Four of the five most impactful global risks in 2019 relate to climate change, with extreme weather the most pressing risk facing the planet, according to annual survey of risk experts
Experts have today offered a brutal assessment of the world's lack of progress in dealing with environmental risks such as climate change, raising concerns that rising geopolitical tensions will make tackling escalating environmental threats even more challenging.
For the third year in a row environmental risks dominate the Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), with extreme weather once again named as the most pressing threat facing the global economy in 2019.
The annual survey, which was published ahead of next week's WEF Davos Summit, sees nearly 1,000 risk management experts rank the 30 biggest threats to the global economy in 2019.
Extreme weather events topped the list of most likely threats, followed by the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, which rose three places on last year. The threat of natural disasters was listed in third place.
Meanwhile, the ranking of the most impactful threats facing the world in 2019 was topped by the rise of populist leaders such as President Trump in the US and President Bolsonaro in Brazil, as well as the resurgence of Russian aggression under President Putin in Russia.
However, environmental issues also dominated the top five in the ranking of highest impact risks. Experts ranked the potential failure of the world to curb greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change as the second-biggest threat in terms of impact, a rise of two places from last year.
It was followed by the threat of extreme weather events, water shortages, and the heightened risk of natural disasters. Just outside the top five was the risk of bio-diversity loss and eco-system collapse, which came in at number six.
"2018 was sadly a year of historic wildfires, continued heavy flooding and increasing greenhouse gas emissions," said Alison Martin, group chief risk officer at Zurich Insurance Group. "It is no surprise that in 2019, environmental risks once again dominate the list of major concerns."
The report follows a year in which the urgency needed to tackle climate change became increasingly clear. In September the world's top climate scientists released a landmark report warning the world has just 12 years left to bring global greenhouse gas emissions under control, or risk facing the catastrophic consequences of runaway climate change.
But instead of leaning in to the threat, the political trends suggest a fracturing of international co-operation, hampering the world's capacity to address growing environmental threats. According to today's report, 85 per cent of respondents said they expect 2019 to herald more "political confrontations" between global leaders.
This fear is reflected in the growing concern over the risk of environmental policy failure, which rose up both rankings this year as the sense of optimism generated by the creation and ratification of the Paris Agreement faded, and new populist leaders came to power in major economies such as Brazil.
"Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?" the report asks. "Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Instead, divisions are hardening."
The findings led Børge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum, to issue a plea for world leaders to "renew the architecture of international cooperation" in the face of such "grave threats".
This year's report continues a trend that has seen environmental risks dominate risk managers thinking in recent years; the 2018 and 2017 editions of the report ranked environmental risks as the most pressing issue facing the world, while araft of high profile investors and corporates have stepped up warnings about the scale of the environmental risks they now face.
This year, all five of the environmental risks tracked by the survey appear as high-risk, high-impact threats - concern which is backed up data. Eighteen of the last 19 years are now the warmest years on record, and the rising temperatures are already taking a heavy toll on the global economy. 2018 registered $160bn worth of damages caused by extreme weather alone, according to data released last week by Munich Re.
Once again, the WEF warned tackling any single risk on its own is almost impossible, as the global economy grows increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependant. Consequently, sudden and dramatic breakdowns - future shocks - are deemed more likely, and the report sets out a selection of 'what if' scenarios exploring the cascade effect a breakdown in one area of the environmental and economic system could have on the wider economy.
For example, the report warns changing weather patterns could herald a new era of "weather wars", where nations battle it out with geo-engineering technology for control over an ever more volatile rainfall pattern. "Aside from the potential environmental consequences, at a time of increasing geopolitical tensions even well-intentioned weather manipulation might be viewed as hostile," it warns. "Perceptions would be paramount: a neighbouring state might see large-scale cloud-seeding as theft of rain or the reason for a drought."
But there are actions nations, states, citiesm and businesses can and should take to prepare themselves for future threats. A special chapter in the paper dedicated to the threat of rising sea levels highlights the huge savings countries and cities can make if they ensure infrastructure is developed to cope with rising water levels.
For a start, people and businesses should not settle on flood plains, the report stresses, and pre-emptive spending to minimize flood risk should be rapidly ramped up.
"Failure to prepare for sea-level rise will create cross-border spillovers, and some of the cities most at risk are in countries that may struggle to find the resources to adapt," the report warns. "Innovative and collaborative approaches may be needed to ensure that action is taken globally before it is too late."
The WEF report also comes in the same week as a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications reinforced the IPCC's conclusion that it was still possible to avert dangerous levels of climate change if immediate action is taken to phase out fossil fuel use.
The study calculated that if all fossil fuel infrastructure, including power plants, industrial facilities, vehicles, ships, and planes, are replaced with zero-carbon alternatives at the end of their useful lives it would drastically increase the chances of keeping temperature increases below 1.5C - the goal agreed in the Paris Agreement - to 64 per cent.
Christopher Smith of the University of Leeds, who led the research, told the Guardian it was "good news from a geophysical point of view". "But on the other side of the coin, the [immediate fossil fuel phaseout] is really at the limit of what we could we possibly do," he added. "We are basically saying we can't build anything now that emits fossil fuels."
This year's Davos summit is themed around the idea of 'Globalisation 4.0', defined by the WEF as the need to marry a new social compact with new technologies and ecological constraints. With the likes of Sir David Attenborough and HRH Prince William, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and former US Vice President Al Gore on the bill, the need for urgent action to curb climate change and switch to clean technologies looks set to yet again dominate the debate. Today's risk report, and the latest evidence averting the worst climate impacts is just about possible, will only add to the sense the global corporate and political elite needs to up its game - and fast.
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