We’re “Sleepwalking into Catastrophe” Over Climate Inaction

Damage to New Jersey's barrier beaches from Hurricane Sandy (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert)

Climate-related risks dominated as the top global risks in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2019—for a third year in a row. The threat has become so severe that the authors of the report were compelled to state: “of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe.” These sobering words should be a clarion call for global action on climate change. 

Unfortunately, the likelihood of global climate inaction is precisely why the report warns of dire consequences. The question is not “if” climate impacts will occur, but “how” severe will such impacts be? The report makes clear the answer is dependent on us. Collectively, we must act innovatively and collaboratively—recognizing there will be burden-sharing issues—before climate impacts become worse than they are already.

Environmental Risks are the Most Likely and Impactful

The Global Risks Report 2019 ranked extreme weather events and failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation as the most likely and impactful risks facing humanity in the next 10 years.

Source: The Global Risks Report 2019, World Economic Forum

According to the Global Risks Report 2019, extreme weather events and the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation are the most interconnected risks. The risks are ranked as the most interconnected because the latter has a direct bearing on the former, climate inaction makes extreme weather events more likely to occur and at greater magnitude.  Extreme weather events can also be risk multipliers for many countries, particularly ones beset by poverty and instability, by causing water crises, food shortages, and large-scale migrations of refugees that inflame regional tensions.  In 2017, 59 percent of the 30.6 million newly displaced people were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related disasters. Floods, alone, displaced 8.6 million people.

WEF’s Global Risks Report is the latest to draw attention to the mounting challenges associated with climate change.  In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that the window is closing to drastically reduce carbon emissions and avoid average global temperatures from rising beyond the Paris Agreement’s target of 1.5°C.  Per the IPCC, a 2°C increase in average global temperature will cause sea levels to rise between 0.3 meters and 0.93 meters by 2100. Additionally, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in December 2018, found extreme weather events, such as catastrophic hurricanes, major floods, and prolonged high temperatures and droughts, likely will become more frequent and intense due to climate change, causing substantial losses to infrastructure and property, and impeding economic growth. Further, a just released Government Accountability Report found climate change impacts, like more extreme weather events, will drive global migration as people are forced from their homes, potentially causing humanitarian and national security concerns. 

Sea level rise is a major focus of the report 

Sea level rise will be a driving force of such displacement, as more and more land becomes uninhabitable due to salt-water intrusion of underground aquifers, greater storm surge reach, and permanent inundation. As such, the risk of continued sea level rise features prominently in the Global Risks Report 2019. The report highlights that 800 million people live in more than 570 coastal cities that are vulnerable to sea level rise of 0.5 meters by 2050. This figure is well within the range of projected sea level rise impacts from global warming of 2°C. 

The report stresses that multiple forms of infrastructure, such as roads, wastewater facilities, and communication systems, and economic activity, like tourism and agriculture, are at severe risk from rising sea levels. However, per the report, many coastal cities are lagging in their preparation for higher seas, despite the need for action becoming increasingly urgent. Cities will have to consider a combination of hard engineering, nature-based defenses, and helping people and property move to safer ground. For many areas, “the idea of ‘managed retreat’ is likely to become an increasingly familiar feature of coastal adaptation plans. 

Action is needed before it’s too late

The strong interconnection between the two top risks of extreme weather events and the failure of climate mitigation and adaption is clear, inaction is not an option. Reduction of carbon emissions and adaptation to climate impacts that are already locked in are required. Innovative financing mechanisms, and private-public collaboration will be necessary. However, the longer world, in particular the current U.S. President, is asleep at the wheel, the more concrete the risks will become.  


About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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