Climate Change

Climate change is the most impactful risk in 2016: World Economic Forum

Climate change will also aggravate water and agriculture crises, conflicts and forced migration

By Karnika Bahuguna
Published: Friday 15 January 2016

Some 2.7 billion people or 40 per cent of the world’s population suffers water shortages for at least a month each year. (Tim J Keegan/Flickr)

Failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change has emerged as the top most potentially impactful and the third most likely risk in the current year, according to the Global Risks Report 2016 released by the World Economic Forum. Climate change has been among the top five most impactful risks in the last three years and has risen to the top in 2016.

A global risk is an uncertain event or condition that can cause significant negative impact for several countries or industries within the next 10 years. This year, 29 global risks were identified and grouped into the five categories—economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological.

The risk assessment is based on the Global Risks Perception Survey, in which around 750 experts and decision-makers from the World Economic Forum’s multi-stakeholder communities participated.

"Weapons of mass destruction" was ranked second in the list of global impactful risks followed by water crisis. Large-scale involuntary migration was also among the top five impacts, as was severe energy price shock, including either sharp increase or decrease.

Certain economic risks, considered serious because of their impact and likelihood combined, include fiscal crises in key economies and high structural unemployment and underemployment. These are complemented by cyber attacks and profound social instability, the report states.

Respondents were also asked which risks were related to each other and could have a cascading effect. The potential of climate change to aggravate water crisis, with impacts including conflicts and more forced migration, emerged as one of the risks.

Climate change and water risks are intricately linked to food security concerns. About 70 per cent of the world’s current freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture, rising to over 90 per cent in most of the world’s least-developed countries, the report said.

Challenges around water management are already immense; over a billion people lack access to improved water. Some 2.7 billion people or 40 per cent of the world’s population suffers water shortages for at least a month each year. Based on current trends, the global demand for water will exceed sustainable supply by 40 per cent in 2030. Adding to the pressure, agricultural production will have to increase in the coming decades to feed a growing population and a rising demand for meat.

Measures such as improved water governance, addressing the global refugee crisis and policies that can build resilience, were recommended by the respondents. Tensions are likely to grow within countries, especially between rural and urban areas and between poorer and richer areas, the report warns. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges, it added.

Region-based risks

The world today is estimated to be about 1°C warmer, on average, than it was in the 1950s, and the effects are being felt. Regional analysis in the Global Risks Perception Survey shows that declining water availability is most likely to occur in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, and the likelihood of extreme weather events is considered especially high in North America, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific. 

A total warming of 2°C implies a high risk of catastrophic climate change that could damage human well-being on a global scale, the report added.

Particular risks could emanate from China, where continued credit-based measures to address concerns about a slowing economy could further heighten vulnerability to a financial crisis, it said.

Following are the environmental and societal risks identified by the Global Risks Report 2016:

Environmental Risks

  • Extreme weather events such as floods, storms
  • Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation
  • Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse of land or ocean
  • Major natural catastrophes like earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, geomagnetic storms
  • Man-made environmental catastrophes such as oil spill and radioactive contamination

Societal Risks

  • Failure of urban planning
  • Food crises
  • Large-scale involuntary migration
  • Profound social instability
  • Rapid and massive spread of infectious diseases
  • Water crisis

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