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WEF Global Threats report reveals complex web of climate risks

Published on 8 February 2019

Written by Katherine Kramer

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risks Report 2019 identifies changing climate as greatest threat facing our world.

In his 1624 Devotion, John Donne famously noted our mutual dependence by writing that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’. In the 1970s, with a more ecological bent, James Lovelock proposed his Gaia Hypothesis that the fundamental interconnectivity of the biosphere and earth systems create self-perpetuating conditions for continued life on earth.

An influential 1987 report, Our Common Future, brought together these concepts of human and natural interconnectivity and added a third, economic, dimension. Crucially, it defined sustainable development as that which ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Yet the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report underscores how far we have deviated from developing in a way that understands this complex, intricate balance. Instead, we have delivered a world of interconnected risks.

The report, which draws on an annual global risks perceptions survey completed by around 1,000 WEF experts, identifies what people perceive to be the greatest threats facing the earth. For each risk, it looks at what its impact would be and how likely it is.


Notably from WEF’s analysis, risks related to climate change cluster at the high end of both impact and probability. ‘Extreme weather events’ are seen as practically inevitable and are closely related to the similarly high probability/high risk ‘failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation’.

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are not far behind in the danger stakes: climate change is an important factor in this too. Social impacts such as ‘water scarcity’ and ‘large scale involuntary migration’ – which both have clear links to climate change – also fall into a ‘scary and likely’ category.

WEF’s stakeholders are clearly not optimistic, in the light of global governance and economic trends, that enough is being done to address these complex, interrelated challenges.

However, these are exactly the challenges that the world must face if we are to avoid, as the report puts it, ‘sleepwalking into a crisis’.

Siloed thinking a barrier to effective solutions

A big problem is that few analyses on climate change, much less policy or economic decisions, adopt the holistic, interconnected approach of the WEF report. Issues still tend to be addressed in silos while power is invested in the pound, not the people. This is a major barrier to achieving sustainability.

Things are starting to shift, at least in more technical circles. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on limiting global warming to 1.5ºC showed where taking action on the climate action could help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has published a number of papers relating to climate change, including on ecosystem-based approaches to climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

A political opportunity

The challenge for politicos is to catch up with this holistic thinking in their policy development, nationally and internationally.

They will have a real opportunity to do so in the next two years, when many countries will be enhancing the emissions reductions in the pledges they made under the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016.

With some of the SDG targets expiring in 2020, the CBD will need to set new goals for biodiversity. Done well, these policy frameworks could more explicitly make the linkages and show the interdependencies between them.

Some positive examples

Some countries indicated in their Paris pledges that they were indeed making the links between the climate and other factors already. Colombia is a notable example. Its Paris pledge states:

‘… the country will focus its efforts to 2030 jointly with other global targets that contribute to increasing resilience, such as those of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the 2030 Development Agenda, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), as well as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030’

- Colombia Paris pledge.

Mexico similarly plans to ‘guarantee food security and water access in light of growing climate threats through integral watershed management, biodiversity and land conservation’.

If we are to avert high impact/high likelihood risks, such as those posed by climate change – and indeed even those that carry a lesser threat – we need to think holistically. We need to understand interconnectivity, to find and act upon co-benefits, and to foresee unintended consequences.

If not, Donne’s apocalyptic vision, from his 1611 Anatomy of the World, could prove prophetic:

The sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.

And freely men confess that this world’s spent…
’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.

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