The Nature of Risk: a message to world leaders at Davos

Opinion-editorial article by IUCN, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Destruction left by tropical storm Stan in Mexico

This week, movers and shakers from the worlds of politics, business and civil society are descending on the picturesque Swiss village of Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

In these turbulent times for the world’s decision makers, it is hardly surprising that the 2013 Forum takes the theme of “Resilient Dynamism”, with the focus on minimizing risks and boosting the resilience of our economies and societies.

As the precarious state of the global economy and the ongoing political upheavals in many parts of the world are grabbing headlines, there is one neglected—yet absolutely critical—feature of successful risk management: playing safe with our planet.

A few years ago, a group of 28 scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre identified and quantified a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive. In the last 200 years we’ve already overshot three of those.

At the moment, however, ensuring a safe operating space for humanity just isn’t top of minds as austerity tightens its grip on our planet and its seven billion people. As a result, financial and political crises have all but wiped out resources allocated to other types of risk — be it poverty, health, biodiversity loss or climate change.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The organizations we lead all share the vision of a world where people are living well and also within the safe operating space of the planet. We are not propagating limits to growth. Instead, relying on science and taking escalating risks seriously, we conclude the world needs a new development paradigm of growth within limits. To get there, there are certain must-haves.

First, we need to develop a planetary dashboard where safe boundaries are defined for critical environmental processes that directly affect human prosperity. Such a dashboard will allow us to see which areas are approaching unacceptable tipping points. Some of us are starting to call these Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of the planet.

Second, our consumption and development need to fit into our planetary boundaries, and we need to recognize that some resources are, in fact, finite. To achieve this, we need to understand the true cost and true value of ecosystems services and make them visible in GDP accounts and companies’ balance sheets. Smart public policy solutions can accelerate this.

Last but certainly not least, we must change our mindset. For many years, we have viewed nature either as something in need of protection or something that defies human control as in “a force of nature”. In reality, maintaining a healthy natural environment can provide a cost-effective solution to boost social resilience, fight poverty and climate change, and propel greener and inclusive growth in order to safeguard human wellbeing on our planet for future generations.

A world transition to global sustainability is not a choice. It is a necessity. All evidence indicates that our current route of ever increasing environmental risks is too costly and dangerous. It is time to start investing in our natural capital now. And that’s one risk — or, rather, opportunity — that world leaders gathering in Davos would be wise to take.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General

Peter Bakker, WBCSD President 

Johan Rockström, Executive Director, Stockholm Resilience Centre

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