The World Economic Forum isn’t normally given to hyperbole, so it’s troubling to see its latest report.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) isn’t normally given to hyperbole, so it’s troubling to see “Global Risks: Out of Control” as the Chapter One heading of the just-released annual assessment. The 2019 report debuts as world leaders head for Davos, Switzerland, and the WEF meeting kicking off this week with its “Globalization 4.0” theme.
“Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis? Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Instead, divisions are hardening,” the report’s first words on geopolitics, global economy and other considerations warn. As the topic quickly turns to climate change, the report is unequivocal, warning that “of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in October 2018 warns of uncontrolled warming. The Living Planet Index details a stunning loss of biodiversity and its impacts. The rise in extreme weather events, the political instability, the food insecurity all present sobering challenges. “Over a ten-year horizon, extreme weather and climate-change policy failures are seen as the gravest threats,” the WEF said, citing the responses of nearly 1,000 global decision-makers in the Global Risks Perception Survey that shapes the report.
While the Global Risks assessment devotes an entire chapter to sea level rise – and much of another to food insecurity – it’s the “Future Shocks” scenario that offers a look into what leaders are thinking about emerging challenges. There’s a lot of emphasis on technology and privacy, or the loss thereof in the latter case, but “weather wars” is high on the list. With the increasing capacity to manipulate weather, or deploy tools in the evolving field of geoengineering, comes the risk of conflict.
“Aside from the potential environmental consequences, at a time of increasing geopolitical tensions even well-intentioned weather manipulation might be viewed as hostile,” the WEF report says. “Perceptions would be paramount: A neighboring state might see large scale cloud-seeding as theft of rain or the reason for a drought. Cloud-seeding planes might be viewed as dual-use tools for espionage.”
If countries currently developing their geoengineering capacities, such as the United States, make unilateral decisions to deploy them? That might well trigger hostilities when there are global-scale climate impacts but the benefits accrue to just a few. It’s one reason that scientists across the Global South are insisting they have a seat at the table.
“Who has the right to implement an inherently global technology?” asked scientists from Bangladesh, Brazil or Ethiopia, a dozen in all, in the journal Nature last year. “These issues matter deeply to developing nations. But most solar-geoengineering research is being done in the well-heeled universities of Europe and North America. Unless that changes, voices from the global north will set the policy agenda and decide which research projects should be accelerated or shut down.”
The Global Risks 2019 report urges that stakeholders embrace transparency and guard their ability to communicate and therefore limit ambiguities that threaten stability. “So too would active discussion and collaboration on environmental vulnerabilities,” they add, “both bilaterally between bordering states and on wider regional and global multilateral platforms.”