In preparation for its annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, next week, the World Economic Forum — remember them? — recently released a list of the greatest risks to the world, as determined by a survey of more than 1,000 senior people in government, business, academia and NGOs. http://www.weforum.org/issues/global-risks
Unsurprisingly, persistent weak economic performance is seen as the greatest risk. What is interesting, though, is how the survey turned up concerns about specific economic risks and how they link to other risks, such as climate change and other "environmental challenges."
The top five global risks, ranked according to likelihood, were: 1. Severe income disparity, 2. Chronic fiscal imbalances, 3. Rising greenhouse gas emissions, 4. Water supply crisis, 5. Mismanagement of population ageing. But as an example of how the risks are inter-related the WEF found that "...the failure of climate change adaptation is seen as the environmental risk with the most knock-on effects for the next decade."
The damage caused by Hurricane Sandy is a case in point. Whether you believe Sandy was caused by climate change or was just another severe hurricane, there is no denying the frequency and severity of such climate events has increased in recent years. The cost of cleaning up after Sandy, according to the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, will be $82 billion. For comparison's sake, that's more than one-quarter of the Canadian government's total expenditures for 2012-13. This is the type of cost, according to the WEF, that governments aren't prepared for but which are having a huge impact on budgets and fiscal imbalances.
The chief risk officer for Zurich Insurance Group, Axel P. Lehmann, is quoted in the WEF report as saying: "With the growing cost of events like Superstorm Sandy, huge threats to island nations and coastal communities, and no resolution to greenhouse gas emissions, the writing is on the wall. It is time to act."
It's the type of findings that might solicit a sarcastic, "Well, duh?" response from most people.
Until you look at the priorities of most governments today and how their efforts pay scant attention to the risks that 1,000 knowledgeable people have identified.
The Canadian government's priorities, for instance, are partially aligned with the WEF survey findings in that it acknowledges the dangers of chronic fiscal imbalances and is "...preparing for a return to balanced budgets once the second phase of Canada's Economic Action Plan is completed."
Canada's focus, according to the prime minister's website, is jobs and growth. "Among other measures, we are continuing to expand Canada's international trade and to create the green jobs benefitting our growing stature as a clean energy superpower."(I added the italics because in many people's minds Canada's reputation is plummeting precisely because of its efforts to develop energy sources and its disdain for the environment.)
Other long-term priorities of our federal government include "rebuilding the Canadian Forces, improving food and product safety regulations, cracking down on gun, gang and drug crime, asserting our sovereignty in the Arctic and strengthening Canada's economic union." Worthy, if vague, goals. But given the state of the world, should they be our priorities?
It's not that Canada has to solve all the world's problems; indeed, Canada is fortunately insulated from many of the biggest problems. But to continue to ignore many of the obvious risks facing the country and the globe goes beyond willful ignorance; it's stupid.
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Much of the media, and the world, this week have been focused on Lance Armstrong's "confession" to Oprah Winfrey. It's got all the ingredients for a modern reality TV show: a disgraced celebrity, a bully brought down off his pedestal, a fraud exposed, a sport eviscerated. And all of it captured in one two-and-a-half hour interview that, for marketing purposes, will be broadcast over two nights.
While the Lance interview is so salacious it can't be ignored, a more compelling story happened on Monday when British cyclist Nicole Cooke announced her retirement from the sport. http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/nicole-cooke-retires-from-cycling.
The former Olympic and world champion's story is one of courage, conviction, inspiration, triumphs and frustrations. She has left the cycling world a better place for others, but Cooke's story won't get one-tenth of the attention the Lance spectacle receives.
And that underlines the point that politicians aren't the only ones who ignore what is important.