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Passing the Precipice: Can Resilience to a Changing Climate Produce a False Sense of Security?

Scott Fenn

Ax:Son Johnson Institute for Statecraft and Diplomacy Doctoral Fellow

01 November 2023

In late October and early November 2023, Storm Babet and Storm Ciarán smothered the UK with heavy rain and damaging winds. The storms delivered record rain fall across thirteen counties and disrupted electricity and water supplies. Their trail of loss and damage now threatens UK food security; yet comparatively, the UK remains more resilient to the immediate effects of storms like Babet and Ciarán than most other states. What remains unclear is how the UK and other similarly rich, resilient states will cope with the indirect and cascading effects of these manageable storms when slow onset events begin to bite. The IPCC defines slow onset events as those events that emerge “gradually over time, and their impacts are often based on a confluence of several different events”. What then will happen when multiple issues converge, when the long-term turns short-term and when the manageable becomes unmanageable? At what point will slow onset events increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events enough that adaptation fails to prevent irreversible, widespread loss and damage? When does loss and damage become intolerable enough to trigger resilient states to act, in earnest? The longevity of civilisations, the type we recognise today, are dependent on when our lived or imagined future experiences of loss and damage manifest enough ‘relative deprivation’ to spur radical and evasive action.

People experience climate change loss and damage differently, and these differences influence how people collectively respond to climatic and environmental risks. Our response to loss and damage is determined by ‘needs’: our needs are universal and our actions, whether individual or collective, are actions taken to fulfil our needs. We judge whether our needs are met or unmet by using ‘reference points’ to survey and compare our circumstances. The anthropologist David F. Abrele, for example, describes these comparative reference points as “(1) one's past versus one's present circumstances; (2) one's present versus one's future circumstances; (3) one's own versus someone else's present circumstances.” These reference points expose our unmet needs, and our unmet needs evoke ‘relative deprivation’, that is, as Ted Gurr explains, the difference between our ‘value expectations' and our ‘value capabilities’. These variables in values mean that “[any] increase in the level or salience of men's value expectations without a comparable increase in their value capabilities increases their [relative deprivation]; any decrease in their value capabilities has a comparable effect.”

When extreme weather events create loss and damage directly or indirectly it is often felt as a rapid decrease in value capabilities. A decrease that breaches an individual’s or a group’s context specific threshold will trigger attempts to close that gap between value expectations and value capabilities. This is why the experience of climate and environmental loss and damage can trigger relative deprivation and is a key driver of climate and environmental activism. Relative deprivation creates a causal pathway between extreme weather events, activism, and other ‘ingredients’ at the heart of international progress on climate action.

An example of this is Canada’s response to loss and damage in the 1980s and early 1990s. In Canada, relative deprivation was the catalyst for local activism on acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change. Acid rain and other local and regional environmental problems quickly became election winning issues when wealthy Canadians in the Muskoka region of Ontario, and other coalitions of local action groups, started to shape the political agenda. Politicians lost and others risked losing seats when siding with industry over environment. The prime ministerial candidate, Brian Mulroney, embraced the environmental agenda, using it in his pre-1984 election strategy to counterbalance his industrialist background. This grand strategic sensibility became an important part of Canada’s identity at home and abroad - a response to the echoes of direct and indirect relative deprivation felt by Canadians in the wake of extreme events like the 1987 Edmonton Tornado and the severe heat and droughts of 1987-1989. Canada was fertile ground for the world’s leading scientists, a ‘channel for action’ if you will, and an opportunity to shrink the value expectation-value capability gap of those scientists whose research had less traction in their home countries.

Canadian civil servants and diplomats led and shaped the conversation across international fora, including the science focused conferences of Villach 1985 and Villach and Bellagio in 1987. Maurice Strong served as the Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. Jim McNeill was the director the Brundtland Commission that published Our Common Future. Jim Bruce in the World Meteorological Organisation chaperoned the birth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Indeed, a 1983 discussion hosted by Jim Bruce and Alex Chisholm with scientists and policymakers in the CN Tower’s revolving restaurant, pathed the way for the 1987 Montreal Protocol. The 1988 Toronto World Conference on a Changing Atmosphere broke taboos as scientists and policymakers together publicly acknowledged the global security implications and existential nature of atmospheric change. Howard Ferguson coordinated the 1990 Second World Climate Conference. Stephen Lewis, the Canadian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, pushed the agenda in multilateral for a. This is not to suggest that protagonists from other countries contributed less, or were less influential, instead we should acknowledge the elements that made Canada’s under-appreciated influence on the world’s response to environment and climatic risks. Their contribution is inescapable, and this influence owes much to the circumstances described through ‘relative deprivation’.

Canada’s contribution and influence was unique. Relative deprivation was a key catalyst for action. But what separated Canada from other states like the United States, Sweden, Norway, and Germany, and the United Kingdom with citizens who have experienced relative deprivation due to environmental and climatic induced loss and damage? My research suggests that relative deprivation is just one factor of five – scientific research capability and civil service activism; public activism, communication, and trust; interests and political will; and a favourable geopolitical position – that shaped Canada to shape international climate and environmental diplomacy. These factors, or ‘ingredients’, are interdependent, systemic, and they enabled a comparatively resilient society to act. Without these ingredients, when does the experience of relative deprivation become enough to spur the ‘1980s Canada response?’

In many ways western states are simultaneously more and less resilient than they were in the 1980s. More resilient because we are better protected, less resilient because we now rely on increasingly fragile supply chains, we have larger populations, and we are slaves to dwindling natural resources. Resilience shields us from experiencing relative deprivation now, but does the shield block a fundamental catalyst for action? In The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli warned of the perils of stalling, a warning that when applied to strategies of long-term climatic and environmental risks, is as apt today as it was then: ‘Because the Romans did in these instances what all prudent princes ought to do, who have to regard not only present troubles, but also future ones, for which they must prepare with every energy, because, when foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time because the malady has become incurable.’ It is possible that polluters will only experience ‘relative deprivation’ when their resilience and adaptations fail – when they pass the precipice – a moment when loss and damage is irreversible, and action is futile.

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Scott Fenn

Scott Fenn

Ax:Son Johnson Institute for Statecraft and Diplomacy Doctoral Fellow

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