A Positive Peace Perspective on The Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk

1st July 2021


The third UK Climate Risk Independent Assessment (CCRA3) notes how “adaptation remains the Cinderella of climate change, still sitting in rags by the stove: under-resourced, underfunded and often ignored.” This astute observation underlines one of the greatest truths of our age – not that we are faced with disruptive change, but that we are faced with waves of disruptive change on so many fronts, and our ability to truly understand the processes of adaptation are urgently in need. Countering the challenges of environmental change, natural resource depletion, and the threat posed by another deadlier pandemic, requires a new way of conceptualising our relationships with each other, and the ecosystems we depend upon.

The key to this is our societal systems, which need to be reinvigorated with the necessary attitudes, institutions and structures that can fluidly embrace positive change.

As recognised by the newly formed Clean Growth Leadership Network (CGLN), adaptability, innovation and resilience are essential if our societies are going to not just weather the challenges posed by climate change, but thrive in the Anthropocene. We know that strong economies provide the funding necessary for innovation and the capital to fund the required programs, but many of these countries struggle to adapt to change.  As the CCRA3 drives home, “only a combined approach to tackling climate change through reducing emissions (mitigation) and building resilience (adaptation) will be successful in protecting the UK from the worst effects of climate change” – yet one of the biggest gaps to supporting more investment in adaptation is “a lack of understanding of the effectiveness of different adaptation actions in different settings. Improved understanding of how adaptation actions are leading to risk reduction and better outcomes is needed urgently.”

Positive Peace – or the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies – provides a useful starting point and a proven framework for measuring a country’s resilience to climate change and extreme weather events, as well as its ability to adapt to other shocks. Holistic, empirically derived and systemic in nature, Positive Peace provides much more than peace, it describes the factors that create an optimal environment for many other things we think are important to flourish, including stronger economic outcomes, better measures of wellbeing, higher levels of inclusiveness and more sustainable environmental performance. It can also be described as a set of interrelated factors that define the goals towards which a system needs to evolve.

This distinctly contrasts the notion of linear thinking that dominates decision-making today. We still tend to think ‘Here is a problem, here is the solution’ rather than trying to understand the way local systems operate, people’s beliefs and their encoded norms, and then tailoring the intervention to fit the circumstances. The application of systems thinking to societies is a recognition that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that societies are moving along predefined paths and that emergent phenomena like climate change are irreducible.

Systems also display a number of traits that help to explain why it can be so hard to create change within society. For instance, systems favour the status quo – this is called homeostasis; societies try to maintain a steady state. Think of the cultural norms within society, such as queuing at a railway station or a health system that aims to maintain a certain level of expense and care. Societies seek to self-regulate towards certain outcomes using encoded norms. What are the encoded norms which clean energy can utilise, what new encoded norms are needed and how is a sense of justice and equity built into these?

In terms of changing the system, the least risk lies in many small steps, continuously applied and from many directions, thereby nudging the system into a virtuous self-reinforcing cycle. Positive Peace provides a lens through which to view the system.

Successful adaptation to systemic imbalances is more likely when nations have higher levels of Positive Peace. This is empirically demonstrated through the relationship between high Positive Peace and the reduced impact of shocks. For example, OECD countries with higher Positive Peace recorded better economic performance during the pandemic; their hours worked dropped by seven percent whereas countries with lower Positive Peace recorded decreases of up to 23 per cent.

In addition to being less exposed to ecological shocks, high Positive Peace countries are also better equipped to handle such shocks if and when they do occur. Their high levels of resilience, as measured by the Positive Peace Index, means that they have superior coping capacity in terms of physical infrastructure, regulatory frameworks, economic strength and diversification, emergency preparedness and response systems. In addition, they also have superior capacities to rebuild their socio-economic systems in the aftermath of the shocks. Countries improving in Positive Peace have three times higher GDP growth rates than countries deteriorating in Positive Peace.

The relationship between the nation state and other systems, including other nations, the biosphere and atmosphere, is key to the survival of humanity. If these systems become incapacitated, then nations are also weakened. Acknowledging the interdependence between nation states and other systems should fundamentally alter the way in which we handle these complex relationships.

Recognising that societies are systems and operating them as systems only aligns us with the major challenges of our age, which are also systemic. When applying systems thinking to nation states, it is important not to overcomplicate the analysis, however. What is essential is to view the system as a set of relationships and flows, rather than a set of events, and to understand the most important feedback loops.

In an age of ever-increasing change, driven on multiple fronts from technology to the environment to social discontent, we need new philosophical approaches to meet the needs of the future. This new age is one in which, by necessity, humanity must now shape, sculpt and manage its environment in positive ways. We must be the architect of biodiversity and the natural systems upon which we depend. Carbon emissions is the most urgent, but only one of many.

This article was selected from the CGLN news network.
All content including text and media is copyright of the author.

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