What is a global polycrisis?

Technical Paper #2022-4

Version Number: 1.1

April 27, 2022

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Scott Janzwood and Thomas Homer-Dixon

This discussion paper explores the concept of a global polycrisis. We define a global polycrisis as any combination of three or more interacting systemic risks with the potential to cause a cascading, runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems that irreversibly and catastrophically degrades humanity’s prospects.

A systemic risk is a threat emerging within one natural, technological, or social system with impacts extending beyond that system to endanger the functionality of one or more other systems.

A global polycrisis, should it occur, will inherit the four core properties of systemic risks—extreme complexity, high nonlinearity, transboundary causality, and deep uncertainty—while also exhibiting causal synchronization among risks.

Dr. Scott Janzwood is the Research Director at the Cascade Institute. His research focuses on how scientists measure and communicate uncertainty and collaborate with policy makers to address emerging risks. He holds a PhD in Global Governance from the University of Waterloo.

Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon is the Founder and Director of the Cascade Institute. Trained in international relations and conflict theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his research focuses on threats to global security in the 21st century, including economic instability, climate change, and energy scarcity.