Alejandro Litovsky

Alejandro Litovsky

Director of the Earth Security Initiative

How do we communicate to leaders and decision-makers not only the threats beyond the ecological thresholds, but also the short-term opportunities and solutions that can be realistically integrated in their working agendas? This challenge inspires the work of Alejandro Litovsky, an expert on collaborative governance and sustainability innovation, and recipient of several awards including the Hobhouse Memorial Prize by the London School of Economics. Alejandro is the founder and director of the Earth Security Initiative, a think tank that combines the knowledge and resources from business, environmental science, investment, and politics in order to increase opportunities for cross-sector coordination to address the challenges of ecological limits. His work seeks to more firmly establish a security value for resources and ecosystems, which can be translated into action through cross-sector partnerships. To illustrate the need for greater coordination across disciplines, blending atmospheric physics, risk analysis and drawing on a live music performance, Litovsky will explain to the Falling Walls audience what can be done to unite society, scientists, politicians, investors and business to face the planet's ecological crisis. Musically accompanied by Anders Scherp.  

Breaking the Wall of Ecological Risk. How a Cultural Shift in Economics and Politics Can Ensure the Earth's Security


Thank you. I would like to break the wall of national security. My sense is that if we crack the national security agenda, we probably are going to make progress in many other things that we have been talking about today. Up to now, we have felt and we think that the national security of a country depends on its military power, on its industrial power and its political power. We begin to see new ecological climate threats – as non-traditional threats, non-traditional security threats – emerging. And we believe that we can manage those with the sorts of power we have. We can deploy the military in new ways. We can deploy economics and go towards a different investment strategy and that we can manage. But, I want to challenge that and help us think in a different way today.

Last July, under the German presidency, which is quite interesting, in the UN Security Council, there was a big debate on climate change. The outcome was a presidential statement that said that climate change is, without a question, a threat to international security. But, what does that mean? It means things like this [Fig. 1: Global climate patterns and civil war]: this came out one month later – in August. It is looking at the conflicts in the last 50-60 years, and since the 1950s it proves a positive correlation between changes in global climate, i.e. the climate gets warmer, particularly at the equator, and the emergence of civil war and organised violence.For me, this doesn’t quite do it, because it is a very linear way of thinking. It keeps within a very traditional mindset, which says that we are organised in a certain way, and there are new climate threats and the new hot spots, where the US military talks about climate change as a threat amplifier. It is really going to amplify the threats and the conflicts that already exist. There is warmer weather, the harvest defaults, people go hungrier, the price of produce increases in the market, there is more instability and so on.

So, one of the walls, perhaps the most important wall that I want to try to break today has to do with understanding that the real security threat lies in the disruption of the earth’s system, and that in effect many of the earth’s systems are a security system – their life support systems. Here we have something, a scientific breakthrough in many ways, developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the US [Fig. 2: Animation]. What we see here – in gray – you see vapour, and in orange you see where that vapour is turning into rain. The first thing that strikes you is that actually this is not a problem of the equator – the equatorial sort of region. Actually, where is this rain falling? You see the rain is falling in the US grain hub. The rain is actually falling in Brazil – in Southern American Brazil and Argentina – the one trillion dollar industry of agribusiness. The rain is falling in China; we remember that last year the default of the suffering of the wheat harvest became really a matter of national security for the Chinese government that relies on one of those commodities for growing it domestically.

So, what else do we see? We see that much of the rain that is falling in Brazil, for example, where 70% of Brazilian electricity is produced by hydropower plants, creates quite an interesting situation of energy security. It is not just an environmental non-traditional threat. These things go to the core of economic power and national security understood in that way. And we will be challenged. But, we are also challenged, because this is not a problem of atmospheric physics. What we see here is an interacting system where atmospheric physics actually interacts with land- based ecosystems. Look at the Amazon there and look at the Congo Basin and how it is pumping. It is beating almost like a heart. What it is doing is recycling the rain and pumping it back into the atmosphere. All the tropical rainforests together are acting as one system and keeping this conveyor belt going. It is one complex machine that we really don’t understand. So, we don’t really understand what happens if we just take the Congo Basin. What happens if we remove it? We need to grapple with this uncertainty in terms of action.

So, why don’t we zoom into one of the pieces of this machine and we look at the Amazon rainforest [Fig. 3]. First thing you see, the Amazon is not Brazil; it is nine countries – nine countries that have to coordinate the stewardship and actually are quite uncoordinated at the moment. So, in green, you see where we are protecting the Amazon, where there are natural reserves, where there are indigenous reserves and so on. In red here you see deforestation. That deforestation there is very much driven in the Brazilian part by cattle ranching, and that is driven very much by global supply chains and global demand for meat. So, we know what is happening in the rest of the world with people eating more meat and so on. Then you see the fires, and the fires interact with climate in a really interesting way – potentially quite disastrous. We know that in 2005 there was a very big drought in the Amazon, and scientists said: “this is a once in one-hundred-years event” – tremendous drought: the highest drought, deepest drought ever recorded since records began in the 1900s. Five years later, 2010, even greater drought that we couldn’t predict. We tend to think of the Amazon as the lungs of the planet; it is sinking carbon dioxide. Yes, typically it is; it sinks 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide. But, actually when the fires and the drought interact, like in 2010, the Amazon rain forest was a net emitter of carbon dioxide of almost eight billion tons – just as much as Russia and China’s emissions combined. So, that is fires.

We look at roads: this is progress. This is being financed by development banks, by public pension funds; this is making the GDP of many of these countries grow – Brazil and Peru just celebrating bilateral deals to grow more roads, and they are building inter-oceanic roads to be able to export to China more easily through the Pacific. This is very welcome, but actually what roads do, is they open new pathways into the forest and in come all sorts of things. Then you see industrial mining; look at what is happening with mining. We know that global commodity prices are growing. We know that when Standard & Poor downgraded the US sovereign debt a few months ago, many of the investors flocked to gold, and the gold deposits in the Columbian Amazon are particularly rich. That has driven an enormous pressure into the Amazon for exploiters – both legal and illegal. So, you begin to see how all these things are interconnected. Then we know that there is oil and gas. There is a lot of oil and gas. A lot of the oil and gas is actually underneath the Amazon; so, we know what happens when these economic pressures are basically driving the political incentives to have no choice but to go and exploit. In Ecuador, for example, where 60% of GDP comes from oil related industries, it is very tough to imagine that we could shift to another sort of economy. So, you begin to get the picture.

This is hydropower [Fig. 4]. As I said, 70% of Brazil’s energy matrix is hydropower based. Increasingly Peru, Bolivia and other countries are turning to hydropower.

What happens with hydropower is, not only that there is this big impact, as you see with the yellow section, but also that we need to start asking the question: “wait a minute where is the water coming from, as the key input to the hydropower plant?” Do we understand that by actually eroding the Amazon, we are eroding the base of input into that model? This is something that traditional investment risk models are not terribly good at, because they look at individual firms; they are not understanding what the systemic risks are, and, in particular, from eroding this system.

So, here you have the combined effect. This is what we are doing. What are we doing, when we understand that what is at stake is the big system? So, very quickly, the two things that I am trying to do with this agenda are, on the one hand, we need to make a radical shift in how we understand risk and how that translates into economic policy, industrial policy and the financial sector, for example, reinsurance industries, ultimately will pay many of these bills.

But, the second thing I want to do is to try to exploit ways of breaking walls and how we communicate this agenda to make all of this complexity and all of these unknowns a bit more intuitive to understand. So, one of the things we will experiment with, and I want to call on my friend Anders Sherp from Sweden; we have been working for a while on exploring, and he is a musician – a very good one. How can his work and how could we try to communicate this agenda in a different way. We will show you a little experiment and you see what you think.

We are going to turn back to this system, and we will try to understand how does it all fit together and what it means in terms of the earth’s security. Anders–


Thank you very much Anders. We began to talk about security, national security, and the connections that exist with the earth. I just want to wrap up by saying that breaking the walls between science – what we know in different silos in science, what we know in investment, in infrastructures and what we know in politics – is really the only chance we have in working out the politics that will ensure our long-term security. Thank you very much.