You are not logged in. Login
Engineering Critical to Avoiding Global Risks

Aerial view of Hurricane Frances, from outer space
The risk of a greater number of such extreme weather events as hurricanes is one of the top risks facing the globe in the coming decade, according to the World Economic Forum. Many of these risks can affect—or be affected by—the work of civil engineers. Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center, NASA

The new edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report has identified the top 50 global risks of the next decade, and many of them can be alleviated—or exacerbated—by civil engineers.

January 22, 2013—Twelve of the top 50 global risks of the next decade—identified by the World Economic Forum in the eighth edition of its Global Risks Report—can be linked to areas of interest to civil and structural engineers. The list includes two separate ratings for each risk: the likeliness that an event will occur, and the impact that it will have once it does. From rising greenhouse gas emissions (the third most likely to occur within the next decade) and water supply crises (number four) to the vulnerability of communications and navigation systems to geomagnetic storms (number 50), the ability of the built environment and the earth’s natural resources to continue to support a growing population is a key concern for the global future, the report notes. The prolonged failure of nations to invest, upgrade, and secure their infrastructure—which within the United States has been the focus of ASCE’s various report cards for America’s infrastructure and Failure to Act reports—makes the list as well, coming in at number 36. Geneva-based WEF is an independent international nonprofit organization committed to a variety of societal improvements.

The report groups the risks into five categories: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and technological. Within each of those categories, survey respondents separately rated 10 events on their likelihood of occurrence and impact. A scale of 1 to 5 was used in each case—1 assigned to very unlikely risks and 5 to those almost certain to occur within the next decade, and 1 for low-impact events and 5 for high-impact events.

The report notes that the world is most at risk from ongoing economic weakness, which is preventing many nations from tackling difficult environmental challenges. The report states that increases in income disparity and growing government debt are the top two most prevalent global risks.

The majority of the civil and structural engineering-related risks fell within the environmental category, which included such climate-related risks as the failure of many nations to adapt to climate change and persistent extreme weather, which will have a greater impact than ever because of the growing concentration of property located within risk zones, according to the report. Risks related to natural resources included the mismanagement of land and waterways and irremediable pollution, while risks related to natural disasters included unprecedented geophysical destruction from such events as earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic activity. Also included was a vulnerability to increasing geomagnetic storms—a space-based disturbance in the earth’s magnetosphere that could cause disruptions or changes in the earth’s magnetic field. The built environment also appeared in the natural disasters category, under “mismanaged urbanization.”

Prolonged infrastructure neglect is classified as an economic risk, while growing global water supply concerns were categorized as a societal risk. Technological risks included mineral resource supply vulnerability—the dependence of industries on minerals that are not widely sourced—and the unforeseen consequences of climate change mitigation. In particular, the report warns against rogue countries or individuals attempting wide-scale geoengineering—or “solar radiation management” that seeks to reflect incoming solar energy back into space by injecting particles into the atmosphere—without first obtaining global input or agreement about the long-term effects of such activities. “Technology is now being developed to manipulate the climate; a state or private individual could use it unilaterally,” the report states. “The global climate could, in effect, be hijacked by a rogue country or even a wealthy individual, with unpredictable costs to agriculture, infrastructure, and global stability.”

An interactive ranking list of the likelihood and impact ratings of each risk can be found on the World Economic Forum’s website.

Because global risks do not stop at borders, the World Economic Forum has also included a special section in the report that addresses head-on the idea of resilience, and how prepared individual countries are to respond to the anticipated global crises. The report lays the groundwork for a national “diagnostic framework” that will act as a resilience rating system, assessing a nation’s ability to adapt, withstand, and recover from a crisis.

“Resilience is emerging as key to tackling global risks because, by their nature—in a hyper-connected and interdependent world—these exogenous risks go beyond the ability of any one country or organization to manage or mitigate,” said Lee Howell, the managing director of the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network and a member of the organization’s managing board, who wrote in response to written questions submitted by Civil Engineering online.

“In this context, to be resilient is to be able to adapt to changing situations and pursue critical goals while withstanding or recovering from sudden shocks,” Howell said. “When you look at the nature of the risks highlighted in this year’s report…it’s clear that we need to be more resilient to withstand such complex threats.”

Resilience will continue to be a topic of concern, and the report notes that the World Economic Forum will continue with its efforts to build a “trusted network of risk experts to help global leaders map, mitigate, monitor, and enhance resilience to global risks.” The organization has launched an online platform, the Resilience Practices Exchange, to which leaders, including engineers, can contribute to building such resilience. The platform supports the organization’s Risk Response Network’s goal to “become the foremost international platform to enable leaders to map, mitigate, monitor, and enhance resilience to global risks,” Howell writes in the foreword to the report.

The report was based on a survey conducted in September 2012 of top experts and high-level leaders from business, academia, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international organizations, the public sector, and civil society from around the world. For the survey, more than 6,000 invitations were sent and 1,234 responses were received (1,006 of them complete). The respondents were 29 percent female, resided in 101 different countries, and self-identified an expertise in 115 countries. The age range of respondents was wide, 19 to 79, with an average age of 43.

The smallest category of responding experts was the environmental category, with 234 of the respondents self-identifying as experts in this area. The majority of respondents self-identified as experts in economic issues (612).

The World Economic Forum plans to publish an interim study focusing specifically on their resilience diagnostic framework this summer, and invites readers to review the framework and share their ideas and suggestions with the Risk Response Network.



Add Comment

Text Only 2000 character limit

American Galvanizers Association ad