Tackling Systemic climate risks - Some possible approaches

This blog post outlines some of the issues of systemic climate risk, possible approaches to dealing with it that aren't necessarily being utilised (around learning that is meaningful and actionable) and is driven from my knowledge and work on disaster risk reduction learning. It's a short blog, but if you are in a hurry or need a policy brief, this is provided at the top of the blog! I will work on an infographic and add too!


  • Definition: Systemic risk is that which leads to a breakdown of an entire system, rather than individual parts or components. Threats include “individual failures, accidents or disruptions to a system via a process of contagion” (Centeno et al., 2015).
  • Principal features: highly interconnected risks alongside complex causal structures (such as not being confined by borders) coupled with non-linear cause-effect relationships; they can trigger unexpected large-scale changes to a system or bring about large-scale threats that can disperse beyond the point of origin. A lack of knowledge about these interconnections and their interdependencies may amplify risk and as such may require new tools and practices to address them.
  • Implications: Systemic risk are perceived to be governed by a collective responsibility, with no-one having the right to legitimately act on behalf of the entire system. This creates stasis, which thus far has been broached by arguing that incentives to change should not be based on changing human behaviour (Luyendik, 2015). At the same time there has been a focus on adaptation and transformation of the organisation and the system. This appears contradictory.
  • Possible Approaches: Often terms such as adaptation and transformation are used to signal what needs to be done or acted upon. However, such assumptions, often remain that: assumptions. This leaves a value-action gap, that is unlikely to be narrowed through knowledge alone, or changes to structures. It is important to understand how this might be brought about through conscientisation and learning that is transformative, socially constructed and values critical reflection (Sharpe, 2018). Many systemic risks (including climate change) are slow-moving/slow-onset events that don’t require reflex actions but rather more considered critically reflected ones.

What is Systemic Risk? 

Systemic risk is that which leads to a breakdown of an entire system, rather than individual parts or components. Threats include “individual failures, accidents or disruptions to a system via a process of contagion” (Centeno et al., 2015). Natural hazards which may also be triggered by changes in climate are often viewed as exogenous risks. This is recognised as such by financial markets and insurance mechanisms (such as re-insurance) that are part of economic and institutional response to such risks. However, anthropogenic climate change might be viewed as bringing endogenousforces into play through the interaction of people and the decisions they make that produce feedback loops that exacerbate and continue to produce rising temperatures. The impacts of these rising temperatures include hydro-meteorological events such as storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts of increasing frequency and magnitude.  They are also transnational and part of a wider connected system of ocean currents, weather systems and patterns whose disruption is only beginning to be understood. There are cascades of climate change as well as in disasters.

My own curiosity is driven by the geographical nature of such risks and how we can more effectively respond to them. In particular, the transboundary and tele-connected aspects of the risks which means that theoretical research might help inform better policy and governance of such risk, allowing for transformation to be meaningful and grounded in practical action. Having recently worked as a consultant for UNSIDR (now UNDRR) I  analysed gaps between intentions and realities in delivering on the Sendai Framework across Europe. This highlighted the complexities of these issues as well as the value action gaps at government levels. This analysis of the  issues of complexity is important when attempting to learn how we might move our own learning from single-loop learning to double or triple-loop learning to better understand what works and why, rather than assuming (erroneously) that it does, which can lead to maladaptation to climate change as well as other systemic risks.

Our current understanding of Transnational Climate Impacts (TCI) are based on current exposure from actual data. If countries maintain certain trade profiles for instance, there may be exposure to increased risks as a result of climate change in other countries. Risk pathways may be transboundaryin nature with impacts transmitted over borders between neighbouring countries or tele-connected, with impacts from more remote links (e.g. trade) due to the impact of climate change in a distant part of the planet (from their perspective) that require complex governance response. 


As a researcher, I am interested in global environmental boundary research that identified nine critical processes that regulate Earth systems and its resilience, suggesting that sustainable development is only likely if we stay within planetary boundary thresholds (Rockström et al., 2009; Steffen et al., 2015b). However, there is strong evidence to suggest that many of these have already been transgressed and pose a significant risk now and in the future. This includes anthropogenic climate change. Much of the response narrative around climate change (itself related to and borne from research on disaster risks) revolve around similar terminology and frameworks bounded by adaptation, resilience and transformation.

There is room for this to be challenged. To take one of these terms – resilience, there may be an argument that it is too focussed on maintaining the status quo (essentially fiddling while the planet burns) resulting in stasis because assumptions about what should be done are not augmented on howthis should be carried out. There is an argument that his might be brought about through conscientisation and learning that is transformative, socially constructed and values critical reflection (Sharpe, 2018). Many systemic risks (including climate change) are slow-moving/slow-onset events that don’t require reflex actions but rather more considered critically reflected ones. These are the perspectives that I would bring to bear on this topic, which have up to now been missing from key literature in this young but burgeoning field.

An example: The 2011 floods in Thailand impacting on two different parts of the world

There is an opportunity to look at transnational climate risks in a holistic manner, in particular focusing on learning as a key but overlooked component of effective planning and response to climate risks. While recognising that the research is in its infancy, resulting in a lack of data, some of the understanding around cascades of climate change have not been well explored. An example would be the 2011 floods in Thailand, which caused disruption to disc-drive and other technology industries and a questioning of the poor resilience of just-in-time modes of component supply to California, USA. Although widely reported, it is difficult to find evidence of changes to these practices since this event. At the same time damaged rice crops from the same weather and flood event caused a spike in the price of rice exports from Thailand. In 2008, Senegal, a major importer of rice suffered badly, with a doubling of rice prices and food riots undermining trust in government. Unlike Silicon Valley businesses, there has been a major government drive (supported by funding) towards improving rice yields in Senegal to limit the impact of external shocks. There is an interesting report by the FAO here that also examines the impact of disaster on food supply if you want further information.


This example, neatly encapsulates what I believe to be missing in current research around both disaster risk reduction and climate change cascades: Transformative Learning.

Transformative Learning (Mezirow, 1991, 1995, 1996; Cranton, 1994, 1996) is that which leads to a change in an individual’s frame of reference. Frames of reference can be identified as the “associations, concepts, values, feelings and conditioned responsesthat are the result of experiences that define an individual’s life world” (Mezirow, 1997 p. 5). Frames of reference can result in a rejection of ideas that fail to fit an individual’s preconceptions, leading ideas to be dismissed as irrelevant or wrong, irrespective of evidence (Sharpe, 2016). This may go some way to explaining why some individuals choose not to address threats posed by disasters as doing so may lead to discomfort. Transformative Learning allows learners open to experiences that enable new, difficult or challenging frames of reference to be accommodated, potentially rejected but not denied (Hulme, 2009). This is of increasing importance for threats that are often framed as being existential rather than personal which include disaster risks that are increasingly likely to be triggered or exacerbated by climate change.

I leave you with a quote from my own work that hopefully brings this into focus: "Resilience and adaptation to both disasters and climate change, indicate processes of flexibility and adjustment. The range of adaptations open to individuals and by extension collectives will be limited in many ways. One important limiting dynamic is associated with capacity to learn, and the depth or superficiality of any learning." (Sharpe, 2016)


Centeno, M. A., Nag, M., Patterson, T. S., Shaver, A. & Windawi, J. A. (2015). The emergence of global systemic risk. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 65-85. Retrieved from http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev- soc-073014-112317

Cranton, P. (1994)Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cranton, P.(1996) Professional Development as Transformative Learning: New Perspectives for Teachers of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Luyendijk, J. (2015). Swimming with Sharks - My Journey into the World of the Bankers. Guardian Faber Publishing.

Mezirow, J.(1991) Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1995) “Transformative Theory of Adult Learning.” In M. Welton (ed.), In Defense of the Lifeworld. Albany: State University of New York Press. 

Mezirow, J.(1996) “Contemporary Paradigms of Learning.” Adult Education Quarterly,46 (3), 158–172.

Mezirow, J. (2009).Transformative learning theory. In J. Mezirow and E. W. Taylor (Eds.), Transformative learning in practise: Insights from community, workplace, andhigher education(pp18-32). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, S. F., Lambin, E. F., Foley, J. A. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461, 472-475. https://dx.doi. org/10.1038/461472a

Sharpe, J. (2016). Understanding and unlocking transformative learning as a method for enabling behaviour change for adaptation and resilience to disaster threats. International journal of disaster risk reduction, Vol 17, 213-219.

Sharpe, J.E., (2018). Learning to trust: relational spaces and transformative learning for disaster risk reduction across citizen led, professional and humanitarian contexts. PhD Thesis, Unpublished.

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., Sörlin, S. (2015b). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223). https://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1259855

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