Going Global

The World Economic Forum at Davos is supposed to be a big deal, so a survey of 750 Davos experts about what the next ten years have in store should be an even bigger deal. The Guardian has the story,

But their economics editor has trouble reading graphs, so he gets it wrong. The experts do not say that climate change disaster is “the biggest threat to the global economy in 2016” as the headline claims. “Climate change disaster” is not even on the chart, though “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” is. But that doesn’t even make the top five risks for 2016, (though it’s second among the risks over the next ten years).

What the report does say, in figure 1 at
is that failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation (if it happened) would have the greatest impact, greater than weapons of mass destruction, the spread of infectious diseases, ecosystem collapse, terrorist attacks, extreme weather events, or manmade environmental catastrophes.

It does seem slightly weird that the failure of climate change mitigation should be considered more threatening than specific catastrophic events like disease, ecosystem collapse and environmental catastrophes, but if you see the former as the primary cause of all the latter hazards, then I suppose it does make sense.

The makeup of the survey may have something to do with it. Respondents were chosen from “among the World Economic Forum’s multistakeholder communities of leaders from business (45%) government (11%) academia (16%) and non-governmental (16%) and international organizations (7%).” Europe (32%) and North America (18%) were over-represented, and so were the under 30s (26%). “To capture the voice of youth, the survey also targeted the World Economic Forum’s community of Global Shapers.” Cool.

The unreality of the survey, and of the whole Davos enterprise, comes from the absurd level of abstraction of the risks as defined. Real things that really affect us are specific, while the items in this silly quiz are absurdly vague. Think of a couple of real events that might happen in the real world: “Russia invades Europe” – say. Highly unlikely of course, but horribly dangerous if it did happen. Except that it did – twice – and we hardly batted an eyelid. Or: “Couple of thousand bandits overrun a city of a million people and steal 70 million dollars and thousands of pieces of sophisticated weaponry”. Ridiculous.

The Davos syndrome is just one highly visible symptom of a modern disease – thinking globally. It’s something that exceptional leaders have been required to do in exceptional circumstances – from Alexander the Great to Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Now everyone does it. You’re running a company that manufactures widgets and suddenly you get an order from Kazakhstan. Or you run a modest blog that’s suddenly getting regular readers in Mongolia. Naturally that gets you thinking globally and next minute you’re consulting surveys among Davos experts, hoping for a glimpse into the future that will turn your widget or blog into a global brand like Coca Cola.

The environmental movement is one of the most flagrant examples of this perverse tendency. The infantile curiosity that demands a Catalogue of the biggest worst wettest hottest weather of the Whole Earth – the desire to view Mother Gaia in the altogether – has made our environmental worries global: why bother about the endangered warbler in your own hedge when you could be worrying about the whole planet? And if you’re going to worry globally, you need some big serious global statistic to worry about. Enter the Global Mean Temperature.

Why would anyone want to know the average temperature of a planet, 70% of which is water and 90% of the rest of which is pretty inhospitable? There’s a strong consensus that 97% of the earth’s surface is not a place you’d want to spend much time on. So why bother?

I’m not going to get into the effect of jet exhausts and air conditioning extractor fans on thermometers, or of the difference in temperature between water in leather buckets and water in oaken buckets, or the problem of the coal ration in Siberian weather stations being calculated on the basis of reported temperatures. If you’re a fan of Alice in Wonderland then consult the appropriate articles at ClimateAudit and WattsUpWithThat. If you’re a fan of science or competent data collection, then weep.

Never mind how data from tree rings in Siberia or the Rockies and mud from the bottom of Finnish lakes have been tortured in the name of science. Before you get into that, ask yourself: “Why would anyone care what the temperature was a thousand years ago on the top of the Rockies or at the bottom of a Finnish lake?” Nobody was there, and nobody’s going to go there. If you’re trying to find a measure that helps humans to evaluate the possible risks to our species and others, then go where they are. And of course, it’s precisely where people are that we have been making the only reliable measurements of temperature, in Central England since 1659, a few other places soon after, (Northern Ireland? Prague?) and a few score other spots dotted round the globe for a couple of centuries or so.

[Wikipaedia is not very helpful on the history of temperature records. “Instrumental Temperature Record” goes straight from 1659 to 1850 in one sentence, then gets into “warmest years”, while “Temperature Record” frankly starts at 1850].

Of course, using the few score reliable long term records kept by scientists would not allow you to claim to have a “global average”. There’d be gaps a few thousand kilometres square on the map, instead of a few hundred kilometres square as at present. But who cares? If you’re really interested in mitigating catastrophe, you look where the catastrophe might strike. If you want to know what’s in store weatherwise in Timbuctoo or Ulan Bator, you go there and look, and research the past as best you can. Though off the beaten track, both are places with rich histories, including no doubt much historical weather information, if that’s your thing.

By examining a reliable longterm (three centuries or more) record of the few places where scientific data is available, you could no doubt discover much fascinating information on the effect of climate on our history. But nobody at the WMO or the NOAA or the Hadley Centre will do this, or if they do it’s pretty confidential stuff, because it’s not global, and therefore somehow not scientifically valid in the Guinness Book of Records sense, which is what people seem to care about. No doubt there are people looking at historical temperature records in a historical fashion, saying: “Look, this is what the temperature did in the English Midlands in the eighteenth century, and this is what happened to agriculture, trade, health” etc. But no-one’s listening.

Similarly, going back to Davos and their Global Risks Perception Survey: ask a silly question about global risks and you get a silly answer about “failure of mitigation”. Ask people about the risks facing them on their particular continent, on the other hand, and the answers start to make sense. Here are the main perceived risks by continent-size area:

Europe: Immigration
North America: Cyber attacks
South America and Sub-Saharan Africa: Failure of National Governance
Middle East and North Africa: Unemployment and Water Crises
Central Asia + Russia: Energy Price Shock and Interstate Conflict
South Asia: Water Crises
East Asia + Pacific: Natural Catastrophes

So what happened to the great number one concern: Climate Mitigation Failure? “Not happening here Guv. Must be on some other planet.”


  1. Thanks Geoff. Richard Tol tweeted the Guardian article and then in a second tweet said ‘This is what the “experts” actually said’ with a link to the actual report.

    If anyone is wondering where the list of perceived risks by continent at the end of the post comes from, it’s figure 3 from the WEF report.


  2. Thanks Paul for noting the source of the results by continent. In the appendices they give a link where you can find a breakdown by country and by type of informant (business, government, academia, NGO). I didn’t bother looking, since this kind of self-regarding survey – opinionated opinion-leaders asking each other their opinion – seems pretty worthless.


  3. If the Sun decides to go into a minimum they might be right for the wrong reasons, a degree or two of warming will be almost without exception a blessing, whereas a degree or two of cooling will be an unmitigated disaster with a death toll running into billions.


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