“We are drifting deeper into global problems from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves,” warns the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) recently released Global Risks Report 2019. Coming just ahead of the Davos Summit, scheduled from Jan 22 to 25, it provides the context for the world’s who’s who to strategise on countering them. “The world is facing a growing number of complex and interconnected challenges – from slowing global growth and persistent economic inequality to climate change, geopolitical tensions and the accelerating pace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” writes Borge Brende, president, WEF, adding that “though global risks are intensifying, the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Instead, divisions are hardening. The idea of ‘taking back control’— whether domestically from political rivals or externally from multilateral or supranational organisations — resonates across many countries and issues. The energy now expended on consolidating or recovering national control risks is weakening collective responses to emerging global challenges.”The report highlights five areas of concern, which need to be tackled through a collaborative effort:
During 2018, macroeconomic risks moved into sharper focus. Financial market volatility increased and the headwinds facing the global economy intensified. The rate of global growth appears to have peaked: the latest IMF forecasts point to a gradual slowdown over the next few years. This is mainly the result of developments in advanced economies, but projections of a slowdown in China — from 6.6% growth in 2018 to 6.2% this year and 5.8% by 2022 — are a source of concern. So too is the global debt burden, which is significantly higher than before the global financial crisis, at around 225% of GDP, it points out.Although global inequality has dipped this millennium, within-country inequality has continued to rise. New research attributes economic inequality largely to widening divergences between the public and private levels of capital ownership over the past 40 years: “Since 1980, very large transfers of public to private wealth occurred in nearly all countries, whether rich or emerging. While national wealth has substantially increased, public wealth is now negative or close to zero in rich countries,” it said.
Major Power Tensions
Geopolitical and geo-economic tensions are rising among the world’s major powers. These tensions represent the most urgent global risks. The world is evolving into a period of divergence following a period of globalisation. The instabilities that are developing reflect not just changing power balances, but also the fact that post-Cold War assumptions — particularly in the West — that the world would converge on Western norms have been shown to be naïvely optimistic. With multilateralism weakening and relations between the world’s major powers in flux, the current geopolitical backdrop is inauspicious for resolving the many protracted conflicts that persist around the world.If another global crisis were to hit, would the necessary levels of cooperation and support be forthcoming? Probably, but the tension between the globalisation of the world economy and the growing nationalism of world politics is a deepening risk. However, North Korea’s nuclear programme, following increased diplomacy involving the US, South Korea and North Korea is a positive.
The ‘increasing polarisation of societies’ is second only to climate change as an underlying driver of developments in the global risks landscape, it says. Many Western democracies are still struggling with political fragmentation and polarisation that have complicated the process of providing stable and effective governance. Identity politics continues to drive global social and political trends, and immigration and asylum policy raise fundamental questions about control over the composition of political communities. In some countries, efforts to secure recognition and equality for a widening range of minority social groups, have become increasingly electorally significant.The #MeToo movement, which began in October 2017, continued in 2018 and has also drawn attention to — and in some cases amplified — similar campaigns against sexual violence. The increased attention being paid globally to violence against women was also reflected in the Nobel Peace Prize going to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege for their work to end the use of sexual violence as a tool of conflict.
Extreme weather was the risk of greatest concern, but the survey respondents are increasingly worried about environmental policy failure: having fallen in the rankings after Paris, ‘failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation’ jumped back to number two in terms of impact this year. The year 2018 was storms, fires and floods. Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave at most 12 years to make the drastic changes to prevent average global temperatures from rising beyond the Paris Agreement’s 1.5ºC target.Species abundance is down by 60% since 1970. Biodiversity loss is affecting health and socioeconomic development, with implications for well-being, productivity, and even regional security. In 2017, climate-related disasters caused acute food insecurity for approximately 39 million people across 23 countries. Research suggests that by 2050 this could lead to zinc deficiencies for 175 million people, protein deficiencies for 122 million, and loss of dietary iron for 1 billion.
Many expect the risks associated with fake news, identity theft and loss of privacy to companies and governments increase in 2019. There were further massive data breaches in 2018, new hardware weaknesses were revealed and research pointed to the potential uses of artificial intelligence to engineer more potent cyber attacks. Malicious cyber-attacks and lax cyber security protocols led to massive breaches of personal information in 2018. The largest was in India, where the government ID database, Aadhaar, reportedly suffered multiple breaches that potentially compromised the records of all 1.1 billion registered citizens. Elsewhere, personal data breaches affected around 150 million users of the MyFitnessPal application and around 50 million Facebook users.
The Human Angle
The importance of the various structural changes that are under way should not distract us from the human side of global risks. For many people, this is an increasingly anxious, unhappy and lonely world. Worldwide, mental health problems now affect an estimated 700 million people, the report says. Complex transformations — societal, technological and work-related — are having a profound impact on people’s lived experiences. A common theme is psychological stress related to a feeling of lack of control in the face of uncertainty. Another set of risks being amplified by global transformations relate to biological pathogens. Changes in how we live have increased the risk of a devastating outbreak occurring naturally, and emerging technologies are making it increasingly easy for new biological threats to be manufactured and released either deliberately or by accident. Revolutionary new bio technologies promise miraculous advances, but also create daunting challenges of oversight and control — as demonstrated by claims in 2018 that the world’s first gene modified babies had been created.
As the world becomes more complex and interconnected, sudden and dramatic breakdowns — future shocks — become more likely. But what are the possible future shocks that could fundamentally disrupt or destabilise our world, and what can we do to prevent them? Here are 10 potential future shocks for thought and remedial action:
• Weather Wars: Use of weather manipulation tools stokes geopolitical tensions
• Open Secrets: Quantum Computing renders current cryptography obsolete
• City Limits: Widening gulf between urban and rural areas reaches a tipping point
• Against the Grain: Food supply disruption emerges as a tool as geo-economic tensions intensify
• Digital Panopticon: Advanced and pervasive biometric surveillance allows new forms of social control
• Tapped Out: Major cities struggle to cope in the face of the ever-present risk of water running out
• Contested Space: Low earth orbit becomes a venue for geopolitical conflict
• Emotional Disruption: AI that can recognise and respond to emotions creates new possibilities for harm
• No Rights Left: In a world of diverging values, human rights are openly breached without consequence
• Monetary Populism: Escalating protectionist impulses call into question independence of central banks
(Source: World Economic Forum)