Social, health and climate fears collide in WEF 2022 global risks report

(Credit: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell)

Social cohesion erosion, livelihood crises, and mental health deterioration: these are three of the five risks cited by business leaders and officials as the biggest threats to the world as a result of the pandemic, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has found. 

Less that 16 per cent of respondents surveyed from business, government, international organisations and NGOs described their outlook as positive or optimistic, while an overwhelming 89 per cent see the short-term as being “volatile, fractured, or increasingly catastrophic”, the WEF said on Tuesday in its 2022 Global Risks Report.

Meanwhile only 11 per cent think there will be a pick up in the global recovery over the next two years. The findings come as the World Bank issued its half-year forecasts on Tuesday predicting “a pronounced slowdown” in growth in the next two years – with poor countries especially hard hit.

“We adapted our survey this year to understand a bit more where the global mindset was among the 1000 experts that responded to the survey.  And first off it’s very clear that this confluence of all the factors that have come together, all the challenges that we are currently facing, are leading to a fairly pessimistic outlook,” Saadia Zahidi, WEF’s managing director, told journalists.

Concerns about society, people’s livelihoods, and climate action failure have worsened the most since the start of the pandemic, the report’s survey showed – displacing fears over cyber and data fraud. Concerns over mental health and extreme weather events also stood out.

“We also asked people when some of these risks will become a critical threat to the world and in the next couple of years there continues to be deep concerns around the climate and the social side of things,” Zahidi said.

In the longer term, the environment remains the most constant source of worry, with the failure to take swift enough climate action, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, a natural resources crisis and human environmental damage all topping the list of biggest concerns over the next 10 years.

“The climate crisis remains the biggest long-term threat facing humanity,” Peter Giger, group chief risk officer at Zurich Insurance Group, said.  “Failure to act on climate change could shrink global GDP by one-sixth and the commitments taken at COP26 are still not enough to achieve the 1.5 C goal.

There were some brighter spots in the report, with respondents optimistic on efforts being taken to mitigate global risks in some areas such as trade facilitation, international crime and even in how the health crisis is being dealt with.

However, respondents showed less confidence in emerging areas like artificial intelligence and space exploration, migration and refugees. “These are areas where people don't believe that much is being done in the best possible way,” Zahidi said.

Diverging recoveries

The WEF warned divergent recoveries from the pandemic and disparities both within and between countries are making it harder to collaborate on global challenges.

“Uneven recovery trajectories risk the emergence of divergent priorities and policies at a time when societies and the international community must collaborate to check Covid-19 and heal the scars from the pandemic,” the WEF said in its report.

While some countries, thanks to rapid vaccine progress and a return to pre-pandemic growth, face better prospects for 2022, “others could be weighed down for years, if not decades, by struggles to apply even initial vaccine doses, combat digital divides and find new sources of economic growth.”

The WEF calls for global leaders to adopt a coordinated global response, with both the pandemic and extreme weather events highlighting, for example areas where central governments and local bodies can combine more effectively.

“As the Global Risks Report sets out, new crises may lie just over the horizon. Many critical risks demand a whole-of-society response. This involves not only the engagement of different sectors leading to multiple individual actions but also more effective interaction between different sectors in ways that are accretive to well-being and prosperity.”