What can storyline research teach us about the pandemic? And how does the pandemic affect climate change research? Although COVID-19 and climate change cause very different types of disruptions, there are quite some similarities. For instance, both cause system-wide, global impacts.

Our world has highly interconnected global network systems. From fashion trends to diplomatic relationships or the stock market, virtually all aspects of society are intertwined and influence one another. On the plus side, this allows global systems to quickly respond to disturbances, to dispatch international aid when needed or provide alternative pathways when supply chains are broken. On the downside, this very interconnectedness also enables the rapid spread of negative impacts from one region or sector to the next. It’s our interconnectedness that quickly turned COVID into a global phenomenon. Trade and travel played a big role in the spread of the virus and the lockdown measures affected everything from supply and demand, to company revenues, unemployment and national economies.

To be competitive, most networks nowadays are designed to maximise efficiency and profits. Take flour supply, for instance. Somewhere in March 2020, flour disappeared from the shelves and became unavailable from online retailers. Shortly after, social media were flooded with pictures of homemade sourdough breads, pizzas and banana breads. While quarantiners turned to baking, suppliers couldn’t keep up with the sudden spike in domestic demand for flour. Indeed, farmers and stores know how much flour is sold each year for food manufacturing versus for home bakers. Producing and keeping more small packages in stock than the usual demand would represent a net loss. The packaging system was not prepared to respond to the sudden shift in demand. Conversely, some products saw demand plummet. Firework suppliers are still struggling to sell their stocks, as many places don’t allow festive celebrations. They are left with too many products and often don’t have the stocking capacity to keep it until next year.

Our systems are designed to maximise efficiency and profits, but are ill-equipped to deal with sudden changes in supply or demand.

Like the current pandemic, climate change impacts have the potential for snowball effect along interconnected network systems. Unlike COVID-19, most climate-related disruptions of global systems will not arise from a single event – even though exceptions are possible. It is the cumulative effect of many events that are likely to impact various sectors or systems at the same time. These climate change risks should be viewed as “systemic risks”. Systemic risks have the potential for impacts across sectors and across boundaries, both geographical and political. For example, simultaneous crop failures due to droughts in key production regions can drive up global food prices, trigger social displacement and cause unrest. This will then have effects on international relations (discover our articles on international development and on agriculture).

In order to increase overall system resilience and preparedness for cascading impacts of climate change, we need to understand how these impacts affect systems and how systems can adapt. CASCADES and RECEIPT are developing visualization tools and storylines to explore and explain climate risks and impacts of interventions. This research can help policy makers to limit systemic risks.


Discover what COVID-19 can teach us about preparing for climate risks in Europe and our recommendations in our Policy Brief.

Published on : 07 January 2021