Why reducing global vulnerability is paramount

This article is part of the Futures Forecasting series. We’ve asked experts to identify crucial trends – from a shortlist of categories – that will influence national security out to 2035 and how those trends might intersect in a future scenario.

In this article, Mark Crosweller concludes that the intensifying severity and conflation of major global crises will overwhelm states’ and society’s capacity to manage the impact if old approaches aren’t are not rethought and if vulnerability is not addressed through the lens of equity.

Key trends

1The black elephant: The intensifying severity and conflation of major crises

This past summer has seen three consecutive and overlapping large scale crises in Australia: drought, catastrophic bushfires, and pandemic. Individually, any of these perils would cause society significant harm and suffering, but to have consecutive events with intermediate overlaps is cause for alarm. Had the pandemic fully manifested in November of 2019, the bushfire response would have been devastated. By way of a simple example, the depletion of available firefighters domestically due to illness and internationally due to border closures in concert with social distancing, social isolation measures and stretched medical facilities would have resulted in significantly increased fatality rates.

But this is only the start of the problem. Much of the Global North and Global South have called for a strategic policy shift from a response dominated paradigm to one of risk reduction, mitigation, and resilience. This is not new, but evidence to support a wide-scale shift with adequate investment is difficult to find. Using Australia as an example, despite all the historic investment in these initiatives, the recent catastrophic fire season was dominated by headlines where governments admitted nothing more could be done, citizen safety was not guaranteed, and losses were inevitable. Communities were told to prepare for catastrophic impacts, the inevitability of deaths, and to abandon their localities.

Using these statements as a baseline, the outlook for Australia (and much of the world) is even more troublesome. We are already witnessing:

  • Increasing reliance on (interconnected and interdependent) critical infrastructure for warnings, public information, and situational awareness that remain vulnerable to mass disruption
  • Increasing intensities, frequencies, durations, and conflations of natural hazard events driven by climate change
  • Increasing reliance on largely volunteer workforces (themselves under increasing pressure to meet demand) along with interstate and international deployments resulting in increased competition for finite resources
  • Overlapping disaster seasons between the Global North and the Global South leading to competition for response and recovery resources from the international community
  • Global economic downturn because of COVID-19 resulting in less opportunity for investment in risk reduction, mitigation, and resilience for an extended period

Add in the genuine possibility of a solar storm, cyber-attack, or another global pandemic into this environment and we have the potential for disasters of a scale previously not experienced and most likely not (but could be) imagined. All of this is underpinned by our deficient understanding of the full potentiality of our natural hazard risks and the genuine possibility of conflation concomitant with our general unwillingness to move from a hazard-based paradigm to one of vulnerability.

2Economics: Inadequate distribution of equities increasing vulnerability of and impacts on global public health safety due the inability for countries and organisations to shift from past ways of managing and thinking about crisis management

Vulnerability based assessments would necessarily require us to admit that it is where and how we place ourselves upon the landscape that causes disaster, not nature. In other words, disasters are the product of the forces of nature intersecting with society and where that society has inadequately positioned itself to withstand or absorb those forces. The way the equities of power, wealth and resource are distributed and who has access to them is key to this dilemma. Inadequate distribution entrenches structural, economic, social, cultural, and environmental vulnerabilities that become amplified during natural hazard impacts. The political ideologies of society that distribute these equities therefore matter as they not only reflect these material circumstances, they also reflect the way that these circumstances are interpreted and framed over time.  If we do not make a wholesale strategic shift in how we replace our communities after impact and design communities prior to impact to reduce these vulnerabilities along with the necessary structural, economic, cultural and environmental adjustments, then the long-term outlook for global public safety and economic prosperity appears dire.

2035 future forecast

Without a shift from current trends that focus vulnerability on segments of society, the impact of conflating natural hazards will overwhelm the global community’s ability to absorb the coming shocks.

Without a genuine and demonstrable commitment to reducing global vulnerability, the increasing likelihood of conflating natural hazard impacts with other global perils in a technologically driven world will produce compounding global economic shocks of a magnitude not previously witnessed.

  • Long terms efforts to lift populations out of poverty into a burgeoning middle class are likely to collapse.
  • Mass displacement of populations is likely to accelerate as the acute shocks of conflating perils accelerate the chronic stresses of climate change
  • The impacts on sovereign wealth of many countries caused by COVID-19 are likely to remain problematic and may even further decline as natural hazards along with the aforementioned outlook intensify

What will this mean for Australia?

Australia’s somewhat privileged position of well invested response capabilities will simply not be enough to withstand the effects of a deteriorating natural hazard environment concomitant an outlook of increasing intensity, frequency, impact, complexity, and constraint. 

Natural disaster impacts conflated with other perils will move from one of contingent economic, social, cultural and environmental liabilities to substantial material risks to the Australian economy and a genuine long-term threat to the well-being and prosperity of the Nation and its people.