Editorial | Published:

The global risk landscape

Nature Climate Change volume 5, page 175 (2015) | Download Citation

Initiatives aimed at preserving or enhancing the state of the environment are created in a broad political landscape influenced by, among other things, perceived risks. We take a brief look at this risk landscape in the run up to Paris 2015.

The proverb 'may you live in interesting times' certainly applies to the twenty-first century so far. The choices ahead, and perhaps particularly some that will take place in the next year, could determine the extent to which the proverb does — as traditionally applied — foretell of a cursed situation. In the next year, the development of the climate agreement hoped for in Paris and new sustainable development objectives have the potential to make real progress in tackling climate change and poverty, respectively. However, the relative priority given to these processes will inevitably be influenced by other events that are unfolding on the world stage.

Davos, the annual conference of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is a meeting involving business leaders, politicians and diplomats with the self-stated aim of improving the state of the world through public–private cooperation. Critics argue that it is really just a talking shop for the privileged elite. But however you feel about the power relations as they stand, it is difficult to imagine that bringing together so many influencers does not lend the event some, well, influence. One of the interesting outputs from the WEF that informs the attendees of the Davos conference and has gained wider influence is the Global Risks report, which is now on its tenth annual volume (http://www.weforum.org/risks). The report attempts to highlight the most significant long-term (next ten years) risks faced by society worldwide. It is based on a survey of the WEF's stakeholder community, which includes 'leading' decision-makers from business, academia and the public sector — in its latest incarnation this included 896 respondents. In this respect, the report can be viewed as a snapshot (the 2015 survey period included July–September 2014) of the aggregate concerns of key influencers, as well as a report about actual risks in the world. Of course, we hope that these two things are not entirely independent but the report is interesting from both perspectives.

Image: AMANA IMAGES INC. / ALAMY

Risk is reported as a measure of impact and likelihood, with those factors that are deemed to pose a high impact and to be likely to occur representing the greatest risk. Five categories of risk are reported: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological. Environmental risks — for example, extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse — therefore have to jostle for position with economic and security risks. So where do environmental risks sit within the minds of these influential people? For the cynical among us we would expect them to be low, concerning perhaps but trumped by risks that are perceived to be more immediate and/or convenient. The actual picture is complex, but environmental risks have moved up the hierarchy in recent years so that in the 2015 report extreme weather events are deemed one of the most likely risks to society, although their impact is judged to be relatively low. The top risks in terms of their combined likelihood/impact scores are interstate conflict, failure of climate change adaptation, water crisis and unemployment or underemployment. By this measure, two of the top risks worrying survey respondents are closely related to environmental change. Last year climate change was up in this 'top list' but in 2015 it has been reclassified as a trend, rather than a risk in and of itself. A trend is defined in the report as “a long-term pattern that is currently taking place and that could contribute to amplifying global risks and/or altering the relationship between them”. Looking back over the history of this report it is possible to chart the top concerns back to 2007. As you might expect with the timing of the financial crisis, economic risks featured most highly from 2007 but environmental factors started to take a growing share of the top risk list from 2011 onwards. The most notable change in 2015 is the re-emergence of interstate conflict as the top risk.

The WEF report shows that the influencers surveyed have growing concerns about environmental risks, with those closely related to climate change high in the overall risk hierarchy. There is also an acknowledgement that little progress has been made to date. Unfortunately two of the trends identified, increasing national sentiment and weakening of international governance do not bode well for an international climate agreement, and the apparent re-emergence of interstate conflict seems to bear out these concerns. The risk landscape therefore provides a mixed outlook for Paris 2015, and it seems that success will depend on a high level of international trust and cooperation at a time when they are in dwindling supply.

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