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Climate Fears Outrank Pandemic, Incomes in Global Survey

This story includes details on the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.

Climate action failure ranks as the number one long-term threat to the world, followed by extreme weather, biodiversity loss, natural resource crises, and human environmental damage, according to a report that tracks risk perceptions among a thousand experts and world leaders in business, government, and civil society. 

Environmental risks led the pack in this year’s edition of the Global Risk Report published annually by the World Economic Forum (WEF), surpassing even risks like livelihood crises, the erosion of social cohesion, and an uneven pandemic recovery. 

The result shows a stark departure from last year’s survey, which ranked weapons of mass destruction and state collapse as top 10-year horizon threats, with biodiversity loss running third, natural resource crises coming fifth, and climate action failure a distant ninth. 

Another key shift that shows how rapidly the global concern over environmental risks is rising: just last year, climate action failure did not even make it into the top 10 as a “clear and present danger” or a threat expected to strike within two years. Now, it’s vaulted up to third position on the danger list, with extreme weather at the very top, and livelihood crises a close second. When it comes to medium-term risks, or those that will pose a critical threat in two to five years, climate action failure and extreme weather are at the very top.

In a section titled “The Planet Cannot Wait,” authors write that while concerns about environmental degradation predate the pandemic, deepening fears about climate action failure reveal respondents’ lack of faith in the world’s ability to contain climate change. Most respondents believe too little is being done: 77% of them said international efforts to mitigate climate change have “not started” or are in “early development,” the report states.

This perception was recorded before world leaders gathered at last year’s COP 26 climate summit in a bid to speed up their commitments to climate action. While the risk report’s authors acknowledge several steps forward at the COP—like pledges to cut methane and phase down coal—they point out that countries are still short of the 2015 Paris goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Instead, the WEF report predicts a “disorderly climate transition” as the world struggles to achieve net-zero by 2050, with tensions escalating as economies make the carbon shift with greater and lesser degrees of control (depending on when they started the process). “Adopting hasty environmental policies will also have unintended consequences for nature—there are still many unknown risks from deploying untested biotechnical and geoengineering technologies—while lack of public support for land use transitions or new pricing schemes will create political complications that further slow action,” they warn.

A separate executive opinion survey of 12,000 country-level leaders to identify short-term risks facing their own jurisdictions showed “divergent senses of urgency” on climate action among the 124 countries represented. The United States ranked climate action failure as the second-most concerning risk over the short-term, while China ranked it 23rd.

Many G20 countries, including Canada, likewise placed climate action failure second on their list of short-term concerns. Many EU countries ranked it first, as did Qatar.

The only small island states included in the executive survey, Mauritius and Trinidad & Tobago, both identified prolonged economic stagnation as their top short-term concern. (Mauritius’ tourism industry was hammered by the pandemic, while Trinidad & Tobago’s economy depends heavily on fossil fuels and tourism.) Climate action failure fell short of the top-five list of short-term risks for these countries.

The 17th Global Risk Report includes an entire chapter on the escalating migration crisis. It identifies climate change as “a key driver” of migration and “increased national interest postures in many countries” as a major obstacle preventing those in flight from finding safe havens. Future risks in this chapter include the rise of xenophobic political parties in border or sanctuary towns, and the sudden tipping points due to stalled climate action, leading to worsening drought, famine, and flooding.