Climate crisis: Top five global risks all linked to environment, says World Economic Forum

Extreme weather events, major biodiversity loss and a failure to halt global warming are biggest threats identified by hundreds of experts

Ben Chapman
Wednesday 15 January 2020 19:59
Greta Thunberg accuses countries of misleading people with seemingly 'impressive' climate pledges

All of the top five risks facing the world are now linked to the climate crisis, according to the World Economic Forum.

Extreme weather events, major biodiversity loss and a failure to halt global warming are the biggest threats concerning hundreds of key decision makers, a poll by the WEF found.

It is the first time in 15 years of carrying out the research that climate change has dominated the list of risks, underlining how the environment has shot up the agenda for the world’s elite in a year of record-breaking temperatures and unprecedented wildfires, alongside high-profile activism from the likes of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion.

Tackling the crisis will be made even more difficult by an increasingly polarised and fragmented political landscape, which could hinder the kind of collaboration required, the WEF’s report warned.

“The political landscape is polarised, sea levels are rising and climate fires are burning,” said Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum.

“This is the year when world leaders must work with all sectors of society to repair and reinvigorate our systems of cooperation, not just for short-term benefit but for tackling our deep-rooted risks.”

The research found a generational divide, with younger respondents even more alarmed by the state of the planet.

Almost nine in 10 of those born since 1980 believe extreme heat waves, destruction of ecosystems and health impacted by pollution will be aggravated this year, compared to seven in 10 of those born before 1980.

The research is published as global business leaders, financiers and politicians prepare to attend next week’s WEF summit in Davos, Switzerland. This year’s event has been billed this year as a “carbon-neutral” event thanks to a range of schemes to offset emissions.

Top five global risks

  1. Extreme weather events with major damage to property, infrastructure and loss of human life
  2. Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation by governments and businesses
  3. Human-made environmental damage and disasters, including environmental crime, such as oil spills, and radioactive contamination
  4. Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse (terrestrial or marine) with irreversible consequences for the environment, resulting in severely depleted resources for humankind as well as industries
  5. Major natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and geomagnetic storms

Previous Davos summits have been portrayed by some critics as an elitist talking shop that achieves little while generating an excessive carbon footprint as hundreds of attendees fly into the Alpine resort on private jets.

Silvia Dall'Angelo, senior economist at Hermes Investment Management said it was “refreshing” to see the Davos community highlight environmental risks as more important than economic and geopolitical concerns.

However, she cautioned that all three strands were closely intertwined and could not be dealt with separately.

“Rising global temperatures, which are on track to increase by at least 3 C by the end of the century, twice the level deemed safe by climate experts, imply loss of life, heightened social and geopolitical tensions and a negative economic impact.”

Environmental campaigners expressed scepticism that Davos’ clientele were taking the action required to halt climate change.

“It’s not enough to identify how grave the climate emergency is,” said Paul Morozzo, climate finance campaigner at Greenpeace.

“The banks and financial institutions jetting into Davos next week have made trillions pumping money into climate crashing fuels like oil, gas and coal.

“It’s time to stop funding the crisis and start backing the solutions. That means immediately ending support for fossil fuels we cannot afford to burn.

John Drzik, chairman of Marsh & McLennan Insights, which helped compile the research, said companies must do more to prevent climate change.

“There is mounting pressure on companies from investors, regulators, customers, and employees to demonstrate their resilience to rising climate volatility," he said.

“High profile events, like recent wildfires in Australia and California, are adding pressure on companies to take action on climate risk at a time when they also face greater geopolitical and cyber risk challenges.”

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