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A warning: Climate could be 'hijacked'

Sea ice is critical habitat for polar bears, which use it as a platform from which to hunt seals.
Sea ice is critical habitat for polar bears, which use it as a platform from which to hunt seals.Jessica Robertson / USGS

By John Roach, NBC News Digital

The global climate may already be changing faster than humans are prepared to adapt to, heralding a shift in the climate change debate from who to blame to how to cope, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum. 

In turn, runaway climate change could spur an island nation doomed to drown under rising seas or a wealthy entrepreneur with do-good intentions to deliberately inject sunlight-reflecting particles high into the stratosphere in a bid to cool the planet.

“The global climate could, in effect, be hijacked by a rogue country or even a wealthy individual, with unpredictable costs to agriculture, infrastructure and global security,” the international organization writes in a special “X Factors” section of its annual risk assessment report released Tuesday.

The special section was developed in collaboration with the journal Nature to highlight the top five risks that could sneak up largely unnoticed with unknown consequences. Highlighting them now, the thinking goes, will provide a cushion of time to proactively prepare.

X factors, the report notes, "are serious issues and grounded in the latest scientific findings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict."

In addition to the climate spinning out of control and rogue geoengineers, other X factors identified in the report include: 

  • Ethical dilemmas over new drugs and devices that could make us smarter.
  • Medical advances that could deliver a world overpopulated with “a mass of arthritic, demented, and, above all, expensive elderly who are in need of long term care and palliative solutions."
  • The discovery of alien life, which could have profound societal impacts.

The specter of runaway climate change primarily lurks in so-called feedback loops that accelerate the pace of warming, such as melting ice sheets that expose darker land and water that absorb more of the sun’s energy, leading to more warming and ice melting.

Indeed, signs of these feedback are beginning to bubble to the surface in places such as the Arctic where summer sea ice could be gone between 2015 and 2050, and the potent greenhouse gas methane is being released from frozen deposits trapped in the seafloor. 

On the geoengineering front, scientists are beginning to float proposals for small-scale experiments, though larger experiments to test solar radiation management has stalled out due to concerns about unintended consequences.

“This leaves a gap for unregulated experimentation by ‘rogue’ parties,” the World Economic Forum report says. 

In July 2012, a California businessman dropped 100 tons of ore with traces of iron into the Pacific Ocean off Canada’s British Columbia, triggering a 3,800-square-mile algae bloom. The algae absorb carbon dioxide and sink to the ocean bottom, removing the carbon from the atmosphere.

“The individual hoped to net lucrative carbon credits, but his actions may have been in violation of two international agreements,” the X Factors section reads. “Observers are concerned that this may be a sign of what is to come.”

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website.