We survived 2022 – a remarkable achievement considering that we had war, inflation, recession, natural disasters, food and energy shortages all in one year.  Moreover, 2022 world population exceeded 8 billion, with another billion in 15 years’ time.  By all accounts, this was a year where the burden of human and natural disasters fell mainly on the poor, in terms of both health and wealth.  Not surprisingly, anger is erupting in many parts of the world.  

Before the survivors count our blessings, we have to contemplate how to survive a warmer future as temperatures continue to rise.  The global climate conference COP27 that ended in Egypt last month basically confirmed that without rapid societal transformation, there is no credible path to a 1.5 degree celsius future. Every fraction of degree change will cause more weather change, bringing droughts, rising seas, storms and extreme weather that will harm humans and all living things alike. 

At the heart of the social transformation debate is money – who will finance the tough complex system transformation?   COP27 agreed on a “loss and damage” fund for nations most vulnerable to the climate crisis, but that is only putting salve on deep historical wounds.   The planet is still burning whilst the leaders keep on fiddling the numbers.   

First they deny it, and now they squabble on who is going to pay for it.  

For example, the United Nations is publishing larger and larger numbers on funding needed to deal with climate change.  For the energy transformation alone, COP27 agreed that “$4 to $6 trillion a year needs to be invested in renewable energy till 2030 – including investments in technology and infrastructure – to allow us to reach net zero emissions by 2050.”   These numbers do not include that $160-US$340 billion annually by 2030 for adapting to climate change (UNEP Adaptation Gap Report 2022). 

As the late US Senator Everett Dirksen used to say, “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

In less than one year of Ukraine war, the West has funded nearly $100 billion in arms and financial support to the Kviv government, not counting an estimated US$1 trillion needed to restore Ukraine’s infrastructure to pre-war conditions.  Adding in Russia’s war expenditure, and losses to the rest of the world in terms of higher inflation and lost output, the damage from war’s folly is in the trillions.  

Not surprisingly, the key word this year for corporate leaders is “resilience”.  The May 2022 World Economic Forum/McKinsey White Paper on Resilience for Sustainable Development defines resilience as “the ability to deal with adversity, withstand shocks and continuously adapt and accelerate as disruptions and crises arise over time.”   The Paper suggests a Resilience Consortium of governments, businesses and international bodies to build and manage resilience to ensure a sustainable, inclusive future for all in a world of continuous disruptions.  

It’s a no-brainer that with increasing complexity, adversity and escalating risk and losses, adaptation, mitigation and preparing for shocks is a must.   However, nation-states are hamstrung by geopolitical rivalry into collective action traps, which explains why despite huge efforts by multilateral bodies such as the UN, academia and concerned citizens, we cannot get even carbon markets to work.  The business sector has woken up to its social responsibilities, but it will not invest in long-term energy and supply chain transition to Net Zero without some assistance from the state in terms of regulation and funding.  

In short, the Consortium of state, business and international bodies remains trapped by not being able to act because everyone is waiting for the other to act.  

This leaves the bottom half of society being simultaneously the victims of climate disaster and yet at the same time the possible saviours if they can mobilise themselves to deal with their local issues that will change the narrative.  Logically speaking, if the masses make themselves resilient, they could compensate for fragility of the concentrated few.  But mass movements can only occur if there is a mindset change from the unsustainable status quo.  

Despite the pessimistic outlook, my optimism tells me that localized human and natural disasters are forcing mass mindset change at the community level.  All politics is ultimately local. 

Black Swan author Nassim Taleb argued that conventional thinking ignores small events that have huge impact.  To him, resilience is too risk-adverse, whereas the bold opposite of fragility is “anti-fragility”.  Since you cannot predict future events, the system must be able to adapt to take more shocks and losses.  Indeed, the system’s ability to learn how to take more losses makes “anti-fragile”.   Pushing resilience is too timid, because when you minimise the downside by also minimising the upside, the system actually becomes even more fragile.   Anti-fragility means that the system learns by experimentation to do anything that may give you more upside than downside (including taking more risks). 

The “anti-fragility” logic suggests that the real solution out of climate disaster is less about ideologies such as “democracy versus autocracy”, but more about diversity versus monoculture.  Diversity allows experimentation on many fronts (mass change) and inclusivity is about sharing for all, rather caring for the few.  Climate change affects the seven billion poorer people in the world more than the rich one billion.  Whilst the rich one billion controls most of the wealth, they will not be “resilient” if by 2037, the eight billion remains poor and battered by climate disasters, whilst the rich think of migrating into space.  

Thus, the rich countries will serve themselves better by being bold to fund the many in the poorer countries to help themselves in diverse experiments to deal with climate warming at their own local areas, rather grand schemes that only benefit big corporations from big projects.  This is ta time when miserly wealth leads to greater poverty for all.  Christmas after all is about charity and goodwill to all.  

Winter is already here.  To survive the past is always a blessing.  Not to act in face of coming disaster is our perennial curse. 

Season’s greetings to all.   

Contributed by 

Andrew Sheng