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


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 per cent expect the same in the next two years.

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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”.

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 US 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”.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has made it much easier to spread false information 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.

Experts say misinformation and disinformation could affect elections, including in the US where former president Donald Trump is seeking another tilt at the White House. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

“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 polarisation.”

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 polarisation 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 said 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.

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. 
Credit: AAP

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,” she said.

John Scott, head of sustainability risk at Zurich Insurance Group, which collaborated with WEF on the report, also emphasised that there was an 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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