WEF’s Risk Report and the misperception of environmental risks

World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2013 report is an interesting, but one eyed view of the global risk landscape.

I think the main weakness is lack of consideration of how the financial, economic, and social systems that support the global elites at Davos are producing most of the risks that threaten those same systems.  Some of these systems are part of what sf writer Kim Stanley Robinson has called Gotterdammerung capitalismwhile others are what resilience researchers have called Holling’s pathology of management.  But in either case, assessing the symptomns, but not examining the causes is not particularly useful and a bit pathological.

However, I thought one interesting point in the report was the the assessment of expert risk assessment.  The report found a substantial difference between environmental experts view of risks versus that of experts in other sectors.

Unlike all over sectors environmental experts thought that environmental risks were substantially more likely and would have a bigger impact than other people.  While I don’t find this result surprising, I am a bit surprised that this is the only problem domain in which this is the case.  Because I don’t think there is a big difference between environmental experts and experts in other fields, I think this suggests there is something special about societies ability to detect or understand environmental problems.

Below is the relevant figure from the report.

The report writes:

The differences between environmental experts and their peers from other fields are striking – they assign higher impact and likelihood scores to all 10 risks in the environmental category, with most of these differences being statistically significant at the 5% level (see Appendix 2).

Also there are a number of societal risks where specialists are more alarmed than other respondents, such as rising rates of chronic diseases, unsustainable population growth or unman- aged migration. In the economic category, this pattern holds only for chronic fiscal imbalances. For most other risks in this category, as well as in the geopolitical and in the technological domains, there are few statistically significant differences.

On the other side of the equation, experts in economic issues worry less about the impact and likelihood of severe income disparity than non-experts. Similarly, technological experts worry less than non-experts about the likelihood and impact of unforeseen consequences of nanotechnology.

These findings raise interesting questions. Are economists more informed about economic issues than others, or are there ideological differences at play? Are the technological specialists more knowledgeable here, or does their excitement about new technologies dampen their risk perceptions? And where experts are more worried, does that mean that we should listen to them more, or do they just feel more strongly about their issue without knowing enough about other threats?

The Risks report asked about 6000 experts using an online survey from the “World Economic Forum’s communities, which comprise of top experts and high-level leaders from business, academia, NGOs, international organizations, the public sector and civil society.”  Who were male (7:3)   Their survey had about 1,200 responses which included about 230 environmental experts.

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