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Environmental Concerns, Including Water Crises, Dominate Global Risks Report Rankings for First Time in History

Climate
Environmental Concerns, Including Water Crises, Dominate Global Risks Report Rankings for First Time in History
A pillar measures the water level in a lake during a drought in Surin, Thailand. Sutthiwat Srikhrueadam / Moment / Getty Images

By Brett Walton

The world's business elite, apprehensive about turbulent geopolitics after a year of international turmoil, nonetheless sees the biggest risks to society in the next decade coming from changes outside boardrooms and parliaments.



Degradation of the planet's natural systems — its air, land, water and living creatures — is the most worrisome threat to social and political stability in the next 10 years, according to the World Economic Forum's annual survey of leaders in business, academia, government and civil society.

For the first time in the history of the Global Risks Report, respondents ranked environmental factors, including extreme weather and failure to respond to climate change, as the top five risks that are most likely to occur.

Image © World Economic Forum

On a second measurement — impact, or the damage that a risk can cause — four of the top five risks are environmental: climate change inaction, biodiversity loss, extreme weather and water crises. The other highly damaging risk: weapons of mass destruction.

The fifteenth edition of the report comes as local and national leaders face the intensifying consequences of a warming planet and man-made environmental harm. Some 400,000 displaced residents of Jakarta are reeling from the worst flooding in the Indonesian capital in decades, while Australia struggles to contain record-breaking bush fires that flared during the country's hottest and driest year ever measured.

In the face of these disasters, millions of protestors took to the streets last year, calling for government and business leaders to take action before the window closes for avoiding the most severe climate impacts.

António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, warned in December that that point is "in sight and hurtling toward us."

Green Movement

Awareness of environmental factors has been building in the last decade. Early editions of the Global Risks Report, first published in 2006, were dominated by macroeconomic indicators such as oil prices, asset bubbles and government budgets. Attention to those issues was a consequence of the global financial crisis and Great Recession.

More nuanced thinking has emerged in recent years. Water crises, in acknowledgement of their far-reaching consequences, are now categorized as a societal risk. Threaded throughout the report are references to water's connection to food production, human health, conflict, ecosystem function and extreme weather.

Extensive cutting of the Amazon rainforest, for instance, which accelerated in Brazil this year under President Jair Bolsonaro, will disrupt rainfall patterns and give rise to more frequent drought and wildfires, undermining water security in a region associated with abundant moisture, the report notes.

The boardrooms and government chambers that are registering concern for the consequences of climate change and environmental risk are the very locations in which actions to confront the hazards should be taken. Aquifers do not drain themselves and rising concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are a result of policy decisions made decades ago and fossil fuel subsidies that continue to this day.

"Achieving significant change in the near term will depend on greater commitment from major emitters," the report notes, referring to measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Collaboration on all fronts is needed to counteract the hazards, says Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum.

And yet the politics of the moment — trade spats between China and the U.S., disdain by the Trump administration and other nationalist leaders for multilateral organizations like the United Nations, cleavage within the European Union — are straining traditional levers of collaboration, he argues.

"While these changes can create openings for new partnership structures, in the immediate term, they are putting stress on systems of coordination and challenging norms around shared responsibility," Brende wrote in the report's preface.

The report distills the responses of more than 1,000 people who completed the World Economic Forum's annual risks survey. The typical respondent is a European businessman in his forties. More than two-thirds of people completing the survey were men. Forty-four percent of respondents call Europe home, and a quarter list their field of expertise as economics. The sectors that are most represented are business (38 percent), academia (21 percent) and government (15 percent).

Image © World Economic Forum

The survey asks respondents to rate 30 pre-selected global risks according to two metrics: their likelihood and their impact.

Generational differences are at play in the rankings — less in the type of risks that are of concern than the degree to which they are perceived as hazardous. Younger respondents were more likely to give greater weight to environmental risks. That cohort said that environmental risks such as extreme heat and illness linked to pollution would become more severe in the next year.

The Forum convenes its 50th anniversary meeting in Davos beginning Monday with an agenda that parallels many of the risk report findings and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Learn more about global risks and systemic connections through the World Economic Forum Strategic Intelligence Maps. Circle of Blue curates the water maps.

World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 Priorities

Ecology: How to mobilize business to respond to the risks of climate change and ensure that measures to protect biodiversity reach forest floors and ocean beds.

Economy: How to remove the long-term debt burden and keep the economy working at a pace that allows higher inclusion.

Technology: How to create a global consensus on deployment of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies and avoid a "technology war."

Society: How to reskill and upskill a billion people in the next decade.

Geopolitics: How the 'spirit of Davos' can create bridges to resolve conflicts in global hotspots. Informal meetings to set kickstart conciliation.

Industry: How to help business create the models necessary to drive enterprise in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. How to navigate an enterprise in a world exposed to political tensions and driven by exponential technological change as well as increasing expectations from all stakeholders.

Reposted with permission from Circle of Blue.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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