Too Big to Ignore: Global Risk Perception Gaps Between Scientists and Business Leaders

February 12, 2020

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Please note: this is a reproduction of a peer-reviewed article published by the journal Earth’s Future (AGU – Advancing Earth and Space Science). This article is available under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND license and permits non-commercial use of the work as published, without adaptation or alteration provided the work is fully attributed.

Citation: Garschagen, M., Wood, S. L. R., Garard, J., Ivanova, M., & Luers, A. (2020). Too big to ignore: Global risk perception gaps between scientists and business leaders. Earth’s Future, 8, e2020EF001498.


Matthias Garschagen, Sylvia L. R. Wood, Jennifer Garard, Maria Ivanova, Amy Luers.

For more information on each author, please see original published article >


Earth’s Future
Volume8, Issue3, March 2020, e2020EF001498


Two major reports assessing global systemic risks have been published recently, presenting large-scale panel data on the risk perceptions of different key communities, most notably business leaders and global change scientists. While both of these global communities agree on ranking environmental risks the highest, followed by societal, geopolitical, technological, and economic risks, business leaders perceive the likelihood of most risks as lower than scientists. This gap implies vexing questions in relation to building a shared sense of urgency and facilitating collective action. These questions need to be addressed through new ways of co-creating risk assessments and strategic futures analysis.

Key Points

  • Business leaders perceive global risks to be less likely than scientists
  • This causes challenging questions regarding the ability to build a shared sense of risk and collective action for risk reduction
  • New ways of co-creating robust risk assessments and joint visions of the future need to be fostered

1. Introduction

As we enter a critical decade that will define our planetary security, two major surveys on the global risks humanity faces have been published just recently. Together these surveys highlight the magnitude and interconnectedness of risks unfolding over the coming years. But what is striking between these surveys is the noticeable divergence in the way the two different groups of actors surveyed for the respective reports perceive the likelihood and to a certain degree impact of global risks. As risk perceptions shape decisions, it is critical to understand why they diverge and what this diversity means for fostering collective action.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has just released its Global Risks Report 2020, based on a survey of global leaders, primarily from business, on their perceptions of global risks spanning environmental, societal, geopolitical, technological, and economic dimensions. For the past 15 years these reports have proven central to shaping narratives on global risks at the highest levels as world leaders and private sector CEOs convene each year in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss ways to address increasingly complex, interconnected global risks. Most notably, these WEF reports have shown a steady rise in risk perceptions related to climate and water, which are ranked among the most likely threats with the biggest impact. Yet, another new global survey suggests that the business community perceives the likelihood of these risks as lower than the scientific community. This gap in risk perception may be hampering collective action.

Future Earth, an international network of researchers for sustainability, recently completed a large-scale international survey of global change scientists on the same set of risks identified in the WEF’s Global Risks Report 2020 (Future Earth, 2020a; WEF, 2020). This survey was designed to complement the WEF report by expanding the circle of perspectives and expertise, an effort we believe is critical for addressing the increasingly complex global risks of today. Together, these parallel surveys raise important questions for decision-makers seeking to design risk-mitigating actions: Is there disagreement in the assessment of global risks among scientists and business leaders? Are differences in risk perception mainly a concern or do they have practical value in that they can also lead to more robust risk assessments?

2. Mind the Gap: Differences in the Current Perception of Global Systemic Risks

Comparing results from our new survey of scientists (Future Earth, 2020a) with those of the WEF’s Global Risks Report 2020 (WEF, 2020) reveals striking similarities and important differences that together highlight challenges society faces in its efforts to build resilience. Across the two surveys, both business leaders and global change scientists perceived many of the top global risks to be the same—climate change, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, and water crises (Figure 1). This agreement is in itself noteworthy. Concern about environmental risks has increased significantly among respondents to the WEF’s Global Risk Perception Surveys in recent years (Nature Climate Change, 2016). In both surveys, environmental risks are followed in importance by more mixed perceptions of risk around societal, geopolitical, technological, and economic dimensions (see Figure 1 for individual risks within each category), with societal risks being ranked higher in the Future Earth survey. This general agreement in relative ranking of different risks provides an important common starting point for joint priority setting and agenda setting within broader societal and political debates.

Figure 1. Plot graph of perceived impact and likelihood of risks over the next 10 years in the WEF and Future Earth surveys

Figure 1. Perceived impact and likelihood of risks over the next 10 years in the (a) WEF and (b) Future Earth surveys (own figure, using data published in WEF, 2020, left panel, and Future Earth, 2020a, right panel). The Future Earth survey mostly applied the assessment framework used for the WEF’s Global Risks Report 2020. Thirty risks in five groups are considered in both surveys (see WEF, 2020, or Figure 1 for a full list of risks by category). These risk are rated according to their perceived likelihood over the next 10 years (on a Likert scale with 1 = very unlikely, 2 = somewhat unlikely, 3 = somewhat likely, 4 = likely, and 5 = very likely). The scale used to assess likelihood was identical to that used by the WEF and thus values are directly comparable. The 30 risks are also rated according to their perceived impact, on a Likert scale from 1 to 5. In the WEF survey the nomenclature for the impact scales are 1 = minimal, 2 = minor, 3 = moderate, 4 = severe, and 5 = catastrophic. In the Future Earth survey, the nomenclature was slightly different, particularly at the upper end of the Likert scale, to align with commonly used classifications in the global change research community: 1 = insignificant, 2 = minor, 3 = moderate, 4 = major, and 5 = severe. Hence, while the results of both surveys are directly comparable up to the level of moderate impacts, comparisons of the upper ends of the impact scores need to be treated with care. For this reason, future editions of the Future Earth survey may follow the WEF categories on the impact scale. The WEF survey targets decision-makers from the public sector, private sector, academia, and civil society, covering over 1,000 respondents in its 2020 edition of which 38% were from the business sector, 21% from academia, 15% from government, 11% from NGOs, 10% from international organizations, and 5% from other institutions (WEF, 2020). Respondents’ expertise included economics (25%), technology (13%), society (13%), geopolitics (12%), environment (9%), and other fields (22%), with the remaining 6% being unspecified. Future Earth’s survey covered over 220 scientists with a Masters and a minimum 1 year of experience working in a scientific capacity broadly representative of the global change research community. Responding scientists came primarily from the natural (33%) and social sciences (27%) with a smaller number from the physical (16%), health (5%), technology (4%), and humanities (2%) domains, and the remaining 13% not providing specific information (Future Earth 2020b). The Future Earth survey respondents hence represent a quite different spectrum of expertise than the respondents of the WEF survey.

However, a closer look at how each community perceives these risks shows that there are noteworthy differences. Overall, global change scientists responding to the Future Earth survey perceive the likelihood of global risks as higher compared to the WEF respondents, among which business leaders feature very prominently (see Figure 1). As well, scientists seem to also perceive the potential impacts of many risks as higher: In the WEF results a number of risks are on average rated to have close to moderate impact (i.e., Score 3, see caption of Figure 1), while Future Earth respondents rate the impacts of all risks higher than modrate. The Likert scale scores would also suggest that the Future Earth respondents rate the risks toward the upper end of the impact spectrum as higher than the WEF respondents. However, while such a picture might be considered as likely given the other results, a direct comparability of the perceived impact in these higher-end risks is currently difficult, due to the different nomenclature of the Likert Scores 4 and 5 in both surveys (see caption of Figure 1). We explored multiple avenues to align our impact scales across the surveys including collapsing 5 into 4 in the Future Earth survey (making it more conservative) and still found that the average perceived impact was slightly higher than in the WEF results.

The 2019 and 2020 WEF Global Risks Reports were surprisingly similar in their composition of respondents and findings on the perceived risks. Drawing on available disaggregated data from the 2019 Global Risks Report (WEF, 2019a) to unpack findings by sector clearly shows that, overall, business respondents assume a lower likelihood and impact of risks as compared to their nonbusiness peers within the WEF survey (i.e., civil society, academia, NGOs, and government). The difference to global change scientists’ perceptions from the Future Earth survey is even wider (see Figure 2). Again, the perceived likelihood of risks is directly comparable, while the perceived impact might not be and differences therein should be interpreted with care (see caption of Figure 1). This gap between the business community’s and global change scientists’ perception of the likelihood of risks is particularly wide for the societal, economic, and geopolitical risks.

Figure 2. Plot graph of comparison of mean rating

Figure 2. Comparison of mean rating of WEF business respondents (orange circles), WEF non-business respondents (blue triangles), and Future Earth global change scientists (turquoise squares) for the 30 global risks, disaggregated by environmental, societal, geopolitical, economic, and technological risk types. We contrast data from the Future Earth 2020a survey with disaggregated data available from the WEF 2019 Global Risks Report (WEF, 2019b). Results from within the WEF survey are directly comparable. Between the two surveys, the perceived likelihood is directly comparably whilst the comparison of the perceived impact is difficult due to a different nomenclature of the Likert scores 4 and 5 (see caption Figure 1). Colored lines indicate averaged scores for different respondent groups.

These are perplexing findings. They suggest that decision-makers, particularly business leaders, tend to perceive risks as less urgent than their non-business peers and especially global change scientists and thus may be less likely to take measures to address and mitigate them. In the future, it would be interesting to also examine whether regional differences in risk perception can be observed, in addition to the divergence in the global averages of different stakeholder groups. Making the regionally disaggregated data available would therefore be of great value.

3. Shared Sense of Risk as Prerequisite for Collective Action

Significant research has shown that risk perception is a key determinant of action for risk reduction (Ostrom, 1990; Renn, 2017). Due to the scale and scope of impacts presented by global risks, collective action involving multiple stakeholders across sectors, scales, and countries is needed for effective global risk reduction and resilience building. This will only come about when stakeholders have a shared sense of risk and jointly consider these risks to be urgent problems (Ötker-Robe, 2014). We have witnessed how global collective action and coordinated efforts have succeeded, for example, in reversing the ozone hole (Strahan, 2018). This success happened through the engagement of scientists in the identification of the causes and effects of the global problem, the coordinated effort of governments in developing policies and implementation instruments, business efforts to create acceptable alternatives to ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, and the leadership of the United Nations Environment Programme.

We argue that without a common and shared sense of urgency among business leaders, scientists, and other stakeholder groups, it will continue to be difficult to mobilize the joint action needed, at scale, to address global risks and build long-term resilience. This is because policy-makers design interventions based on a combination of scientific understanding as well as societal pressure and the economic viability of alternative pathways. Inputs across these sectors are therefore critical to co-creating knowledge and designing robust and acceptable action plans.

At the same time, considering a multiplicity of perceptions is valuable for ensuring robust risk assessments. Differences emerging from such multiplicity might hold important insights not only into the perception of risk but also the behavior toward it. In either case, it is imperative to better decipher and understand the reasons for diverging risk perceptions and the implications for collective action.

4. Call to Action: Co-create Robust Risk Assessments and Strategic Futures Analysis to Facilitate Collective Action

As global risks become increasingly complex, the world cannot rely on a single community to accurately and legitimately appraise the risks to people and the planet. A diversity of perspectives is needed when identifying and weighing alternative pathways to deal with new types of anthropogenic risks—those that “emerge from human-driven processes; interact with global social–ecological connectivity; and exhibit complex, cross-scale relationships” (Keys et al., 2019). It is essential, however, that multiplicity does not simply lead to a cacophony of diverging risk perceptions which could impede action. Rather, a range of perspectives must be collected to better understand challenges and to drive strategies to converge around solutions. We argue here for two areas to enable convergence on robust solutions for mitigating global risks.

First, there is a need to co-create robust multistakeholder risk perception assessments. To this end, new arenas are needed in which political decision-makers who set the frameworks for collective risk reduction can work together with other stakeholders to assess risk perceptions and articulate visions of the future. The WEF survey has a long history of engaging a diverse group of global leaders, primarily from the business community. The new Future Earth survey expands this assessment by convening the multiplicity of voices within the global change science community. It is clear, however, that we must move beyond synthesizing different perspectives and begin learning and co-creating paths forward, as the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (IPCC, 2018) and the latest Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, 2019) have done.

Reaching beyond persistent silos of epistemic communities will be essential to co-creating more robust risk assessments. In order to support multistakeholder risk perception assessments, we need to better understand why business leaders and global change researchers agree on the ranking of different risk types but have different perceptions on the urgency of risks, most notably their likelihood. Does the private sector discount future risks differently from scientists? Are available risk assessments, such as those published by the IPCC and IPBES, differently perceived and contextualized? And is one perception more accurate or more compelling than the other? A significant body of research on the predictors of risk perceptions exists which can provide important insights on these questions (e.g., Fischhoff, 1995; Renn, 2017; Slovic, 1987).

Second, we must develop and support approaches to enable diverse stakeholders to collaborate in futures analyses. Global risks are unfolding quickly, and tapping into different perspectives and perceptions is critical to building effective strategies for collective action. Research suggests that foresight processes that include diverse perspectives on the future can have strong impact on political and policy choices in the near term (Vervoort & Gupta, 2018).

New qualitative approaches to futures analyses that include scenarios, strategic foresight, and online collaboration processes have proven to be promising avenues for bringing together pluralistic perspectives needed to tackle global risks (Pendleton-Jullian & Seely Brown, 2018). One innovative example in this area is Futures CoLab, a project that brings together an international network of diverse experts to collaborate in online facilitated dialogues to better understand and explore solutions to global risks. Recently, Futures CoLab teamed up with the ClimateWorks Foundation to leverage the collective intelligence of over 150 experts, from a range of sectors and world regions, to explore possible futures that could influence philanthropic investments in climate mitigation strategies (Futures CoLab and ClimateWorks Foundation, 2018). Multistakeholder approaches to strategic foresight present opportunities to view alternative futures through the diversity of perspectives on the risks and opportunities needed to co-create robust risk mitigation strategies.

Risk perception is an essential determinant of action for risk reduction (Ostrom, 1990; Renn, 2017). Yet, the precise level of shared risk perception that is needed to tip society toward collective action remains unknown. What is clear, however, is that the gaps observable in current risk perceptions among key sectors of society are too notable to simply ignore. We urgently need to understand these gaps. And when we do, we may find opportunities to learn from them to co-create our future.


The implementation of the Global Risk Perceptions Survey was supported by Future Earth. Full results of the survey are available online (


For references and supporting information, please see original published article by Earth’s Future (AGU – Advancing Earth and Space Science) >