Our key takeaway: The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual survey of risks over the one-year, two-year and ten-year timeframes does not paint a rosy picture. Respondents are deeply concerned about both individual risks as well as the ways that these risks will interplay to create even more complex challenges for humanity. The report points out that, “[j]ust as natural ecosystems can be pushed to the limit and become something fundamentally new; such systemic shifts are also taking place across other spheres: geostrategic, demographic and technological.” The top five risks identified overall are: (1) Extreme weather, (2) AI-generated misinformation and disinformation, (3) Societal and/or political polarization, (4) Cost-of-living crisis, and (5) Cyberattacks. WEF identifies four pathways to take action on risks, including localised strategies focused on community preparedness to withstand shocks; breakthrough endeavours that can “serve as the positive tipping point”; collective actions of individual actors towards a common goal; and cross-border coordination, especially on transboundary issues like climate change. Companies are seen as playing a particularly important role in building a “critical mass” of actors to influence global change beyond their own value chains. This can include actions like investing in economies through employment and local procurement; testing, investing in and adopting new technologies that bolster public goods; and adopting responsible supply chain practices that respect human rights and the environment.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) published The Global Risks Report 2024 (January 2024). The Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) which underpins the report brought together insights from 1,490 experts across academia, business, government, the international community and civil society collected from 4 September to 9 October 2023:
- “Four structural forces will shape materialization and management of global risks”: WEF has identified four “systemic elements of the global landscape” that it believes will significantly shape how global risks emerge and interact over the next decade. These are: (1) “Trajectories relating to global warming and related consequences to Earth systems (Climate change)”; (2) "Changes in the size, growth and structure of populations around the world (Demographic bifurcation)”; (3) “Developmental pathways for frontier technologies (Technological acceleration)”; and (4) “Material evolution in the concentration and sources of geopolitical power (Geostrategic shifts).” Respondents to WEF’s annual risks survey have a “predominantly negative outlook” about how these elements will evolve over the near-term and mid-term. For example, “the majority of respondents (54%) anticipate some instability and a moderate risk of global catastrophes, while another 30% expect even more turbulent conditions. The outlook is markedly more negative over the 10-year time horizon, with nearly two-thirds of respondents expecting a stormy or turbulent outlook.”
- “Environmental risks could hit the point of no return”: The report finds that “[e]nvironmental risks continue to dominate the risks landscape over all three time frames (one-year, two-year and ten-year timeframes). Two-thirds of GRPS respondents rank extreme weather as the top risk most likely to present a material crisis on a global scale in 2024, and it is seen as the second-most severe risk over the next two years. What’s more, “similar to last year’s rankings, nearly all environmental risks feature among the top 10 over the longer term.” The report finds a significant disparity between how different groups view the urgency of environmental risks. For example, younger respondents tend to rank “Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse” and “Critical change to earth systems” as significantly higher risk in both the short-term and ten-year period, compared to older respondents. The report points to a misalignment in perspectives between the different sectors; the private sector views environmental concerns as risks over the longer term, while civil society and government view these as priority risks over the shorter term. WEF points out that “[t]his dissonance in perceptions of urgency among key decision-makers implies sub-optimal alignment and decision-making, heightening the risk of missing key moments of intervention, which would result in long-term changes to planetary systems.” One result of this is that “many economies will remain largely unprepared for ‘non-linear’ impacts: the potential triggering of a nexus of several related socio-environmental risks has the potential to speed up climate change, through the release of carbon emissions, and amplify related impacts, threatening climate-vulnerable populations.”
- “Economic strains on low- and middle-income people – and countries – are set to grow”: Significant concerns within a two-year period include the “Cost-of-living crisis,” “Economic risks of inflation,” and “Economic downturn.” These risks are likely to hit vulnerable countries and communities the hardest: “Climate-vulnerable or conflict-prone countries stand to be increasingly locked out of much-needed digital and physical infrastructure, trade and green investments and related economic opportunities. As the adaptive capacities of these fragile states erodes further, related societal and environmental impacts are amplified.” In addition, “the convergence of technological advances and geopolitical dynamics will likely create a new set of winners and losers across advanced and developing economies alike.” The report cautions that new technologies could drive a deeper wedge between global haves and have-nots. Specifically, “[I]f commercial incentives and geopolitical imperatives, rather than public interest, remain the primary drivers of the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and other frontier technologies, the digital gap between high- and low-income countries will drive a stark disparity in the distribution of related benefits – and risks.” As a result, human development and social progress could suffer over the longer term: "Vulnerable countries and communities would be left further behind, digitally isolated from turbocharged AI breakthroughs impacting economic productivity, finance, climate, education and healthcare, as well as related job creation.” The corresponding impacts on human rights would be significant.