Climate Change

Our Frightened, Fragmented World in One Davos Map

If we can't solve climate change, other risks become irrelevant.

Worried? You should be.


There's plenty to be anxious about in the world at the moment, from terrorism to the ever-present threat of a pandemic. What's disturbing though, is how splintered the world's worries are on a regional basis, according to the 11th edition of the annual Global Risks report produced by the World Economic Forum. And the threat that's deemed most troubling is one that you would hope world leaders are on the way to eliminating.

The WEF says it surveyed almost 750 "experts and decision-makers," drawn from "business, academia, civil society and the public sector" to rank 29 global risks. Respondents were asked for their 10-year views on the likelihood and impact of threats divided into five categories: Societal, technological, economic, environmental and geopolitical. Look how geographically dispersed the world's worries seem to be (the different colors tell you where fears coincide and diverge):

Source: WEF

The map arguably reflects the truism that all politics is local. For Americans, high-profile hacking in recent years against companies including Target, Home Depot and the extramarital affairs website Ashley Madison put cyber attacks at the top of the anxiety menu of most likely perils; in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, enduring kleptocracy and corruption make "failure of national governance" the most credible threat. Europe, wrangling with a refugee crisis, sees large-scale involuntary migration as the likeliest menace, while natural catastrophes dominate in the east Asia/Pacific region where El Nino is killing Japan's ski resorts with warm weather and stifling palm oil output in Indonesia with droughts.

Rather than looking ahead to the next decade, each of those concerns seems to reflect what has dominated the news headlines recently. Maybe the kinds of leaders the WEF surveys are even more guilty of short-termism than the rest of us. And maybe trying to predict the future is something of a pointless exercise anyway: Who in 2006 could have foreseen Islamic State sponsoring terrorism on a global scale, or the arrival of a million refugees threatening to break up the European Union, or a slowdown in China having the potential to tip the world back into recession?

The most worrying survey outcome, though -- and the exception to the overall sense of short-termism -- is what the WEF says it found when it aggregated the survey results:

The failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation has risen to the top and is perceived in 2016 as the most impactful risk for the years to come. The risk rated most likely was large-scale involuntary migration, with last year's top scorer -- interstate conflict with regional consequences -- giving way to the environmental risks of extreme weather events and the failure of climate change mitigation.

The Global Push to Save the Planet

The emphasis on refugees is understandable given how the aftershocks from the crisis in Syria have dominated the political agenda for months. But the prevalence of climate-change concern is both encouraging and puzzling. It's good news if the great and good that gather each year at the WEF's Davos shindig recognize that climate change needs addressing.

But it does suggest a lack of faith in the agreement reached among 195 countries at talks convened by the United Nations in Paris just over a month ago on slashing fossil-fuel emissions. And if that accord -- covering everything from capping global temperature increases to implementing carbon-credit markets to funding pollution reduction for developing nations -- can't reverse the trend that's driving temperatures near levels that the U.N. says threaten catastrophic results, then all of those other risks become kind of irrelevant.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.