A World Economic Forum survey has identified the failure to prepare for climate change as having the potential to cause the most harm among risks facing the global economy over the next decade.

The survey, published before this week's forum meeting at the Swiss resort of Davos, also identifies weapons of mass destruction, water crises, large-scale migration flows and severe energy price shocks among its top five medium-term global risks.

This is the first time an environmental concern has topped the annual Global Risks Report, which drew on assessments of 29 concerns by 750 experts and decision-makers assembled by the forum and its advisers.

The survey took place ahead of last month's Paris climate summit, where nations agreed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.


"Climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks," said Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer at Zurich Insurance, which helped to produce the report.

"Meanwhile, geopolitical instability is exposing businesses to cancelled projects, revoked licences, interrupted production, damaged assets and restricted movement of funds across borders.

"These political conflicts are in turn making the challenge of climate change all the more insurmountable - reducing the potential for political co-operation, as well as diverting resources, innovation and time away from climate change resilience and prevention."

But when it came to near-term risks - those with the potential to create the most impact in the next 18 months - the panel put large-scale voluntary migration ahead of climate issues.

"Events such as Europe's refugee crisis and terrorist attacks have raised global political instability to its highest level since the Cold War," noted John Drzik, president of global risk and specialties for Marsh, which is a forum partner.

The report noted the number of people forcibly displaced in 2014 stood at 59.5 million according to United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, almost 50 per cent more than in 1940 at the beginning of World War II.

Since then there has been unprecedented movement of refugees from the Middle East to Europe and elsewhere.

Other near-term risks identified included extreme weather events, inter-state conflict with regional consequences and major natural catastrophes.


The forum asked 13,000 business executives from 140 nations to rank the top-five risk factors for doing business in their own countries.
Unemployment and under-employment ranked as the risk of highest concern for those conducting business in more than a quarter of the economies covered, according to the report.

However, neither unemployment nor the risk of large-scale involuntary migration featured significantly among New Zealand business concerns.

New Zealand respondents identified the biggest near-term risks as:
• Natural catastrophes (47.8 per cent)
• An asset bubble (43.5 per cent)
• Cyber attacks (37 per cent)
• Fiscal crises (32.6 per cent)
• Extreme weather events (30.4 per cent)

The next suite of risk factors identified included the failure of urban planning (30.4 per cent) and a potential failure of critical infrastructure (23.9 per cent).

The failure to prepare for climate change mitigation and adaptation was also mentioned by 23.9 per cent of the New Zealand participants in the annual survey.