The new era poses new global-scale challenges for humanity, beyond the usual threats of rogue nations, terror groups, boundary conflicts and financial crises. The climate crisis, pandemics and public health emergencies, heat and water stresses, declining agricultural outputs, coastal degradation, biodiversity collapse, and emergent risks such as digital infrastructure vulnerabilities, are among oft-neglected issues that have become serious international concerns. 

Tail-end risks have low probabilities of occurrence but can be catastrophic, especially risks with transboundary impacts such as the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme weather events. Growing climate and health stresses are raising the chances of such high-impact events occurring more frequently – often overlapping – to cause domino effects of associated events that can overwhelm the responsive capacities of communities, governments and multilateral organizations. 

The pandemic has fractured an already fragile world. Today, the closed borders, unilateral policies and regulations, financial and resource scarcities, and intense suspicions offer little scope to realize the ‘grand bargains’ of post-Cold War multilateralism based on technology, trade and finance. 

Instead, as nations turn inwards in favour of myopic self-preservation, it is time to redefine multilateral cooperation.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are perfect storms of shocks: a series of environmental, economic and social crises that are overwhelming the capacity of countries and communities to ‘respond, adapt, and rejuvenate’ – especially when conditions are already precarious.

Humans have never experienced the imminent outcomes of such climatic changes because carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere ‘have never been as high in at least the last two million years’. The climate crisis and its accompanying risks are set to hit the core of modern society – and legitimate governance, through loss of lives to extreme climate events, and loss of livelihoods through degraded agriculture, at-risk industries and weakened infrastructure.

Despite the uncertainties and ‘unknowns’, the acute and chronic risks of climate change are too high to condone inaction. Collective action for more sustainable development will need accountability for past behaviour from industrialized nations, proactive resolution of environmental issues by developing nations and a conscious change in the current and future patterns of consumption.

Multilateral institutions must return to the core principles of cooperation – ‘joint monitoring and data sharing, building trust, investing in institutional and human capacity, enforceable legal instruments, raising more financing, and equitably sharing the gains’ – to reclaim lost ground.

This paper is part of a series that supports the Stockholm+50: Unlocking a better future report.