'Wave of crises' threaten climate action and social stability

Demonstrators hold banners in a trade union (OeGB) organised protest against surging energy prices and increased living costs in Vienna, Austria, September 17, 2022. REUTERS/Lisa Leutner 

Demonstrators hold banners in a trade union (OeGB) organised protest against surging energy prices and increased living costs in Vienna, Austria, September 17, 2022. REUTERS/Lisa Leutner 

What’s the context?

World Economic Forum (WEF) says cost-of-living crisis is seen as top immediate risk with environmental threats a longer-term worry

  • World Economic Forum (WEF) survey shows risk perceptions
  • Cost-of-living crisis, climate impacts among top concerns
  • Disinformation, authoritarianism seen hindering responses

LONDON - An avalanche of immediate crises - from Russia's Ukraine war to soaring energy and food prices and worsening debt - are delaying action on major risks like climate change and threatening to fuel growing societal breakdown, analysts have warned.

Meanwhile, trust in governments - and even agreement on basic facts - are waning in the face of disinformation, while cyber dangers are rising, making tackling threats from climate change to ecosystem breakdown and rising inequality more difficult and raising the risk some will become unmanageable, they said.

"Wave after wave of crises is creating an incredibly challenging environment for leaders," said Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which released its annual risk ranking on Wednesday, ahead of its Davos meeting starting next week.

"In this extremely fragile environment, if there were to be another shock... it may be unmanageable," she warned.

A boy with disability, sits and touches the floor with his hand, in partially wet and muddy cloths after he waded through flooded street, following rains and floods during the monsoon season in Nowshera
Go DeeperAs climate 'tipping points' near, scientists plan for unthinkable
Installation workers set up solar panels on the roof of a home in Colmenar Viejo, Spain June 19, 2020. REUTERS/Sergio Perez
Go DeeperHow could positive 'tipping points' accelerate climate action?
Residents wade through flood water in Obagi community, Rivers state, Nigeria October 21, 2022. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja
Go DeeperFossil fuels, fairness, finance: Climate fights to watch in 2023

Among a group of 1,200 policy makers, risk experts and business leaders surveyed by WEF, the global cost-of-living crisis topped global concerns for the coming two years, followed by worsening natural disasters and extreme weather linked to climate change.

But with a 10-year time horizon, environmental threats dominated worries, from a failure to curb planet-warming emissions and adapt to climate changes to growing concerns about biodiversity loss and potential ecosystem collapse.

More than 70% of those surveyed said they see efforts to curb climate change as "ineffective", according to John Scott, head of sustainability risk at Zurich Insurance Group, which partnered on the report with risk strategy group Marsh McLennan.

When it comes to tackling global warming, "we really just are not doing enough," he said, noting that in the current climate of compounding immediate crises, "quite frankly I think that's unlikely to change in the near future."

As shorter-term crises claim a growing share of budgets and political focus, "we are living in a world where what is scientifically necessary and what is politically expedient do not match," he warned.

From authoritarianism to disinformation

At a separate event on Wednesday, run by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Csaba Kőrösi, the president of the U.N. General Assembly, likened the challenges facing humanity to crossing a busy highway filled with speeding cars and plenty of slip-inducing banana peels.

"What we know is, in our world today, we need to get to the other side of the road as on our side of the road conditions for life and civilisation are becoming unsustainable," he said.

Robert Watt, SEI's head of strategic policy engagement, said efforts to deal with a growing range of crises are being made more challenging by an increasing "democracy deficit".

Academic studies suggest that democratic space globally is shrinking, with 70% of the world's population now living under some form of dictatorship, he said.

Even many democracies are becoming more autocratic, with 35 nations seeing "a significant reduction" in freedom of speech or operating space for civil society in the last year, Watt added.

Efforts to tackle problems are also struggling as what he called "computational propaganda" - including social media algorithms that favour controversial material - clog up global news feeds and undermine trust in and agreement on basic facts.

A labourer offloads a bag of grains as part of relief food that was sent from Ukraine at the World Food Program (WFP) warehouse in Adama town, Ethiopia, September 8, 2022

A labourer offloads a bag of grains as part of relief food that was sent from Ukraine at the World Food Program (WFP) warehouse in Adama town, Ethiopia, September 8, 2022. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

A labourer offloads a bag of grains as part of relief food that was sent from Ukraine at the World Food Program (WFP) warehouse in Adama town, Ethiopia, September 8, 2022. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Working together on global problems - from climate change risks to worsening inequality - becomes much more challenging "if we all have our own facts", Watt said.

Zahidi, of WEF, also said that growing misinformation and disinformation is boosting social polarisation, with the two problems "feeding each other and creating a new 'polycrisis'".

However she pointed to positive signs that society could pull together to deal with large-scale crises, from the rapid development of effective COVID-19 vaccines to agreement at the COP27 U.N. climate talks to create a "loss and damage" fund to help poorer vulnerable countries cope with growing climate change losses.

Government programmes to help families and businesses stay afloat through the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis also have helped prevent worse crises - although they have also increased debt levels, she noted.

Carolina Klint, risk management leader in continental Europe for Marsh, said the challenge for governments in coming years will be to keep core public services - including health and education - functioning effectively in the face of growing crises, debt and uncertainty.

Without investment in making such services more resilient now, distrust in government institutions will grow, undermining efforts to deal with a broad range of crises, she warned.

Globally, "we need to ... start planning for the unexpected. Most of the things we worry about are too short-term and modest," she said.

That will require focusing on longer-range threats at the same time as current crises, and ensuring a much wider range of people's views are taken into account in crafting effective resilience to threats, she said.

Rich nations as well as poor need to recognise that they are vulnerable and prepare for coming risks, the WEF report urged.

Otherwise, "without a change in trajectory, vulnerable countries could reach a perpetual state of crisis," it noted.

(Reporting by Laurie Goering; Editing by Kieran Guilbert)


Context is powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Newsroom.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles


Tags

  • Finance
  • Adaptation
  • Fossil fuels
  • Ethical investing
  • Net-zero
  • Climate policy
  • Circular economies
  • Climate inequality
  • Loss and damage
  • Economic inclusion

Featured Podcast

An illustration photo shows the globe with a tree standing on top. On the left hand side, a red backed illustration shows barren trees and oil refinery towers. On the right hand side, a green backed illustration shows wind turbines and solar panels. A sound equaliser image crosses the screen to indicates audio.
6 EPISODES
Podcast

Just Transition

The human stories behind the shift to a green economy

An illustration photo shows the globe with a tree standing on top. On the left hand side, a red backed illustration shows barren trees and oil refinery towers. On the right hand side, a green backed illustration shows wind turbines and solar panels. A sound equaliser image crosses the screen to indicates audio.
Podcast



Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.


Latest on Context