Q&A: Professor Aled Jones prepares for the worst

27th January 2022


Aled Jones, director of the Global Sustainability Institute, talks to Chris Seekings about how the impacts of climate change could unravel civilisation as we know it, and how we can build resilience

With a background in theoretical physics and mathematics, and a PhD in astrophysics, professor Aled Jones could have taken numerous different career paths. He decided to apply his skills to tackling perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge: climate change.

As director of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, he and his team of scientists and engineers are involved in a number of research projects, modelling how the impacts of climate change are likely to deliver seismic shocks to the global economy.

Food shortages, water scarcity and fluctuations in energy prices are all set to become more frequent amid rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather patterns, potentially triggering civil and political unrest and unprecedented migration.

Jones is among the few people informing governments, financial institutions and businesses about the likelihood of these shocks, advising them on the steps needed to build resilience in an increasingly interconnected world.

How did you become interested in modelling the impacts of climate change on the financial sector and global economy?

After talking to businesses and governments about climate change and what needs to happen to get to net zero, the barrier that everyone talked about was finance. They needed access to the right amount of money to invest, but their current shareholders didn’t have long-term views, so they weren’t able to implement long-term strategies to make the necessary changes. That pushed me into the area of climate finance and investment and insurance, supporting the financial sector to try and understand the changes coming.

How do you model the potential impacts of climate change?

We have moved away from the physical climate modelling, and focus on the market, business and government response. This is systems modelling, where you can model the behaviours of market actors and understand the feedback loops within systems. We stress test the impact of a climate change event on conflict, for example, to discover which countries are more susceptible and what supply chains might be impacted. Or it might be a shock in energy prices, and how that might translate into a shock in food prices.

Most of our work is built up in partnership with business leaders, finance leaders and with governments, carrying out a lot of interviews. We ask stakeholders how they would respond in a global food security crisis and use scenario development to inform case studies for businesses, insurance companies or government to test their resilience to particular events.

How accurate are your projections?

If you ask a business how they would respond to a crisis, you would probably get a different answer depending on the day of the week, but the aggregated responses are quite similar. We’re reluctant to put a percentage on our confidence limits because there’s such a wide range of possible futures. What we can say is that the sorts of things we are modelling have happened.

So for food shocks, we use data from 2007 and 2011 to calibrate the models, and include things that weren’t captured in previous models. We then try to calibrate it so you can get a rough idea of whether a crisis is a one-in-10-year event or a one-in-20-year event. It’s not guaranteed to happen in the next 10 years, but if an insurance company is looking at a one-in-200-year event, because that comes within their insurance remit, it’s really easy to come up with scenarios that are quite apocalyptic.

“It’s the kind of thing that ex-prime ministers and ex-presidents talk a lot about”

You have built a model to explore political fragility and conflict from potential resource crisis, the Global Chaos Map Project. What have you learned from that?

The Chaos Map looks at every country in the world and where there is most likely to be civil unrest when global food prices go above certain thresholds.

There are some really long-term political challenges in Pakistan and India, Latin America and Nigeria. If you had the right set of circumstances and political tension, overlaid with a global food crisis caused by environmental shocks where food prices went up exponentially in a really short period of time, it’s quite easy to come up with extreme events. Ukraine is one of the biggest exporters of wheat, and the political tensions with Russia, laid on top of a food crisis, could lead to extreme events.

It’s not that we’re all going to die because we’re running out of food, but we may all die if we start chucking nuclear weapons at each other because of the political response to losing 10% of global food.

You have written about the potential for environmental shocks to trigger a global ‘de-complexification’ event, in which societal and economic complexity could undergo widespread reversal. Could you tell me about that?

The most recent work we have done is on the entire collapse of civilisation; not necessarily nuclear bombs being chucked around, but probably where the finance sector collapses and you find it really difficult to move money around the world and don’t have supply chains any more. You could see huge inflation, the food export and import market collapse, massive civil unrest and huge migration – within countries, in particular, but also between countries, causing them to collapse.

We looked at which countries could potentially feed themselves if they had to, which ones had enough internal energy or the capacity for renewable energy, and which ones didn’t have borders with countries that may collapse. People can argue whether you need borders, but the top five countries that are easiest to defend are all island states such as New Zealand, Australia and the UK.

However, the UK is the most vulnerable country when it comes to finance, and we could lose a significant percentage of our GDP and tax intake and economic stability if something happened in climate finance. There’s a lot of stranded assets the UK is exposed to, but also, if suddenly the world decided to do something radically different around solving climate change, we have a huge exposure to renewables and climate finance – so if there was an economic shock that took down finance then London would have a huge explosion.

What can the world do to build more resilience and prepare for these shocks?

We’ve seen increasing efficiency in food and energy systems, driven by just-in-time production. That’s the best way to maximise profit, but the problem is that if anything goes wrong, the whole thing collapses. Shocks to the system will become bigger and more frequent because of climate change, so we do need to have flexibility to absorb those shocks. That means, potentially, not overproducing but just having enough capacity so we can respond, and understanding the systems and processes around those responses, such as how to produce more food in the short term and how we distribute that.

If Europe and North Africa came up with some form of treaty to manage food systems, then we could hugely increase the security of both Europe and North Africa for the next 20–30 years. But if we were to get a shock and put up export bans up to protect ourselves, that will make the global system worse because we are so globally interconnected. We can’t do it ourselves – we need to have a global response.

“We need more co-operation between business and governments so we can think about where the vulnerabilities are”

Are these steps currently being made at the international level?

It’s been done nationally in some countries with food or energy strategies, but most are not thinking about it in this way. We need more co-operation between business and governments so we can think about where the vulnerabilities in supply chains are, where the vulnerabilities in countries are, and how to map that and develop a global process or even a regional process. That could be within the UN process or as part of COP. It may come out of the pandemic.

The pandemic has been a global challenge, and some leaders are saying we could have dealt with it better with a more global response. We can vaccinate everyone in the UK three or four times, but unless the whole world is vaccinated, new variants are still going to pop up. When New Zealand says it’s going to close down until it goes away, that doesn’t work unless everybody closes down.

Let’s come up with a process for global collaboration, because we can’t protect ourselves from events happening elsewhere. There is more and more evidence that we need to get better at managing global responses, but there is less action in terms of delivering it. It’s the kind of thing that ex-prime ministers and ex-presidents talk a lot about and put their effort behind. It would be better if current prime ministers and presidents did the same.

Image credit | Tom Campbell

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