Six ‘snow leopards’ to watch for in 2022

By Peter Engelke

It’s one of the rarest animals on earth. Nicknamed the “ghost of the mountains,” the legendary snow leopard lives at high altitudes in Central Asia. The solitary existence, elusive disposition, and near-perfect camouflage of these beautiful cats make them a rare sighting even for locals and wildlife biologists who are trained to find them. Since it is most often out of sight and therefore out of mind, the snow leopard is the kind of animal that might be forgotten—until it suddenly appears as if out of nowhere.

In the world of global foresight, which is my area of focus at the Atlantic Council, I think of a “snow leopard” as a known but underappreciated—perhaps even forgotten—phenomenon. Because it receives little attention in the press, the snow leopard does not appear significant enough to warrant much scrutiny as a driver of change and shaper of the future. Yet just like the real cat in the wild, the figurative snow leopard is something that could sneak up and vividly remind us that it exists. 

The snow leopard is distinct from two other concepts in global foresight. First, it is unlike the “black swan,” which is an extreme event with no historical precedent. In contrast to the black swan, the snow leopard does not have to be a single discrete event at all. And although both the snow leopard and the black swan arrive on the scene with great impact, the snow leopard’s arrival is preceded by plenty of information— if we look hard enough—suggesting that it might be just around the corner. Second, the snow leopard overlaps with the concept of “weak signals,” often defined as the early signs of a trend that could alter the future. But it extends beyond early emergent signs to include long-underestimated phenomena. 

Consider technological disruption, which we frequently envision as a thunderbolt event but more often unfolds as a gradual, under-the-radar process. Rather than occurring at lightning speed immediately after a technology is invented, disruptive impact tends to become evident during the scaling phase that follows a long, less visible gestation period of testing and experimentation. The COVID-19 vaccines are the exception that proves the rule. They astonished the world for good reason, given the stark contrast between the fast pace of their development under emergency conditions and the typically slow development of other vaccines. Even so, the messenger RNA laboratory research that formed the scientific basis for these vaccines goes back more than thirty years. 

The intermodal shipping container, a key enabler of the modern global economy, is a good example of a snow leopard. Invented in 1956, the standardized shipping container took more than a decade to prove its worth in terms of dramatically speeding up transshipment processes compared with previous methods and hence significantly lowering costs. It took even longer for this technology to find global scale via the now-ubiquitous complex of specially modified ships, ports, cranes, tractor trailers, and railway cars that have given the container its transformative economic power. The humble shipping container drove the late-twentieth century globalization wave, upending economic sectors and even entire national economies. Barely noticed while it was happening, containerization became one of the most important technologically based disruptions of the past century.

So what snow leopards should you keep your eyes peeled for in 2022 and beyond? Check out my list of six to watch closely in the year ahead.

1. The true leaders of the climate fight: cities

Although the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, staged by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), produced some promising carbon-reduction pledges, none were binding on the countries that made the commitments. But the conference also underscored that a vanguard of climate-conscious governments—subnational governments, to be precise—are taking decisive action. For well over a decade, the world’s largest cities have been organizing to confront a problem that they are particularly vulnerable to, even as they have largely created it (cities account for roughly 70 percent of global carbon emissions). Cities and city associations (C40 Cities is the best-known association) have been among the most consistently vocal and visible actors at the various COP conferences in calling for stringent emissions reductions. Such demands are neither hollow nor hypocritical. The same cities that are demanding bold UNFCCC actions have been busy banning gas- and diesel-powered vehicles from city centers, creating zero-emission bus fleets, crafting green building codes to regulate the carbon that is embodied in the materials used to make buildings (concrete, steel, glass, etc.), building partnerships with major corporations to reduce carbon emissions, and otherwise engaging in the hard work of resilience-focused climate adaptation. In so doing, city governments have positioned themselves at the innovative cutting edge on climate, seeing opportunity rather than heartache in the transition to a zero-carbon world. National governments will always have a critical role to play in countering climate change, but while they receive the most attention they are actually behind the curve.

2. The arrival of harmless mosquitos

In May 2021, the biotech firm Oxitec released genetically engineered mosquitos into the Florida Keys ecosystem—the first experiment of its kind in the United States. It was the latest attempt to genetically engineer mosquitos to prevent or at least reduce the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases, which include some of the deadliest diseases on earth: malaria, Zika, the West Nile virus, dengue, and yellow fever, to name only a few. Oxitec’s method (which is far from the only methodology under development) focuses on reducing the mosquito’s ability to reproduce itself, with each generation yielding fewer female mosquitos (females bite humans, males do not). After decades of laboratory research, the genetic manipulation of mosquitos is now starting to be scaled. And regulators are taking serious notice. In May 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued new guidance for research to “ensure that the study and evaluation of genetically modified mosquitoes as public health tools is safe, ethical and rigorous.” As the WHO cautions, there are real risks involved in genetic engineering—in this case involving both human health and broader impacts on other species and natural ecosystems. Nonetheless, the hope remains that a new and (tentatively) promising era of communicable disease control might be in the offing. 

3. The global, grassroots expansion of innovation

For decades, Silicon Valley has been at the top of a global tech-innovation pyramid dominated by cities and regions in rich countries. But the base of that pyramid has been growing to encompass more places in more countries around the world. Various governments from Kenya to Egypt to Vietnam have been supporting their fledgling tech-startup ecosystems, in some cases for years and more than occasionally with real success. Just as important has been grassroots entrepreneurialism enabled by the Internet, mobile phones, digital service platforms, and a widespread “maker” outlook. Across the Global South, these entrepreneurs—often women and youth—have created tech-based innovations to address local needs ranging from quick access to micro-scale financing to bespoke material products (“makers” are those interested in manufacturing their own material inventions using tools that they acquire and make themselves). In the process, they have helped build and expand startup ecosystems in cities ranging from Accra, Ghana to Amman, Jordan—places where governments have wisely encouraged such activity via support and investment. Venture capitalists now comb the world looking for investment opportunities, as Silicon Valley tech firms build digital platforms to assist grassroots startups in far-flung locations. Most importantly, governments, firms, and individuals the world over have come to understand that there is a recipe for uncorking their own innovative potential and, in so doing, joining the ranks of the world’s wealthier countries. All this is a positive development, with more people in more places using tech-based skills and tools to create economic and social opportunity and, in the process, build wealth and reduce poverty.   

4. The dawn of lab meat

It’s not just the stuff of science fiction. Lab meat, not to be confused with plant-based meat substitutes, is grown in huge steel bioreactors using a small number of stem cells taken from a real living animal—a cow, fish, chicken, pig, etc. The result is honest-to-goodness meat, genetically identical to animal meat, albeit grown without the animal itself involved. First introduced to the world a decade ago as a proof of concept (and one that cost exorbitant sums of money), lab meat has since undergone a great deal of study and refinement, not to mention cost reduction. With billions of dollars in venture-capital investment behind it, the nascent industry stands on the cusp of commercial scaling. Why does lab meat matter? Because it has real potential to upend several of the biggest and most important industries in the world: livestock, aquaculture, and commercial fishing. By separating meat production from animal harvesting, lab meat would have enormous impact on land and freshwater use, wildlife, and carbon emissions, in addition to the potentially significant benefits to animal welfare and public health. (Since lab meat is grown in sterile conditions, for example, there is no need for the antibiotics that are used on farms.) Beef, chicken, and fish variants of lab meat now exist, as do factories in Singapore and the United States that are ready to produce tons of product. All that stands in the way of lab meat becoming mainstream is reducing cost a bit more, winning over skeptical consumers, and gaining regulatory approval. Admittedly, all are real hurdles, but few in the industry believe any are insurmountable.

5. The fierce resurgence of environmentalism

The history of environmentalism has been marked by long stretches of professional dialogue and elite-centric policy focus punctuated by waves of high-visibility public activism. Environmentalism’s most famous and consequential episode of public activism occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during a period that also featured the antiwar and (in the United States) civil-rights movements. Now, in the twenty-first century, there is good reason to expect the resurrection of a mass global environmental movement. Growing popular worry about climate change and its ever more obvious impacts, combined with the slow pace and limited ambition of governmental responses, provide the backdrop for rising fear and frustration. In this climate, the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg sparked a global youth protest wave through her simple acts of individual demonstration. Other signs of the coming global movement have darker overtones. Extinction Rebellion, a global climate-action network based in the United Kingdom, sees itself as fighting a last-ditch battle for all of humankind. Such phenomena increasingly reflect the Zeitgeist of our times. Findings from a 2021 survey of 10,000 youth across ten countries found that the clear majority (nearly 60 percent) said they were “extremely” or “very” worried about climate change. Lest the jaded reader think that the worriers are spoiled rich kids living in rich places, consider that the countries with the highest percentages of young people expressing such concerns were the Philippines (84 percent), India (68 percent), and Brazil (67 percent). The 2020s are ripe for an uprising.

6. The specter of hunger-driven conflict

In 2020, after many years of decline or at least stasis in their ranks, the number of hungry people in the world spiked by an estimated 118 million to 161 million. The culprit? The global economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the pandemic by itself is unlikely to have a permanent impact on global hunger, this episode points toward chronic vulnerability, especially for the world’s poor, regarding the most fundamental of all goods: food. In the decades to come, that vulnerability could get much worse because of a likely squeeze on global food availability. Climate change is set to reduce crop yields even as growing wealth and population increase global demand for food. For the world’s poorest people living in the most climatologically fragile countries, these intersecting trends could produce a nightmare of hunger, desperation, and conflict that could spill over borders and threaten entire regions. The encouraging news is that there are real countermeasures—including public and private investments, on-site planting and harvesting methods, and innovative approaches to soil and forest management—that can make local food systems more just, productive, climate-resilient, and ecologically sound. None of these solutions will be easy to implement. But the first step in addressing a snow leopard is recognizing that it exists.

Peter Engelke is the deputy director and senior fellow for foresight at the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.