Climate change ranked among the top global risks in the annual World Economic Forum survey of more than 1,000 experts released Tuesday.
The group, most associated with its yearly conference in Davos, Switzerland, said leaving environmental issues unaddressed compounded with global economic stress could handcuff policymakers.
“A sudden and massive collapse on one front is certain to doom the other’s chance of developing an effective, long-term solution,” the report said of the interplay between the global environment and economy.
Industry groups and Republican lawmakers are trying to push President Obama to expand fossil fuel drilling, saying increased exploration would engender an economic recovery. They also have fought several administration emissions rules, calling them economically burdensome.
Green groups, though, have pointed to Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events as a reason to leave carbon-emitting fuels in the ground. They want Obama to elevate climate change discourse, impose new emissions limits on existing coal-fired power plants and kill the industry-supported Keystone XL pipeline project.
The report also highlighted the income divide between rich and poor, ballooning government deficits, water shortages and aging populations as causes for concern.
On climate change, the report noted a change in the environmental debate since last year’s survey.
By replacing “rising greenhouse gas emissions” with “the failure to adapt to climate change” as a top global risk, respondents conveyed a “shift in the conversation on the environment from the question of whether our climate is changing to the questions of ‘by how much’ and 'how quickly,' " the report noted.
The report said governments should invest in infrastructure upgrades to bolster resiliency to climate change and associated natural disasters.
But many governments are too cash-strapped to make those improvements, the report noted.
The report's findings come at a time when Congress is re-evaluating the federal government's role in providing flood insurance.
Many House Republicans voted against a recently passed package providing federal funds for the Northeast's recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
Those GOP lawmakers said the government has no business in offering flood insurance, as the federal program that provides it is nearing a $20.75-billion debt limit.
Providing federal flood insurance has encouraged homeowners to move into areas at risk of flooding, critics argue. Recovery funds, however, have often improved infrastructure resiliency to better enable coastal regions to withstand future storms.
Even if policymakers can recover to handle climate change, the report said experts wondered if we have "already passed a point of no return and that Earth’s atmosphere is tipping rapidly into an inhospitable state.”
While recognizing climate change is happening, the report said policymakers will need to become more comfortable making decisions without a conclusive set of data. At the same time, governments must boost research funding to gather more complete information.
The report, along with other studies, said nations are unlikely to prevent a 2 degree Celsius global temperature increase by 2020 — a goal set ahead of global climate talks in 2009.
Emerging economies, such as China and India, are burning more fossil fuels, which is contributing to the temperature increases and a stalemate on global climate accords.
The U.S. balked at ratifying the last major international climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, largely because it failed to place emissions reduction goals on China and India. In 2011, Canada, Japan and Russia pulled out of the pact for that reason.