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Even Davos Elite Warns Humanity Is 'Sleepwalking Into Catastrophe'

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Sun setting behind the Fawley Oil Refinery in Fawley, England. Clive G' / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Jessica Corbett

Ahead of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland next week—which convenes the world's wealthiest and most powerful for a summit that's been called both the "money Oscars" and a "threat to democracy"—the group published a report declaring, "Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe."


While WEF has made a habit of recognizing the threat posed by the human-made climate crisis in its Global Risks reports—for which it has garnered some praise—author and activist Naomi Klein was quick to challenge the narrative presented in the latest edition, pointing out that many of the policies pushed by the very people invited to the exclusive event have driven the global crisis.

"Sleepwalking? Nah. The policies of global deregulation, privatization, unending consumption, and growth-worship that you advanced so aggressively in order to construct the Davos Class marched us here," she tweeted. "Pretty sure your eyes were wide open."

While Klein—who argued in her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate that "our economic system and our planetary system are now at war"—brought a critical eye to the report's warnings about the dangers of failing to limit global warming, others welcomed the attention given to the crucial issue.


WEF's Global Risks Perception Survey solicits input from nearly 1,000 "decision-makers" across government, big business, academia and civil society, and aims to identify both short- and long-term threats to the international community.

Environmental threats—including extreme weather, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, natural disasters, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, and man-made environmental disasters—dominate the top 10 lists for both likelihood and impact.

"Extreme weather was the risk of greatest concern, but our survey respondents are increasingly worried about environmental policy failure," the report notes, acknowledging that "biodiversity loss is affecting health and socioeconomic development, with implications for well-being, productivity, and even regional security."

Responding in a statement, Marco Lambertini, director general of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International, said: "Recognition of the dangers posed by climate change and biodiversity loss is not enough. The science is clear: we need to see urgent and unprecedented action now."

"The consequences of not changing course are enormous not just for nature, but for humans. We depend on nature much more than nature depends on us," Lambertini added. "Global political and business leaders know that they have a major role to play in safeguarding the future of economies, businesses, and the natural resources we depend on."

Concerns about governmental failure to adequately address the climate crisis declined among "the Davos Class" after world leaders came together to sign the Paris agreement, according to Reuters. But that changed after President Donald Trump took office and announced plans to ditch the accord, which aims to limit warming within this century to 1.5°C—a goal that experts say would require immediately phasing out fossil fuels.

Additionally, as Aengus Collins, the WEF report's author, told Reuters, "People ... are beginning to understand increasingly the gravity of the situation and that the Paris agreement, even if fully implemented, cannot be seen as a panacea."

In October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put out a report detailing what the world could look like with that level of warming, and demanding "rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented" systemic reforms. That report has been followed by various studies outlining how the U.S. is "drilling toward disaster" with fossil fuel expansion while the oceans are warming and ice is melting at alarming rates.

Along with rising sea levels, the crisis has also featured devastating hurricanes, heatwaves and wildfires. One analysis of last year's costliest climate-driven extreme weather events estimated that the top 10 storms, droughts, fires and floods of 2018 caused at least $84.8 billion in damage, almost certainly an underestimate. Experts warn that as the planet warms, such events will become more common and powerful.

Despite warnings from the global scientific community and mounting public demands for a Green New Deal, Trump and his backers continue to downplay the threat and attack climate and environmental regulations. Although the president no longer plans to attend the Davos meeting due to the government shutdown he has forced over border wall funding, five members of his administration are supposedly still set to attend.

Regardless of whether the government reopens by next week, CNBC reports that "Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will lead the five-strong delegation which also includes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross; U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer; and Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination, Chris Liddell."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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