Across systems, the assumption that the physical environment is essentially static, at a time when it evidently is not, creates a range of new vulnerabilities.

On 12 December 2015, in Paris, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-21) ended with commitments from 195 countries. Simply having reached an agreement was widely regarded as a hard-fought win for diplomacy. In the wake of the conference, the burden shifted to signatory states to fulfil pledges on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, support adaptation financing and implement five-year plans, among other measures.

It will be some time before the real-world outcomes of the Paris agreement become apparent. The deal aims to limit the global average temperature rise to ‘well below 2 degrees Celsius’ (since the beginning of the industrial age) by the end of the century. This is supposed to be done by cutting net emissions. However, judging by the agreement’s own scientific parameters, current commitments would result in a rise closer to 3°C.

Additionally, the temperature projections are primarily derived from calculations based on greenhouse-gas emissions. They do not account for dynamics such as the albedo effect – in which dark surfaces absorb more solar radiation than light surfaces, as applies to the exposure of darker soil or water through the retreat of Arctic ice – or other climate-feedback mechanisms. Nor do they incorporate a potential major political shift in one of the key signatory countries. In the United States, for instance, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has promised to ‘cancel’ the Paris agreement if elected. Also, for many of the nations involved, the relative costs of renewable energy and fossil fuel will be major determinants of whether their commitments are implemented.

The COP-21 captured a moment in time: a flash of global political will to address specific aspects of a complex challenge. It will take years to see whether that will can be sustained. Yet, in the year to mid-2016, the potential for systemic instability caused by broader environmental change (including, but not limited to, climate change) was clearly on display.

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