The people paid to spot risks see high chance of ‘global catastrophe’ within 10 years

FILE PHOTO: Fire damage is shown in the Wahikuli Terrace neighborhood in the fire ravaged town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, U.S., August 15, 2023.  REUTERS/Mike Blake     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY/File Photo

Fire damage in the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii, United States, in August 2023. Extreme weather events are seen as the top global threat over the next decade.Mike Blake/ReutersLondonCNN — 

Humanity faces a perilous future, marked by an explosion of disinformation turbocharged by artificial intelligence and the devastating effects of climate change.

The gloomy outlook comes from an annual survey by the World Economic Forum (WEF) of people paid to identify and manage global risks.

According to the report published Wednesday, nearly two-thirds of respondents expect an “elevated chance of global catastrophes” in the next decade. About 30% expect the same in the next two years.

While the report does not define a “global catastrophe,” it describes “global risk” as an event that would “negatively impact a significant proportion of global gross domestic product, population or natural resources.”

In a statement, the WEF said its latest report “warns of a global risks landscape in which progress in human development is being chipped away slowly, leaving states and individuals vulnerable to new and resurgent risks.”

Results from the survey “highlight a predominantly negative outlook for the world in the short term that is expected to worsen over the long term,” it added.

The report, which comes ahead of the WEF’s glitzy annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, next week, is based on responses from 1,490 risk experts primarily from business, but also academia, government, and civil society. The survey was launched on September 4 and closed on October 9, 2023, two days after the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel.

Misinformation threat in huge election year

For the first time in the survey’s near-20-year history, experts identified misinformation and disinformation as the most severe risk in the next two years. That coincides with an unprecedented year for elections globally, with close to 3 billion people expected to head to the polls in 2024.

The American Psychological Association defines misinformation as “false or inaccurate information — getting the facts wrong.” Disinformation, on the other hand, “is false information which is deliberately intended to mislead.”

AI has made it much easier to spread false information in order to influence voters, including through the use of deepfakes, according to Carolina Klint, one of the report’s authors and chief commercial officer for Europe at Marsh McLennan, a professional services firm.

“There’s a fear we’ll see much more of it (this year),” she told CNN. “That could potentially (call) the elected government’s legitimacy into question, which could then in turn impact societal polarization.”

Supporters of Hou Yu-ih, presidential candidate from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), chant slogans during an election campaign rally in Taoyuan on January 6, 2024. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP) (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)

Supporters of Taiwanese presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih chant slogans during an election campaign rally in Taoyuan on January 6, 2024. Around half of the world’s adult population will vote in national elections this year.Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images

Extreme weather events were ranked the number two short-term risk, demonstrating heightened awareness about the environment and climate change in a year plagued by rising temperatures and rampant floods and wildfires. Last year was the hottest on record.

Cyber insecurity also made it into the top five short-term risks, for the first time in a decade. It ranked number four, behind societal polarization and ahead of interstate armed conflict.

AI has made the threat of cyber attacks “more immediate,” because the technology can be used by cyber criminals to complete challenging tasks such as coding, according to Klint. A “malicious actor doesn’t have to be that smart,” she said. “It’s broadened the opportunity for cyber criminals… it speeds up cyber attacks as well,” she noted, but added that, on a more positive note, AI could also help detect malicious activity.

For the third consecutive year, concerns about the environment dominate over a 10-year time horizon. The top five long-term risks comprise extreme weather events; critical change to Earth systems; biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; natural resource shortages; and misinformation and disinformation.

Recession concerns

WEF managing director Saadia Zahidi told journalists that the longer term outlook was more pessimistic overall than the previous survey, and concerns about “economic hardship” were largely to blame.

“We might be starting to contain inflation, but prices are a lot higher (than a year or two ago),” she said.

Lack of economic opportunity, persistently high inflation and an economic downturn were ranked sixth, seventh and ninth on the list of short-term risks respectively. “Inequality is on the rise and for some people that means their living standards have started to fall,” Zahidi said.

Pedestrians walk down a shopping street in Taipei, Taiwan, on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Taiwan's consumer prices rose more than economists expected in November. Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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She stressed, however, that the survey should not be viewed as “a crystal ball” containing “set predictions.” “Most of these things are in the hands of decision-makers.”

John Scott, head of sustainability risk at Zurich Insurance Group, which collaborated with the WEF on the report, also emphasized that there was opportunity to address these risks. “The fact is we’re all going to have to take action,” he said.

To rank the top 10 risks over the short and long term, the WEF asked respondents to estimate the likely impact of each of a list of 34 global risks on a scale from 1 (low severity) to 7 (high severity). A simple average based on the scores selected was then calculated. Participants were also allowed to add any other risks not on the list.

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