WEF says world faces 'gloomy outlook' as AI, climate threats rise

A woman holds an umbrella while walking along a flooded street during heavy rain in Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 12, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

A woman holds an umbrella while walking along a flooded street during heavy rain in Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 12, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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A toxic mix of AI-driven disinformation, war and environmental risks is a threat to elections and policymaking, WEF survey shows

  • World Economic Forum survey gauges risk perceptions
  • Development gains seen stalling as new threats loom
  • Tech threats, polarised politics could hamper elections

LONDON – Progress on global development could come to a halt due to surging conflicts, accelerating climate change impacts and increasingly deep divisions over politics, a survey of risk experts, policymakers and business leaders showed on Wednesday.

They also warned that the spread of misinformation and disinformation, driven in part by new artificial intelligence (AI) tools, is a key risk to major elections in 2024 that could potentially undermine the legitimacy of new governments.

"(It) is like looking down in a big bowl of spaghetti - everything is interconnected," said Carolina Klint, of risk strategy group Marsh McLennan, which partnered with the World Economic Forum (WEF) on its annual risk ranking.

The risk report, released ahead of the WEF's annual Davos meeting next week, struck a pessimistic note about the eroding ability of global institutions to tackle escalating problems.

Nearly a third of more than 1,400 analysts surveyed in September 2023 said they saw an "elevated risk" of global catastrophes, such as extreme weather disasters, within the next two years, with two-thirds predicting such events within a decade.

Over the next two years, disinformation and misinformation - a new category of risk in this year's survey - were seen as the biggest threat, following by extreme weather events, societal polarisation and cyber insecurity.

But over the next decade, climate and environmental risks - from biodiversity loss to shortages of natural resources - topped the list.

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'Bandwidth' for multiple risks?

The wide array of fast-surging risks poses a big challenge for governments, which are struggling to find "mental bandwidth" to focus on crucial longer-term risks such as climate change, said Saadia Zahidi, the WEF's managing director.

The survey results hint at why achieving rapid action on looming threats can be so difficult.

Business leaders surveyed, for instance, saw ecosystem collapse and environmental "tipping points" as a longer-term worry than government and civil society leaders, one potential barrier to winning the swift action needed to avoid them.

Global temperature rise since pre-industrial times hit 1.48 degrees Celsius in 2023, European scientists said this week - suggesting the 1.5C "guardrail" limit set in the Paris Agreement is likely to be passed at least temporarily in 2024.

Scientists say if temperature rise above 1.5C is sustained it is "likely" to lead to catastrophic major global tipping points in Earth systems that could drive surging hunger, conflict, weather disasters, nature losses and sea level rise.

Such risks, combined with growing economic disparity,  divisions in access to key tech and other risks mean the world's poorest and most vulnerable could find themselves increasingly "locked out" of opportunities.

"Could we be looking at the end of development ... a scenario where the current standard of living achieved gets frozen?" Zahidi asked at a press conference in London.

That would in turn fuel migration, crime, radicalisation and other problems, as well as eroding trust in institutions, the report said.

Election risk

The risk to key global elections in 2024 - from the United States and UK to India and Indonesia - from misleading or false content such as faked videos is "significant", said Klint, Marsh's risk management leader in Europe.

Potentially, she said it "could lead to elected governments' legitimacy being put in question", a trigger for social unrest.

John Scott, head of sustainability risk with the Zurich Insurance Group, another partner in the report, warned that if efforts to rein in the spread of disinformation and misinformation fail, "we may end up with a world where no one is sure who to trust".

But efforts to rein in disinformation could also overstep, with governments moving to control information "based on what they determine to be 'true'", potentially undermining freedoms related to internet access and the press, the report warned.

Despite the dire scenarios outlined in the report, Zahidi said they were not inevitable.

Some potential threats - such as expanding use of AI technology - could be harnessed to tackle other complex problems, including cyber crime, Zahidi added.

"Yes, it's a very gloomy outlook. But by no means is it a hard, fast, set prediction of the future. The future is very much in our hands," she said.

(Reporting by Laurie Goering; Editing by Helen Popper.)

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  • Disinformation and misinformation
  • Extreme weather
  • War and conflict

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