), and the UN Conference on Biological Diversity in Kunming (CBD COP15), are a formidable call to action for political leaders, decision makers in the public and private sectors, scientists, development practitioners, civil society, and to society at large, to come together and jointly imagine and build resilient and sustainable food systems that place people and nature at the center before it is too late.

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Paris Agreement politics at play: the case for carbon dioxide removal

By Neema Tavakolian, 2021 IIASA Science Communication Fellow 

Ever wonder why countries can never agree on issues related to climate change and the environment? Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant Felix Schenuit dives into the politics and challenges surrounding carbon dioxide removal in international climate negotiations.

The Paris Agreement has been lauded as a landmark effort to address climate change and has been signed by nearly every country in the world. The agreement sets out ambitious goals such as reaching temperature targets, setting net-zero carbon targets, and providing financial, technical, and capacity building support to those countries that need it.

One topic that has been receiving increasing attention since the adoption of the agreement is carbon dioxide removal, or CDR – which comprises man made processes involving the direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it somewhere else, usually underground or under the sea floor. Since it was first proposed, CDR has been discussed on many platforms including critical comments, journals, and studies. 2021 IIASA YSSP participant Felix Schenuit studies how the debate, which has been largely ignored by policymakers until the Paris Agreement, is evolving, and how CDR is being taken up in climate policymaking.

© Felix Schenuit

Felix Schenuit comes from a background of political science and public policy. It was during his employment at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) that he became fascinated by CDR and the political debates surrounding the impacts it can have on the fight against climate change. This is when he decided to combine his newfound interest with his background and experiences in international relations and public policy to pursue a PhD at the University of Hamburg comparing CDR policymaking in different countries and the role scientific knowledge has on its implementation.

Building on a previous study comparing CDR governance among nine Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) cases, Schenuit is now focusing on the role of scientific knowledge surrounding CDR in Brazil, China, India, and Russia. These countries account for a significant portion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions due to their rapid industrialization and expanding economies. China and India are especially significant due to their great influence in ongoing international climate negotiations regarding the Paris Agreement.

Schenuit uses integrated assessment models to gather information and data about the role of CDR in different countries in decarbonization pathways.

“These models help us to understand what amount of CDR we are likely to need to achieve Paris Agreement targets. Case studies on specific countries are an important second step to explore facts on the ground about different policy initiatives, emerging CDR facilities, and efforts in each region. We reach out to country experts and build interdisciplinary bridges to investigate how CDR is addressed politically, what amounts are available and politically feasible, as well as relevant knowledge gaps,” he explains.

One of the biggest challenges remaining for CDR is limited knowledge about different CDR methods, both in science and policy circles. There are many ways one can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ranging from afforestation, to soil carbon sequestration, ocean fertilization, direct CO2 capture from the air, and the use of biochar, among others.

Reforestation on hill at Bao Loc mountain pass, Vietnam © Hoxuanhuong | Dreamstime.com

“When it comes to methods, many policymakers are unaware of the portfolio of available methods. Each method has different tradeoffs, both environmentally and politically. For example, in Germany, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is very contested and most policymakers are hesitant to even address CDR. Thus, in Germany one may need a different set of methods than in the UK, for example, where CCS-based CDR methods are pursued proactively,” Schenuit says.

Many predict that the role of international politics in CDR governance under the Paris Agreement is going to be difficult and tricky to navigate. Schenuit argues that it is still a bit too early in the debate for predictions as policymakers have only recently been directly addressing CDR. He does however agree that there is already strong evidence of politics at play and alliances are forming.

The study on Brazil, China, India, and Russia will yield fascinating results, as it will give us an idea about future disputes and questions regarding the carbon in our atmosphere. Questions like where we will be removing carbon and who is going to pay for it. One thing is for certain, however. Time is running out to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, and international cooperation is desperately needed.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Warming waters, evolution, and the future for fisheries policy

By Neema Tavakolian, 2021 IIASA Science Communication Fellow 

Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant Lyndsie Wszola explores how human interactions with warming freshwater systems have affected the evolution of fish species through the lens of the North American walleye. 

© Justinhoffmanoutdoors | Dreamstime.com

The effects of climate change have intensified over the past few years, especially in our oceans, and human based activities contributing to it are now being taken more seriously. While the warming of our oceans is indeed troubling, many forget that freshwater systems are also being influenced, and that this is affecting the growth and evolution of the species that reside in them.

2021 YSSP participant Lyndsie Wszola wants to explore changes in freshwater systems using human-natural modeling systems at IIASA.

© Lyndsie Wszola

Growing up with a conservation officer father, Wszola is a second-generation conservationist. Knowing she wanted to enter this field at an early age, she realized that she had to get into research and academia first. Her main interests while studying at the University of Nebraska have been the interactions between humans and wildlife.

While researching the relationships between hunters and ring-necked pheasants, she discovered an affinity for quantitative research. This curiosity went even further after she discovered literature on harvest induced evolution and mathematical ecology specifically pertaining to fish populations. Together, this initial desire to explore human and wildlife interactions and her newfound interest in mathematical ecology, led Wszola to take a closer look at North American freshwater systems and how we as humans are influencing its ecology. Her research specifically delves into the growth and evolutionary changes seen in the North American walleye (Sander vitreus) – a popular fish in Canada and the United States. The reason for its fame is its palatable taste as a freshwater fish and its status among anglers, making it both a commercially and recreationally fished species.

Walleye was chosen as the subject of Wszola’s research for many reasons. First, walleye, like many fish, are ectotherms meaning that their body processes and behaviors are directly linked to their body temperature, which is in turn directly linked to the temperature of the water. Unlike other fish however, there is already plenty of research and data on the relationship between the walleye’s growth and temperature. This information makes it much easier to simulate the walleye’s eco-evolutionary growth dynamics in the context of human driven harvests in warming waters. Wszola will also be working with very large datasets spanning multiple latitudes ranging from Ontario, Canada down to Nebraska, USA. The datasets include up to six million fish with four million of those being walleye.

“My goal is to model the influence of temperature on fish harvests based on size. Due to their ectotherm nature, we can observe the changes in body size in annual harvests. As waters warm, walleye grow much faster. We also know that intensely harvested fish often evolve to reach maturation at smaller sizes. When coupled with rising temperatures, this relationship between harvest induced and temperature induced evolution can be fascinating, as we now have two sources working together to change the growth evolution of this fish,” she explains.

Due to warming temperatures, many natural resources are at stake with some of the most sensitive being aquatic in nature. Research like this is important as it allows us to look at our relationships with the environment to be able to react accordingly.

“I hope that the research I do yields fascinating enough results so that from a practical standpoint, future fisheries policies can include climate change dynamics in addition to fish and human dynamics,” Wszola concludes.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.