Climate shocks – might East Anglia become the new Dust Bowl?

Professor Jim Harris, Institute for Resilient Futures, was at the House of Lords on 11 Jan 2017 for the launch of the Global Security Programme (GFS) Report, which he co-authored along with Dr Anil Graves. The event was attended by MPs, policy-makers, leading industry figures, researchers and funding agencies.

The GFS report provides evidence for the existence of environmental 'tipping points' (where the environment changes from one stable state to another stable state) and exploring the potential consequences for global food security.

Professor Jim Harris, Chair of Environmental Technology, said; “All land managers and farmers need to be increasingly alert to these merging threats, and act now, as many are already doing. We have to manage our landscapes better to increase capacity for resilient behaviour in the face of climate shocks, such as drought or floods. We have the knowledge as to how, though whole systems farming and ecological restoration at landscape level, put sound and robust environmental mechanisms in place that will help mitigate the effects of these plausible climate shock scenarios, which are now clearly visible on the horizon.”

Environmental tipping points occur when a biophysical system experiences a shift from one stable state to another, thereby altering its function. These ‘step-changes’ deviate from the linear way we might usually expect a system to behave, and pose a serious threat to global food security because they could bring about profound changes in the provision of environmental goods and services that are difficult to reverse, which in turn could have serious effects on global food production.

Key findings from the report include:

  • The need to give greater consideration to potential step-changes in food systems as part of risk management
  • The need for more research into environmental tipping points and their potential impact on food system dynamics, the interaction between environmental tipping points and socioeconomic systems, and ways to improve forecasting
  • How to act on information if there is a real risk that a tipping point is being reached.
  • Costs and benefits of action now to prevent crossing a tipping point, versus reaching the tipping point and having to adapt
  • Two major case studies for plausible environmental tipping points – including the potential for a dustbowl in East Anglia – with analysis of how we might respond to these scenarios.

Tim Benton, former GFS Champion Professor, said: “Climate change may not be about gradual adaptation to a globally changing climate: it might ‘tip’ suddenly into a new and very different state, for example, incremental degradation of soils leading to large scale soil loss under certain conditions, as happened in the Midwest Dust Bowl. Such step changes in the way the world works could have big impacts for the way we produce food. This report emphasises that building resilient agri-food systems is not just about buffering against familiar “shocks” – such as extreme weather – but also thinking about the unfamiliar, but potentially important, role of sudden non-linear changes in the way the food system works.”

Riaz Bhunnoo, Head of the GFS programme, said: “One of the biggest risks to the food system is climatic shocks, and this work on tipping points follows our recent impactful work on extreme weather. The report includes thought-provoking case studies, such as the possibility of a dust-bowl in East Anglia, and asks ‘what would we do if this happened?’.”

The reports are available at:

Keynotes at Natural England and Royal Society

Professor Harris was a keynote speaker at a recent internal Natural England event, Science in Practice, which focused on how urban landscapes can be improved for the benefits of nature and people.

He also delivered a keynote to practitioners at the Royal Society on enhancing biodiversity in urban areas, in late January.

Professor Harris and Dr Anil Graves are members of the Institute for Resilient Futures (IRF). The Centre often work with policy makers (as well as businesses and individuals) to help them prepare, adapt, and grasp the opportunities offered by change, in part by ensuring the resilience and balancing the competing demands on the environment to help inform better decisions.