The World Economic Forum's (WEF) flagship annual report surveyed almost 1,000 experts to identify the most significant global concerns facing humanity, finding that environmental concerns and fear of weapons of mass destruction came out on top.
The popular Global Risks Perception Survey found that risks appeared to be heightening, not dissipating, and that concerns over events with significant negative impact on multiple countries were elevated.
"Many of the risks are systemic in nature," said Margareta Drzeniek Hanouz, WEF head of economic progress. "The results are very striking. Respondents see 2018 as a year when risk is increasing."
In all, 59 per cent of the nearly 1,000 respondents viewed the trajectory of risks in 2018 as rising, compared to just 7 per cent who perceived declining risks.
One of the main factors was held to be a deteriorating geopolitical landscape. The survey showed that 93per cent of respondents anticipate that frictions over politics or economics are expected to worsen among the major powers. Almost as high was the figure on the prospect of war between the world's major powers, with nearly 80per cent expecting an increase in risks associated with conflict.
For a second year running, the environment was a great source of concern among experts, with extreme weather and the consequences of failure to tackle climate change ranking high in the risk tables. Other risks identified were major natural disasters, man-made disasters and eco-system collapse.
"Extreme weather events were ranked again as a top global risk by likelihood and impact. Environmental risks, together with a growing vulnerability to other risks, are now seriously threatening the foundation of most of our commons,” said Alison Martin, group chief risk officer at Zurich Insurance Group.
“Unfortunately we currently observe a “too-little-too-late” response by governments and organisations to key trends such as climate change. It’s not yet too late to shape a more resilient tomorrow, but we need to act with a stronger sense of urgency in order to avoid potential system collapse."
As the WEF reflects, last year’s Global Risks Report came out at a time of immense global uncertainty. The elite was rocked by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as expressions of popular anger at economic inequality and voracious globalisation.
While there has been not much of evidence of the “fundamental reforms to market capitalism” or indeed a rebuilding of “solidarity within and between countries”, there is some respite to report, perhaps temporarily, one year on.
Having made do with Chinese president Xi Jinping as its top-ranking global leader in 2017, the Davos Forum will get a surprise visit from Mr Trump next week. It will be a reminder of both the gains since his election and the underlying impulses that he champions.
"A global economic recovery is under way, offering new opportunities for progress that should not be squandered: the urgency of facing up to systemic challenges has, if anything, intensified amid proliferating indications of uncertainty, instability and fragility," the report said.
Looking into the future, the WEF identifies 10 potential system or society-wide breakdowns ranging from democratic collapses to spiralling cyber conflicts. A positive outlook for the global economy is offset by the urgent need for resilience against cyber attacks. It is where the threads of the identified risks meet after WannaCry and other large scale attacks in 2017 and the rising number of state sponsored attacks. At the same time cyber exposure is growing in companies and governments.
“Geopolitical friction is contributing to a surge in the scale and sophistication of cyberattacks. At the same time cyber exposure is growing as firms are becoming more dependent on technology,” said John Drzik, president of global risk and digital at Marsh, another partner in the report. “While cyber risk management is improving, business and government need to invest far more in resilience efforts if we are to prevent the same bulging ‘protection’ gap between economic and insured losses that we see for natural catastrophes.”
But this year also sees a re-examination of the work of the past, perhaps as an unconscious exercise in responding to criticism that the forum is impervious to the global backlash against the elites and soothsaying predictions. A section looks at digital wildfires, a phenomenon that was mooted in 2013 and now bears a “close resemblance to what known as fake news”.
Finally authors are asked to look at sharing their insights about the implications for decision-makers in businesses, governments and civil society of extreme developments.
"Increasingly rich data resources give us better tools to anticipate problems and to track our progress in dealing with them. But decision-makers need to work hard to help to ensure that all of this information leads to effective action. That means developing better listening strategies, like those of CEOs who actively canvass the views of millennials as important intelligence on market trends and the future policy environment that businesses will face," writes Michele Wucker is the author of The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore.
“It also means developing ways of encouraging and rewarding decision-makers who take difficult, long-term decisions. Finally, it means better tracking of outcomes and metrics to hold businesses and governments accountable for their promises.”