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Disinformation, Societal Fragmentation Top Global Risks as Environmental Threats Intensify

'Global Risks Report 2024' calls for greater cooperation between the public and private sectors to focus global cooperation on rapidly building guardrails for the most disruptive emerging risks.

The latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report argues that cooperation on urgent global issues could be in increasingly short supply — highlighting the need for new approaches to addressing risks.

Drawing on nearly two decades of original risks-perception data, Global Risks Report 2024, released Wednesday, warns of a landscape in which progress in human development is being chipped away slowly — leaving states and individuals vulnerable to new and resurgent risks. Against a backdrop of systemic shifts in global power dynamics, climate, technology and demographics, global risks are stretching the world’s adaptative capacity to its limit.

Two-thirds of global experts anticipate a multipolar or fragmented order to take shape over the next decade, in which middle and great powers contest and set — but also enforce — new rules and norms.

The 2024 report is released just ahead of the WEF’s Annual Meeting (Jan. 15-19) in Davos — the theme of which this year is, appropriately enough, “Rebuilding Trust.” Produced in partnership with Zurich Insurance Group and Marsh McLennan — the report draws on the views of over 1,400 global risks experts, policymakers and industry leaders surveyed in September 2023. Results highlight a predominantly negative outlook for the world in the short term that is expected to worsen over the long term. While 30 percent of global experts expect an elevated chance of global catastrophes in the next two years, nearly two-thirds expect this in the next 10.

“An unstable global order characterized by polarizing narratives and insecurity, the worsening impacts of extreme weather, and economic uncertainty are causing accelerating risks — including misinformation and disinformation — to propagate," said WEF Managing Director Saadia Zahidi. "World leaders must come together to address short-term crises as well as lay the groundwork for a more resilient, sustainable, inclusive future."

Greatest global risks

Rise of disinformation and conflict

Concerns over a persistent cost-of-living crisis and the intertwined risks of AI-driven misinformation and disinformation, and societal polarization dominated the risks outlook for 2024. The nexus between falsified information and societal unrest will take center stage amid elections in several major economies that are set to take place in the next two years; interstate armed conflict is a top-five concern over the next two years. With several live conflicts under way, underlying geopolitical tensions and corroding societal resilience are creating conflict contagion.

Economic uncertainty and development in decline

The coming years will be marked by persistent economic uncertainty and growing economic and technological divides. Lack of economic opportunity is ranked sixth in the next two years. Over the longer term, barriers to economic mobility could build — locking out large segments of the population from economic opportunities. Conflict-prone or climate-vulnerable countries may increasingly be isolated from investment, technologies and related job creation. In the absence of pathways to safe and secure livelihoods, individuals may be more prone to crime, militarization or radicalization.

Planet in peril

Environmental risks continue to dominate the risks landscape over all timeframes. Two-thirds of global experts are worried about extreme weather events in 2024. Extreme weather, critical change to Earth systems, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, natural-resource shortages and pollution represent five of the top 10 most severe risks perceived to be faced over the next decade. However, expert respondents disagreed on the urgency of risks posed — private-sector respondents believe that most environmental risks will materialize over a longer timeframe than civil society or government, pointing to the growing risk of getting past a point of no return.

Responding to risks

The report calls on leaders to rethink action to address global risks — especially urgent considering the tepid climate agreement reached at COP28 last month — and recommends focusing global cooperation on rapidly building guardrails for the most disruptive emerging risks. However, it also explores other types of action that need not be exclusively dependent on cross-border cooperation — such as shoring up individual and state resilience through digital-literacy campaigns on misinformation and disinformation, or fostering greater research and development on climate modeling and technologies with the potential to speed up the clean-energy transition — with both public and private sectors playing a role.

“The world is undergoing significant structural transformations with AI, climate change, geopolitical shifts and demographic transitions — 91 percent of risk experts surveyed express pessimism over the 10-year horizon,” said John Scott, Head of Sustainability Risk at Zurich Insurance Group. “Known risks are intensifying and new risks are emerging — but they also provide opportunities. Collective and coordinated cross-border actions play their part, but localized strategies are critical for reducing the impact of global risks. The individual actions of citizens, countries and companies can move the needle on global risk reduction — contributing to a brighter, safer world.”