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The Biggest Threat to Global Economy? Climate Change.

For the first time, environmental threat tops World Economic Forum's survey on global risks

Storm clouds gather over New York City. (Photo: Marco Fedele/flickr/cc)

Failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change is the greatest threat facing the world's economy in 2016, according to the "unprecedented" results of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual survey, released Thursday.

WEF conducted its yearly poll of 750 experts ahead of the body's summit in Davos, Switzerland next week. The Global Risks Report found that worldwide threats are on the rise this year, and are set to shape the coming global agenda—but it's the first time an environmental threat has topped the list since its launch 10 years ago.

In fact, failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change poses a greater risk than weapons of mass destruction, water crises, mass involuntary migration, and severe energy price shock, which placed second, third, fourth, and fifth on the list, respectively.

"Such a broad risk landscape is unprecedented in the 11 years the report has been measuring global risks," the report states.

The largest risk in terms of likelihood is involuntary migration—but that itself is inextricably linked to climate change, WEF said.

The WEF describes (pdf) global risks as "an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, can cause significant negative impact for several countries or industries within the next 10 years."

"We know climate change is exacerbating other risks such as migration and security, but these are by no means the only interconnections that are rapidly evolving to impact societies, often in unpredictable ways. Mitigation measures against such risks are important, but adaptation is vital," said WEF's Margareta Drzeniek-Hanouz, head of Global Competitiveness and Risks.

Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer at the Zurich Insurance Group, which also took part in the survey, said at a press conference Thursday, "Climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks."

"Meanwhile...political conflicts are in turn making the challenge of climate change all the more insurmountable—reducing the potential for political cooperation, as well as diverting resource, innovation and time away from climate change resilience and prevention," Reyes said.

At the COP21 summit in Paris last December, global leaders signed a pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take other measures to curb global warming. But environmental activists and other observers cautioned that the deal, while a sign of progress, was not enough to protect against the most devastating consequences of climate change.

The WEF's report seemed to reflect those warnings, finding that all global risks are on the rise along with average surface temperature.

"Data from the report appears to support the increased likelihood of risks across the board, with all 24 of the risks continuously measured since 2014 having increased their likelihood scores in the past three years," the report states.

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