A group of young people discussing ideas at a table.
Discussing Arctic Change – Global Challenge at University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Finland. Photo source: GMFUS

In a world of seemingly endless crises and tumultuous times, what are the most important challenges that today’s emerging leaders will face in their professional lives?

That’s what we sought to determine in a scenario exercise that took place as part of a workshop on “Arctic Change – Global Challenge.”

Fifteen young people with life experience from across the world collectively identified social political upheaval and climate shifts as the two most important challenges they will face. Satisfying energy demand, new technologies, ecosystem changes, and competing land use were other issues that ranked high in their listing.  Climate shifts also was rated as one of the most difficult to predict, along with the risk for global pandemics and major international security crises.

The potential risk related to major climate shifts have yet to enter mainstream discussions in international security and foreign policy circles. But, the assessment made by this group clearly points to a dimension of foreign policy and global leadership that needs more attention.

At one level, the potential for climate shifts are related to Arctic sea ice and permafrost and other biophysical processes in the northern regions that were the focus of the workshop. Such processes may seem distant from everyday realities of people living in parts of the world that are far from the Arctic. However,  because the climate system is global, such risks directly relate to ecosystem changes globally and the potential for extreme weather in other parts of the world—which may drive other changes that the workshop participants identified as future major leadership challenges, such as migration patterns, global market dynamics, and increased competition for land use.

What would it take to meet these challenges? Taking into account two major uncertainties – climate shifts and international security – the workshop participants discussed the specific leadership issues that would be on the table in four different potential worlds with differing levels and combinations of major international security crises and climate shifts.

A combination of extreme security and climate challenges – named Armageddon by the participants – is obviously more problematic than a future of relative peace and cooperation and less risk for climate shifts –­ dubbed “A Cool World.” However, all futures will pose major demands on future leaders and seven common factors emerged from the discussion: the need for cooperation, the potential of technology, a demand for responsibility, a need for effective resource management, the important of seeing the bigger picture, and call for local leadership and for proactiveness.

Though we were discussing unknown futures, it is evident that these key takeaways from tomorrow’s global leaders are equally relevant for those who are in power today.

This blog post was originally published by German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The workshop Arctic Change – Global Challenge was convened as part of a Mistra-Arctic Fellowship at GMFUS and held at the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Finland, from August 30-31, 2017. Annika E. Nilsson is Senior Research Fellow at SEI.