In a series of blog posts curated by the World Economic Forum’s Climate Change Initiatives, a number of leading voices will present their perspectives on climate change. Contributions are linked to the Forum’s Green Growth Action Alliance project and the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Climate Change. In the following post, Chiemi Hayashi, Head of Research for the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network, shares her perspective on climate change.

The idea that our world is at risk from climate change is nothing new. Although recent disasters like Hurricane Sandy and this year’s torrential rains in China have focused attention on the issue, the fact that pumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has a profound impact on our climate was established a long time ago.

In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius observed that industrial-era coal burning would increase the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect. In 1975, American scientist Wallace Broecker put the term “global warming” into the public domain, and since then it has climbed to the top of the global agenda. Why, then, has the response to climate change been so slow and patchy?

In terms of how we perceive risk, the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network can shed some light on the issue. For the last eight years, we have polled a group of experts and leaders on how they gauge the likelihood and impact of various global risks. While climate-related risks – including rising greenhouse gas emissions, the failure of climate change adaptation and persistent extreme weather – have all been featured, variations from year to year illustrate how easily attention can be deflected elsewhere.

Urgent risks that require fire fighting tend to be perceived as more important than creeping risks, which call for a long-term approach – whether challenges like reforming the pension system, dealing with an ageing population or indeed broaching how to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Against a backdrop of an ongoing Eurozone crisis and social discontent, the Global Risks 2012 report reflected a shift in concern away from environmental risks towards socioeconomic threats. Chronic fiscal imbalances and severe income disparity were the risks seen as most prevalent over the coming 10 years, as the ripple effects of the financial crises diverted attention away from the potentially cataclysmic consequences of climate change.

This may not be a rational response given the magnitude of the risk, but it is one with deep psychological roots. The next Global Risks Report (watch this space on 8 January 2013) will explore in more detail what underpins this reluctance to address the kind of long-term threat that is posed by climate change. For example, we tend to think in more concrete, detailed terms about events in the near future (such as a hurricane bearing down on us next week) than events in the more distant future (such as 10 hurricanes bearing down on us in 20 years).

Cumulatively, these factors are obstacles which must be overcome if we are to limit greenhouse gas emissions as well as create the resilient cities, communities and countries we need to adapt to the consequences of climate change.

We know that the climate is changing, even if, with such a complex and non-linear system, we cannot always pinpoint which areas will suffer deluges and where the droughts will fall. It is crucial then that we become more adaptable without allowing short-term thinking blind us to the scale of the threat.

Author: Chiemi Hayashi, Director, Head of Research, Risk Response Network, World Economic Forum

Image:Picture of a woman riding her bicycle along a road past a coal-burning power station in Beijing REUTERS/David Gray