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WEF report stresses need for resilience building in face of growing environmental threats

A flooded picnic area in Assateague Island National Seashore after Hurricane Sandy
A picnic area in Assateague Island National Seashore after Hurricane Sandy. (Source: Flickr, NPS Climate Change Reponse)

Each year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) produces its Global Risks Report highlighting the changes in the global risks landscape of the past year, and enumerating the important areas for action in the coming year. This year’s report – released January 16 – identified extreme weather and climate-change policy failures as the gravest threats to global security over the next ten years.

The report warns, “Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe”.

In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to prevent average global temperatures from surpassing the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C threshold, human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to be reduced by 45% of 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. However, this would require monumental levels of international cooperation at a time when global politics are becoming increasingly divisive, says the WEF report. In fact, according to a UN report, average global temperatures are projected to rise 3.2°C by the end of the century – well beyond the 1.5°C threshold.

Sea wall under construction in Dorset County, England. [cc-by-sa/2.0 - © M Etherington - geograph.org.uk/p/3662663]
Sea wall under construction in Dorset County, England. [cc-by-sa/2.0 – © M Etherington – geograph.org.uk/p/3662663]
Of the many risks associated with increasing global temperatures, sea level rise will be especially destructive. According to the IPCC, a 2°C increase in average global temperatures could cause sea levels to rise by as much as 0.93 meters by 2100. C40 Cities estimates that sea levels will rise 0.5 meters by 2050, endangering the lives of the 800 million people projected to be living in low-lying coastal cities. Rising sea levels also threaten to damage many forms of infrastructure and economic activity in these cities – such as roads, internet cables, drinking water, energy, tourism and agriculture – at an estimated cost of $14 trillion globally per year in 2100. 

The WEF report asserts that coastal communities have long histories of adapting to changing sea levels, but as sea level rise and urban vulnerability accelerate, the urgency to respond to these changes is intensifying. Coupling adaptation measures with risk mitigation is necessary if communities are to be effectively resilient to flooding – but the affordability of these measures is an increasingly important issue.

Global spending on recovery is almost nine times higher than on prevention, the WEF report says. It recognizes that turning this around will not be easy, and calls for “innovative and collaborative approaches” to preparing for and adapting to sea level rise. Although many communities are already taking action – from China’s “sponge city” project to Rotterdam’s “sand engine” – the WEF report warns that there is “no time to waste” when it comes to building resilience. The Global Resilience Institute recognizes this reality, and is committed to helping communities across the globe prepare for, and adapt to, the ever-growing environmental threats they face.

Sources and Further Reading

The Global Risks Report 2019The World Economic Forum

The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°CThe Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The Paris AgreementUnited Nations Climate Change

Emissions Gap Report 2018United Nations Environment Program

Staying Afloat: The Urban Response to Sea Level RiseC40 Cities

Flood damage costs under the sea level rise with warming of 1.5 °C and 2 °CEnvironmental Research Letters

Flood Resilience Reliance 2.0Zurich

Transitioning to Sponge Cities: Challenges and Opportunities to Address Urban Water Problems in ChinaWater

A Tale of Two Northern European Cities: Meeting the Challenges of Sea Level RisePulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Summary: IPCC Special Report on 1.5°CGlobal Resilience Institute