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The greatest risk: cascading impacts of climate, biodiversity, food, water crises

The greatest threat to humanity and its organizations hides in the potential cascading of impacts of five highly-related, highly-likely risks: a collision that can amplify these effects catastrophically, according to a new survey of 222 leading scientists from 52 countries.

Conducted by Future Earth, the international sustainability research network, the survey identifies five global risks - failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation; extreme weather events; major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; food crises; and water crises - as the most severe in terms of impact. Four of them - climate change, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, and water crises - were also deemed by scientists as most likely to occur.

More than one-third (82) of the scientists surveyed, however, underlined the threat posed by the synergistic interplay and feedback loops between the top five, with global crises worsening one another ‘in ways that might cascade to create global systemic crisis’.

Extreme heatwaves, for example, can accelerate global warming by releasing large amounts of stored carbon from affected ecosystems, and at the same time intensify water crises and / or food scarcity; the loss of biodiversity weakens the capacity of natural and agricultural systems to cope with climate extremes, increasing vulnerability to food crises.

Some 173 of the scientists surveyed volunteered additional risks, beyond the list of 30, as deserving of greater global attention. Commons themes included erosion of societal trust and values; social infrastructure deterioration; rising inequality; rising political nationalism; overpopulation; and mental health decline.

According to the survey report:

"Perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge from these responses was the failure to take into account feedback across different systems."

"Despite this ubiquity of connections, many scientists and policymakers are embedded in institutions that are used to thinking and acting on isolated risks, one at a time. This needs to change to thinking about risks as connected."

"As the scientific advisors for this survey, we call on the world's academics, business leaders, and policymakers to pay urgent attention to these five global risks, and to ensure that they are treated as interacting systems, rather than addressed one at a time, in isolation."

The survey was led by Maria Ivanova, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and scientific advisors Markus Reichstein, Max Planck Institute, Germany; Matthias Garschagen, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany; Qian Ye, Beijing Normal University, China; Kalpana Chaudhari, Institute for Sustainable Development and Research, India; and Sylvia Wood, Science Officer, Future Earth, Canada office.

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