Environmental risks assessment
The agenda of the Global Risks Report
By Marie Courtais, 2018-05-25

At a time when climate change-induced environmental bads affect more and more people around the globe, the Global Risks Report 2018, recently edited by the World Economic Forum, makes a great emphasis on environmental risks and new geopolitical disturbance. As part of the Environmental Justice Research community, this document provides worthwhile insights.

The Global Risk Report (GRR) started to be published in 2009 and is released at each start of a new year. At the occasion, the World Economic Forum organizes a meeting in the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland. The four-day-long Annual Meeting gathers 2,500 world business, governments leaders and journalists that will be up to discuss the most current pressing issues faced by the world. Based on the results of the Global Risk Perceptions Survey (GRPS) driven at the occasion, the GRR analyses and interprets the survey completed by a panel of around 1,000 participants that should be composed by members or related leaders from the World Economic Forum.

The 13th edition of the report was published last 17th January. It starts with four pages of figures giving a first idea of the global risks as they are currently challenging the world with visual representations of interconnections between risks of different nature: in fact, risks are distinguished between five categories that are focussing on Economical, Environmental, Geopolitical, Societal and Technological threats. One striking tendency observable in Figure IV is that economic risks that were prevailing in the first 2000-2010 decade, then disappeared to let the environmental risks in front of the scene.

Figure I
Figure II
Figure III
Figure IV

The document is introduced by Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman, and Bǿrge Brende, president of World Economic Forum. They assume that the world is in transformational time: indeed, the "worst financial crisis of post-World War II is behind us" (GRR 2018: 5) and world population reach the highest level of development never attained before. At the same time, risks of different nature are threatening our world system of breakdown. Thus, the key message vehiculated in the preface is a call for solidarity between world leaders, to prevent crises and make the world more resilient.

Before going into detail, what have been the new findings in the edition of 2018 through three new series of analysis.

The first one, 'Future shocks', is a series of fictional scenarios of risks that could mushroom in the case the current situation of the world continues the same track. In this series (among others):

  • the potential risks of a serious breakdown in the increasingly complex worldwide food system;
  • a period of de-globalization engendered by political tension rises due to the economic bad situation, itself making trades between countries difficult;
  • AI-drone-piloted ships increasing the practice of illegal massive fishing activities and propelling the extinction of hundreds of species;
  • The escalation of state-on-state cyberattacks occurring before that agreed protocols or agreements of non-attacks are put in place;
  • Etc.
This series of fictional dramatic scenarios are made in order to make us realize that current tendencies that are not yet dangerous could if increased, become real threats.

The second new series, under the name 'Hindsight', is taking a census of three potential sources of disruption or dangers announced in the previous edition of the GRR. They are recalled to acknowledge their evolution. The three topics herein are the following:

  • Antimicrobial resistance: "no new classes of antibiotics had been invented since the 1980s" (GRR 2018: 44) and people a developing more and more resistance to the current medicines we have. From 2013, this problem hasn't really seen a drastic evolution, and it could lead to the end of the modern medicine.
  • Youth Unemployment: "The 2014 Global Risks Report highlighted the risk that the global financial crisis would create a "lost generation" (GRR 2018: 46). The problem seems to remain really present in some countries and regions, leading to other crisis such as social exclusion or mass migration. The edition of 2018 advocates for a necessary education and workplace reforms to change the tendency.
  • Digital Wildfires: The 2013 edition was also rising the problem of the misinformation and its prevalence by the impressive development of the Web and of social media. The excessive tolerance of the Internet encourages a lot of illegal actions, even in the political sphere, what would make the trust in social media decrease.

'Risk Reassessment' is the third and last new series in the GRR 2018. By inviting to "think critically and creatively about how they can respond to a rapidly evolving risks landscape" (GRR 2018: 53), the section is a dedicated space for two experts to share their insights about ways to look forward and understand the notion of risk. The first expert, Roland Kupers, offers a new set of nine (9) resilience lenses with aim to enhance the mitigation of risks in very complex and intercorrelated systems. Michele Wucker, the second contributor, calls for more action and shared work: "Individuals and organizations must work to overcome biases, make better decisions, create warning-signal systems and act cohesively when red flags are raised." (GRR 2018: 57).

Hence, red flags are raised for four main topics of threat in the Global Risks Report 2018, with great challenges to face and potential solutions. As from the starting figures, an analysis of the Risk likelihood and impacts over the ten-year horizon makes some concrete tendencies come out:
1. environmental risks are overwhelmingly on the top;
2. cyber risks are moving up the agenda;
3. economic risks are muted but stay present in persistent inequalities and unfairness;
4. 2018 is seen as the year when the geopolitical risks are increasing.

To go more in detail concerning the threats linked to the environment, we assume that economic risks started to move backward on the scale of likelihood and impacts, outdistanced by prominent environmental risks due to the global economic crisis from 2011 onwards: extreme weather events, natural disasters, and failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation are on the front of the scene in 2018. Apparently, the WEF community acknowledges deep concern for environmental risks. 2017 was the year of the first rise of CO² in four years accompanied by accelerating biodiversity loss and the pollution of air, soil, and water. These factors have become true threats to human health and food security. This is true in particular when interconnected with other risks.

Regarding cybersecurity, risks linked to the connectivity of the world are second in the list of the main potential threats in the GRR 2018, a novelty. In fact, according to the report attacks against businesses have increased considerably. Hackers target - as a new trend - critical infrastructure and strategic industrial sector that support the financial world system. It is also suspected that state-on-state cyber attacks are increasing. As a consequence, for the first time in the GRR history, panellists of the GRPS have assessed to be very pessimistic regarding this risk in the year coming. Contrary to environmental threats that are risks for everyone, this threat is notably business and state-oriented.

About the field of economics, the assessment is mitigated. Indeed, the report is optimistic because indicators suggest that the world is getting back on track after ten years of global crisis. Also, we are on a positive trajectory in terms of growth and we are reaching the highest level of development ever known. However, inequalities within countries are also increasing. In 2018, pressures from the economic order are linked to long-standing vulnerabilities. Surely, at observing the US stock nowadays, the international community is afraid of seeing another wave of exuberant increase of prices repeating, indicator of the start of a financial crisis. The GRR also reports the high level of indebtedness, market risks and the health of the global financial system as menaces for the global state of the world.

Finally, in terms of geopolitics, it is assessed that the world entered into a new and unsettling geopolitical phase, what is actually also contributing to economic risks. Indeed, countries experiencing "the most disruptive political results" (GRR 2018: 23) are also knowing a severe affection of their economy. Radical political changes can be a source of creating new risks and uncertainties. Thus, these political unpredictabilities requires inter-state diplomacy to be constantly adapted. In the end, what is dread is an increasing polarization of societies, namely the "inability to reach agreement on key issues within countries because of diverging or extreme values, political or religious views" (GRR 2018: 62).

To sum up, the 2018 edition reports several challenges the world is facing: the pace of change is accelerating, and interconnection between technology, economy, and society makes it complex and difficult to act. Surely, until now it has been understood how to mitigate conventional risks, but "we are much less competent when dealing with complex risks in the interconnected systems that underpin our world" (GRR 2018: 6) result of globalization dynamics.

However, in order to mitigate these challenges highlighted in The Global Risk Report, solutions are suggested. As for the environmental issues, it is argued that drastic decisions in terms of policy and technology will be needed. Most importantly, there is a necessity of behavior switch to lower the problem. The challenges of the next decade are clear: orchestration of the transition facing climate change, the navigation of a transformation to renewable energy, and education to aim an average knowledge about the risks involved. These challenges diverted, a society fully mitigated and adapted to climate change would be reached.

Concerning the risks on connectivity, it is possible to increase the cybersecurity, but it will come by cost: the WEF community makes a call for an increase of legal framework and treaty of alliance between nations. This is the closest way to enhance the management of cyber risk.

Under both frames of geopolitical and economic risks, "The report called for "fundamental reforms to market capitalism" and a rebuilding of solidarity within and between countries." (GRR 2018: 6). Apparently, in the scope of a year, the emergency of facing up these challenges has become prominent. The fact that the World Economic Forum makes this call for less liberalism and less competitiveness is relatively significant. It could announce a turn of the world in the years coming.

When the main ideas of this report have been summarized and exposed, we could wonder to what extent we, as Environmental Justice Research Community, could understand this document under the prism of Environmental Justice.

As a first mention, the nature of approaches is contradictory. Certainly, the GRR is the result of the Global Risk Perception Survey's analysis; completed by business, political and societal leaders, the survey reflects worldwide most powerful person perceptions of risks and necessities. Thus, we could assume that the World Economic Forum adopts a top-down approach. In opposition, one of the basic principles of critical Environmental Justice research is to practice a bottom-up approach.

The main emphasis of the GRR 2018 is a consideration of environmental issues and all they enroll. Thence, the urgent necessity goes to the mitigation of climate change and the orchestration of a transition of the global capitalism-based system to a more sustainable one. Claimed by a worldwide influent and liberal institution, the emphasis takes another dimension. Indeed, it proves that there is less and less space for environmental skepticism and that a real concern has to be allocated to environmental threats. However, a critic of the GRR argumentation could be afforded: environmental high risks are considered for nature and fauna's diversity conservation while neither impacts on human population nor problems of distribution of these impacts are deepened. Considering those discourse frames realities, we could question what kind of environmental approach the GRR is internationally conveying and what kind that is omitting.

Going a bit deeper in the figures from the beginning: In Figure I , environmental risks are in the upper-right corner, far from the average line, meaning they are the most likely risks to happen and the more of potential impacts. In terms of impacts, extreme weather events are at the same level as weapons of mass destruction. The lowest environmental risk is called 'Man-made environmental disaster' described as "Failure to prevent major man-made damage and disasters, including environmental crime, causing harm to human lives and health, infrastructure, property, economic activity and the environment" (GRR 2018: 60); as an instance oil spill or radioactive contamination. This is the only element of the report implying a threat of environmental justice; it evokes environmental crime, causing harm to human lives and health. Unfortunately, it appears in the GRR as a drop in the ocean. Nonetheless, the fact that environmental challenges are heading the whole report could be seen as a light of hope for environmental justice community. If climate change and environmental crimes are finally acknowledged, soon could be recognized as well the inequalities of impacts on the population.

In the same mind set, something strikes the attention. Figures from the beginning give information that is not in line with the content of the report. On the one hand, the societal threat entitled 'Large-scale Involuntary Migration' appears repeatedly but is never mentioned in the text. In Figure II and Figure III , for example, it is central: surely, it is directly correlated with all the prominent environmental risks. A very high but little-known percentage of these migrations are motivated by environmental threats (extreme weather events, natural disasters, food insecurity, desertification, water crisis, etc.). By reason, this position on the mapping makes sense. It is also interlinked with a lot of geopolitical risks, such as the very-central 'Profound Social Instability'. Finally, in Figure IV , it is observable that large-scale involuntary migration was present both on the top 5 risks likely to happen and with the highest potential impacts in 2016. It was also present in 2017 in the first category but disappears in 2018's report.
On the other hand, by reading the Figure III , we could doubt the importance of the cyber risk as the second highest threat. In fact, geopolitical risks appear much more voluminous and central on the mapping, while cyber risks take a quite little room. In the end, it may have brought a lot of attention in this report because it was new but stays very discreet on the graphic in terms of likelihood and impacts.
The fact is that, by the combination of both irregularities between figures and later-on analysis, we could wonder what was the hidden motivation - if there was - of the WEF: Why did the risk of massive migration disappear from the ranking? Could governments mitigate this risk? Why is the result not appearing in the latest edition then? Thus, we could easily imagine that it was a voluntary omission. To fill up this blank, they may have put the Cybersecurity on the front of the stage, knowing it would worry the targeted public. Indeed, the cyber risks are, as said previously, per se business and state-oriented threats.

Respectively to geopolitical risks, in Figure III , there are explicit links with the factor of threat 'Large-Scale Involuntary Migration', as for example 'State collapse or crisis', 'Interstate conflict', 'Failure of regional or global governance', etc. However, in the proper report, this strong bound is considerably more latent, as far as announced migration-related risks are absent. Instead, a lot of different sources to geopolitical risks are cited and explained: degradation of diplomatic relationships between countries; worsening of the financial global system health; state-on-state cyber attacks; etc. All these hypotheses supposedly would lead to a loss of trust and the increase of a tension between states. In the current world, trans-border migration is an unprecedented and irrevocable source of geopolitical tension. The fact it is not mentioned in this report, once again, appears as an omission.

As a conclusion, this Global Risks Report tries to point at the different threats that the worldwide community will have to face in the year(s) coming, drawing some conclusion and statements. Some of them could be seen as a source of hope for the Environmental Justice research community. In fact, if an institution to this importance with a base of totally different interests starts to urgently point at environmental issues, the injustice that results from environmental impacts on population could soon be better recognized and exposed. Nonetheless, a number of irregularities in the discourse of the report lead us to some doubts. It seems that there is manipulation of the information by the omission of some elements and prevalence of others: but what are these mechanisms saying about the interests of the World Economic Forum? When reading through the prism of Environmental Justice, it exists some obscure zones in the GRR that could let one skeptical.

Global Risks Report 2018 available here

Introduction to the World Economic Forum

WEF is a non-profit foundation created in 1971 by Klaus Schwab and based in Cologny, Geneva (Switzerland). As self-described, the institution is "committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas" (https://www.weforum.org/) ; its international action standing and leadership relevance valued it to be recognized as International Body in 2015 by the Swiss authorities. Formerly called European Management Forum, the initial purpose of this organization is economic-centred.

Image: © World Economic Forum