Briefing material for the world’s economic elite gathering this week in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum identified weather disrupted by climate change as a threat to global prosperity on the scale of thermo-nuclear immolation—but a whole lot more likely.
As previous editions have done, the Forum’s 13th annual Global Risks Report ranked threats to global stability and the world economy on graphic axes of likelihood and potential impact, centred on averages for both.
Ranked lowest for both impact and likelihood was “unimaginable inflation,” with “deflation” somewhat less likely but equally inconsequential. Governance and infrastructure failures of various kinds—including a “critical information infrastructure [read: Internet] breakdown”—round out lower-level threats with below-average impacts and likelihood.
“Weapons of mass destruction” capture the highest ranking for impact—but “extreme weather events” are rated at almost the same level of dire destructiveness. The difference: extreme weather is given as a virtual certainty, its “likelihood” right at the limit of the presentation’s probability axis.
Almost as likely and nearly as grave are the threats from other natural disasters. The Forum’s researchers rank “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” as the threat with the fourth-greatest impact. It placed well below nuclear incineration, but apart from other climate threats only “cyber attacks” and “data fraud” are considered more likely to occur.
Strikingly, most other threats rated as more likely and damaging than average also arise from or are associated with degraded natural security: “biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse”, “man-made environmental disasters,” “water crises,” and “large-scale involuntary migration.”
Indeed, the report’s commentary observes that “all five risks in the environmental category [are] ranked higher than average for both likelihood and impact over a 10-year horizon.”
It’s not the first time the Forum has drawn attendees’ attention to the threats posed by eroding natural security. Its 2016 threat assessment cast a failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts as risking impacts even more devastating than nuclear war.
The Forum’s researchers urge their wealthy and powerful sponsors to act.
“A global economic recovery is under way, offering new opportunities for progress that should not be squandered,” they write. In the year since their previous report, “the urgency of facing up to systemic challenges has, if anything, intensified amid proliferating indications of uncertainty, instability, and fragility.”
Humanity, they observe, “has become remarkably adept at understanding how to mitigate conventional risks. But we are much less competent when it comes to dealing with complex risks in the interconnected systems that underpin our world, such as organizations, economies, societies, and the environment.”
Yet “there are signs of strain in many of these systems,” and “when risk cascades through a complex system, the danger is not of incremental damage but of ‘runaway collapse’ or an abrupt transition to a new, suboptimal status quo.”