The world's biggest risks

How 25 percent of global GDP could be washed away

Nicholas Duva, special to

Risky business

South Pacific islands, Vava'u, Tonga.
Kim Westerskov | Getty Images

You've probably heard the one about the tiny island nation in the South Pacific that is at risk of being wiped away by climate change. It's like the spotted owl of the global warming movement. And it's easy to conclude that the advanced nations of the world and their economies will be fine as sea levels rise and if extreme weather events that can be linked to climate change persist—even if some exotic honeymoon locales are wiped off the face of the planet.

In fact, a recent ranking from the United Nations University for Environment and Human Security, its WorldRiskIndex, does show that the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu are among the most exposed countries to climate change, but you might be surprised by the other nations that are high up on this risk rating—some of the top 50 GDP nations globally.

From nifty 50 to iffy 50

SnowFlock | Getty Images

The WorldRiskIndex takes into account more than just risk of exposure. How prepared a country is to cope and adapt, and its level of urbanization—the higher the concentration of people in certain places, the higher the risk score—are also key factors. Australia, for instance, faces a relatively high risk of natural disaster but has strong coping capacities. Others, like Pakistan and Ethiopia, have higher risk scores; even though they rarely have natural disasters, when one hits, it can cripple the country.

We've screened the UN numbers (which includes 171 nations total) for the top 50 nations globally ranked by GDP to find out which major world economies are most at risk related to climate change. The following 10 countries are those with the highest risk scores among the top 50 GDP producers—therefore, those with the power to significantly harm the world economy.

The following 10 nations represent near-$19 trillion, or roughly one-quarter, of the $73 trillion global GDP pie.

Nicholas Duva, special to
Posted 29 October 2014


A boy stands beside the residents wading the streets in Provident village in Marikina on Friday. Heavy downpours and flooded rivers brought by Tropical storm Fung-Wong in the Philippines forced residents to evacuate their homes.
Jansen Romero | Pacific Press | Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 40
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 2
  • WorldRiskIndex score (%): 28.25
  • Overall risk assessment: Very high
  • GDP: $272 billion (World Bank, 2013)

Typhoons—the North Pacific equivalents of hurricanes—make landfall in the Philippines more than any other country. Indeed, though there is a coordinated naming system for the storms, typhoons are so frequent in the Philippines that the country chooses to use its own naming list.

The archipelago is also in one of the world's most active seismic regions.

Among all nations, only Vanuatu has a higher risk based on the UN scoring system than the Phillippines. The biggest contributor to Phillippines' high risk is its lack of ability to cope with catastrophe, according to the UN assessment.

Industries: Electronics assembly, garments, footwear


A catamaran sightseeing boat, sits atop a two-story Japanese inn on April 3, 2011 in Iwate Prefecture, Japan.
Athit Perawongmetha | Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 3
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 17
  • WorldRiskIndex score (%): 13.38
  • Overall risk assessment: Very high
  • GDP: $4.9 trillion (World Bank, 2013)

The risk to Japan was underlined after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, which, along with an accompanying tsunami, killed more than 15,000 and caused $235 billion in damage. One of the Fukushima Daaichi nuclear plant's six reactors went into meltdown from the tsunami, releasing radiation into surrounding areas.

Though the island country accounts for about 20 percent of the world's earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater, Japan nevertheless has one of the best response systems in the world. The country is among the best performers in the vulnerability, coping capacities and adaptive capacities segments—it's sheer exposure to potential climate disasters that causes Japan's relatively high risk score.

Industries: Motor vehicles, electronic equipment, machine tools


Fishing boats at the Riquelme Cove in Iquique, northern Chile, April 2, 2014, a day after an 8.2-magnitude earthquake.
Aldo Solimano | AFP | Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 38
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 26
  • WorldRiskIndex score (%): 11.30
  • Overall risk assessment: Very high
  • GDP: $277 billion (World Bank, 2013)

Chile's situation largely reflects that of Japan, except that its features are not as extreme. Located in an active seismic and volcanic zone, the coastal South American nation is susceptible to both destructive earthquakes and tsunamis.

But because the country is so long and thin—it stretches across most of the continent's Pacific coast—a powerful earthquake may only affect a very limited number of communities. A 2010 earthquake, at a magnitude of 8.8—the sixth largest ever recorded—only caused about 500 deaths and up to $30 billion in damage. Though substantial numbers, they pale in comparison to those seen in the similar, 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Japan.

Though Chile is extremely prone to natural disasters, it has generally strong coping and adaptive capacities, according to the UN.

Industries: Mining, wood and wood products


Aerial file photo shows a coastal area of Banda Aceh, 05 January 2005, two weeks after a powerful tsunami hit the region on December 26 2004, following a submarine earthquake, leaving 228,429 people dead and missing.
Choo youn-Kong | AFP | Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 16
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 34
  • WorldRiskIndex score (%): 10.55
  • Overall risk assessment: Very high
  • GDP: $868 billion (World Bank, 2013)

Had the 1883 Krakatoa eruption occurred today, it probably would have killed a lot more than 36,000 people in the former Dutch colony, which today has a population of over 250 million. The seismically and volcanically active archipelago has nevertheless had its share of natural disasters lately, namely the 2004 tsunami, which caused about 170,000 deaths.

The country's preparedness is significantly below that of Chile.

Industries: Petroleum and natural gas, textiles, motor vehicles


An aerial view taken on January 6, 2012 shows the flooding in the south of the city of Groningen. The authorities in the Netherlands ordered today the evacuation of about 800 people living in the north of the country fearing heavy rains could cause the dyke to collapse.
Evet-Jan Daniels | AFP | Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 18
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 51
  • WorldRiskIndex score (%): 8.25
  • Overall risk assessment: High
  • GDP: $800 billion (World Bank, 2013)

The days of plugging a leaking dike with a finger are over: Dutch defenses against the perpetually encroaching tides are stronger than ever before, recording some of the highest ratings by the WorldRiskIndex.

The Netherlands will nevertheless always face some level of risk. Though extreme weather events in Western Europe are rare, 26 percent of Holland's area is under sea level, most of which is man-made.

Industries: Agroindustries, metal and engineering products, electrical machinery and equipment


A man pushes his bicycle in the port of the city of Lixouri, that has damaged by the recent strong 6.1 magnitude earthquake, on February 4, 2014.
Kostis Ntantamis | AFP | Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 43
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 71
  • WorldRiskIndex score (%): 7.10
  • Overall risk assessment: Medium
  • GDP: $241.7 billion (World Bank, 2013)

Greece has probably been the most beleaguered country in the Eurozone over the past decade or so. The Mediterranean nation also faces a relatively high risk of natural disasters: It has a history of earthquakes, albeit ones nowhere near as powerful as in Pacific hot spots, as well as a general susceptibility to floods.

Greece's highly urbanized population compounds the general risk.

Industries: Tourism, food and tobacco processing, textiles


Villagers look at the ruins at the quake-hit area on August 5, 2014 in Ludian County, China. A 6.5-magnitude earthquake hit Zhaotong's Ludian county at a depth of 12 kilometers on Sunday, killing at least 589 people.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 2
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 78
  • WorldRiskIndex score (%): 6.90
  • Overall risk assessment: Medium
  • GDP: $9.2 trillion (World Bank, 2013)

China has had the four deadliest natural disasters in human history, and five of the eight deadliest since 1900. Their high fatality rates were doubtlessly due to China's comparatively high population, which is also the reason for its relatively high risk rating: The index takes into account urbanization, as highly centralized populations are more susceptible to disastrous effects. And China's demography has grown much more urban in recent years.

China's preparedness is not quite on the level of Western nations, for that matter.

Industries: Consumer products, textiles, mining


A rescuer wades through a flooded street next to a residential complex in the Bella Vista neighborhood, following the overflowing of the Bogota River, on December 7, 2011, in Bogota.
Luis Acosta | AFP | Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 31
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 79
  • WorldRiskIndex score: 6.83
  • Overall risk assessment: Medium
  • GDP: $378 billion (World Bank, 2013)

Colombia lies on the northern edge of the Andean Volcanic Belt and, as such, is sometimes privy to strong earthquakes and tsunamis in its western regions. In eastern Colombia and parts of the interior, major flooding is common, partly due to the high precipitation rate: The area around Lloró is the rainiest in the world.

Industries: Textiles, food processing, oil


A man uses a boat to cross floodwaters in Kabin Buri, east of Bangkok on October 10, 2013.
Nicholas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 29
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 90
  • WorldRiskIndex score: 6.38
  • Overall risk assessment: Medium
  • GDP: $387 billion (World Bank, 2013)

Flooding, especially when caused by typhoons, is the main culprit in natural disaster damage in Thailand. Bangkok, far and away Thailand's largest city, is especially susceptible to flooding: It has both a low altitude and deteriorating drainage infrastructure.

Industries: Tourism, textiles and garments, agricultural processing


Hurricane Ernesto moves west as it makes landfall in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico August 7, 2012 in the in the Caribbean Sea. Ernesto, which was strengthened to hurricane status, has top sustained winds of 80 miles per hour.
Getty Images
  • GDP rank: 15
  • WorldRiskIndex rank: 91
  • WorldRiskIndex score: 6.27
  • Overall risk assessment: Medium
  • GDP: $1.26 trillion (World Bank, 2013)

Mexico scores relatively high on the adaptive-changes metric—it has strong long-term structural planning—but average or worse on all of the other risk factors.

Much of what threatens Mexico threatens the Southern United States as well: earthquakes and tsunamis in the Pacific regions, hurricanes on the Yucatan, etc. Mexico, however, generally displays a lower level of short-term coping ability than its northern neighbor.

Industries: Oil and gas, food and beverage, tobacco, chemicals, metals