“Burning all fossil fuels would create a very different planet than the one that humanity knows. The palaeoclimate record and ongoing climate change make it clear that the climate system would be pushed beyond tipping points, setting in motion irreversible changes, including ice sheet disintegration with a continually adjusting shoreline, extermination of a substantial fraction of species on the planet, and increasingly devastating regional climate extremes” and “this equates 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year”.James Hansen et al. 2012andJames Hansen 2012.
Climate action failure, extreme weather events, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse were considered the top three of the top 10 global risks by severity over the next 10 years in the annual Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS).
Societal risks make up a third of the global top 10, with societal cohesion erosion and livelihood crises completing the top five, while infectious diseases come lower down at number six.
Climate action failure is also considered the most critical threat to the world in both the medium term (2-5 years) and long term (5-10 years), with the highest potential to severely damage societies, economies and the planet.
Most respondents to the survey believe too little is being done: 77% said international efforts to mitigate climate change have “not started” or are in “early development”.
Our day-to-day experiences over the past decade have taught us that there must be limits to our tremendous appetite for energy, natural resources, and consumer goods. Even utility and oil companies now promote conservation in the face of demands for dwindling energy reserves. And for years some biologists have warned us of the direct correlation between scarcity and population growth. These scientists see an appalling future riding the tidal wave of a worldwide growth of population and technology.
A calm but unflinching realist, Catton suggests that we cannot stop this wave – for we have already overshot the Earth’s capacity to support so huge a load. He contradicts those scientists, engineers, and technocrats who continue to write optimistically about energy alternatives. Catton asserts that the technological panaceas proposed by those who would harvest from the seas, harness the winds, and farm the deserts are ignoring the fundamental premise that “the principals of ecology apply to all living things.” These principles tell us that, within a finite system, economic expansion is not irreversible and population growth cannot continue indefinitely. If we disregard these facts, our sagging American Dream will soon shatter completely.
In fact, the experts and leaders were not altogether hopeful about the outlook for the world, with less than 16% of respondents to the GRPS ‘optimistic’ or ‘positive’, with the vast majority (84.2%) ‘concerned’ or ‘worried’.
By 2024, the report says, developing economies (except China) will have fallen 5.5% below their pre-pandemic expected GDP growth, while advanced economies will have surpassed it by 0.9%.
Such global divergence will impact on the world’s ability to tackle common challenges including climate change, enhancing digital safety, restoring livelihoods and societal cohesion, and managing competition in space.
“Widening disparities within and between countries will not only make it more difficult to control COVID-19 and its variants, but will also risk stalling, if not reversing, joint action against shared threats that the world cannot afford to overlook,” says Saadia Zahidi, the Forum’s Managing Director.
The risk horizon changes over the coming years, as the full implications of the pandemic become clearer.
In the next two years, risk experts and leaders see the erosion of social cohesion, the deterioration of mental health, infectious diseases and livelihood crises as being equal to environmental threats – which are constant across the short to long term.
In the next five years, economic risks of debt crises and geoeconomic confrontations emerge as governments struggle to balance fiscal priorities. While the long-term top five is dominated by environmental risks.
But amid all the bleak predictions, there’s still reason to hope for more positive outcomes, with the Global Risks Report 2022 including lessons in resilience from the COVID-19 pandemic, advice for cooperation in space, greater cyber resilience and a more sequenced climate transition.
“The least disruptive climate transition measures will be those that holistically integrate the needs of individuals, societies, businesses and planet.”