Global Risks 2018: Fractures, Fears and Failures
Last year’s Global Risks Report was published at a time of heightened global uncertainty and rising popular discontent with the existing political and economic order. The report called for “fundamental reforms to market capitalism” and a rebuilding of solidarity within and between countries. One year on, the urgency of facing up to these challenges has, if anything, intensified. Economic growth is picking up, but 2017 was a year of widespread uncertainty, instability and fragility—and the latest results of our annual Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) suggest respondents are pessimistic about the year ahead: in a new question gauging expectations for 2018, only 7% of responses point to a reduction of risk, compared with 59% pointing to an increase.1 In the sections that follow, we highlight four concerns: (1) persistent inequality and unfairness, (2) domestic and international political tensions, (3) environmental dangers and (4) cyber vulnerabilities. We conclude by reflecting on the increased dangers of systemic breakdown.
Inequality and unfairness
One of the most striking findings of this year’s GRPS is the reduced prominence of economic risks (see Figure I, The Global Risks Landscape 2018). This continues the trend of recent years: as the financial crisis has receded, economic risks have faded sharply in prominence in GRPS responses, replaced increasingly by environmental risks. The latest results come at a time of improvement in the global economy, albeit a relatively modest one—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects global GDP growth of 3.6% for 2017, up from 3.2% in 2016.2 Recovery is underway in all of the major economies, leading to a sharp improvement in sentiment.
But it is important to ask whether this swing to optimism suggests the possibility of complacency and a developing blind spot around economic risks? There are certainly reasons to be cautious: one does not have to look far for signs of economic and financial strain. In the chapter Economic Storm Clouds (see page 18) we suggest that greater attention should be paid to the risks of another crisis erupting. Even without another crisis, economic risks can be hugely disruptive, and last year brought fresh evidence of chronic economic problems, particularly related to earnings and inequality. In its latest Global Wage Report, the International Labour Organization highlighted that worldwide earnings growth has been decelerating since 2012. It called, among other things, for the increased use of collective bargaining to reverse this trend.3 While global inequality is down, within-country inequality is an increasingly corrosive problem in many places. According to the IMF, over the past three decades 53% of countries have seen an increase in income inequality, with this trend particularly pronounced in advanced economies.4 Furthermore, today’s economic strains are likely to sow the seeds for longer-term problems. High levels of personal debt, coupled with inadequate savings and pension provisions, are one reason to expect that frustrations may deepen in the years ahead.
The importance of inequality is reflected again in the GRPS this year, with “rising income and wealth disparity” ranking third as a driver of global risks over the next 10 years. Automation is another potential driver of growing inequality, and this year’s GRPS reflects increasing concerns about its impacts on the labour market. When respondents were asked to highlight the most closely interconnected risks, the most frequently cited pairing was “adverse consequences of technological advances” and “high structural unemployment or underemployment”. Automation has already been a disruptive labour-market force,5 and its effects are likely to be long-lasting as new technologies diffuse throughout the global economy.6For the foreseeable future, automation and digitalization can be expected to push down on levels of employment and wages, and contribute to increases in income and wealth at the top of the distribution.
These are not just economic risks. Norms relating to work are an important part of the implicit contract that holds societies together. If many people’s hopes and expectations relating to employment are fraying, we should not be surprised if this has wider political and societal effects. The idea that “the system is rigged” has gained electoral traction in recent years, and research suggests that concerns about inequality rest on more fundamental worries about societal fairness.7One fault line around fairness that came to particular prominence in 2017 is gender. The global gender parity gap across health, education, politics and the workplace widened for the first time since we began tracking it in 2006,8while a succession of high-profile cases are highlighting continuing endemic levels of sexual harassment, both in the workplace and in society generally.9
Risks of conflict
Debates about the populist surge of recent years tend to pit economic causes against cultural ones, but there is a strong case for arguing that the two are closely related—that economic pain has been sufficiently concentrated among groups and geographic regions for those groups and regions to begin to assert themselves politically.10 Clashes related to identity and community continue to drive political dislocations in many countries and are increasingly fuelling cross-border tensions.
In the latest GRPS, societal polarization slipped slightly in respondents’ rankings of the main underlying drivers of global risks—replaced in the top three by rising cyber dependency—but it remains a politically destabilizing force. This is perhaps still most evident in the United Kingdom and the United States, the two Western countries that recorded dramatic anti-establishment democratic results in 2016. The United Kingdom’s political system is struggling to cope with the strains unleashed by the decision to leave the European Union, while in the United States deepening polarization has, among other things, weakened democratic debate and increased the confidence of far right movements.11
In Europe, fears about the rise of the far right were allayed by the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election in May 2017—but perhaps at the risk of fostering complacency about the region’s political stability. As highlighted by elections in Germany and Austria in late 2017, far right parties continue to grow in strength and influence in many European countries. More generally, issues of culture and identity are causing political tension within and between a growing number of EU countries, including Poland, Hungary and, in different ways, Spain. Polarization between groups with different cultural heritages or values looks set to remain a source of political risk in Western countries in 2018 and beyond.
Identity politics could fuel geopolitical as well as domestic risks. As discussed in the chapter Geopolitical Power Shifts (see page 36), charismatic strongman politics is on the rise across the world. In addition to the “America First” platform of President Trump, variations on this theme can be seen in numerous countries from China to Japan, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and elsewhere. The trend towards increasingly personalized power takes place amid rising geopolitical volatility. The escalation of geopolitical risks was one of the most pronounced trends of 2017, particularly in Asia, where the North Korea crisis has arguably brought the world closer than it has been for decades to the possible use of nuclear weapons. There are numerous other potential flashpoints around the world, not least in the Middle East, where an increasing number of destabilizing forces might lead to the eruption of new military conflicts in addition to those in Syria and Yemen.
Perhaps surprisingly given the febrile backdrop, there was relatively little movement of perception among the core geopolitical risks in the latest GRPS. However, when asked about risk trajectories in 2018 the level of concern is clear: 93% of respondents expect a worsening of “political or economic confrontations/frictions between major powers” this year. Perhaps more worryingly, nearly 80% of respondents reckoned that risks associated with “state-on-state military conflict or incursion” and “regional conflicts drawing in major power(s)” would be higher in 2018 than in 2017 (see Figure 1.1).
Geopolitical risks are exacerbated by the continuing decline in commitment to rules-based multilateralism. In 2017, President Trump delivered on some of his unilateralist campaign pledges, withdrawing the United States from both the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Although the United States has not withdrawn from the deal designed to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), in October 2017 President Trump signalled his dissatisfaction by refusing to certify that Iran is in compliance with it. It is to important note that all of these agreements remain in place and that other states and non-state actors have sought to compensate for the waning multilateralism of the United States. Nevertheless, the erosion of institutions of multilateral dialogue and decision-making damages the prospects of reaching new global agreements at a time when the need for cooperation looks more urgent than ever.
One institutional risk that is likely to intensify in 2018 relates to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its ability to resolve trade disputes. This is particularly important at a time when protectionist sentiment and policies are on the rise. However, the United States has been blocking appointments to the WTO’s seven-member appellate body; since December 2017 only four seats have been filled and in theory the body could cease functioning in 2019. A weakening of the global trading system’s institutional architecture creates risks beyond a renewed slowdown in trade and growth:12the possibility of trade tensions spilling over into increased geopolitical strains should not be dismissed. In this year’s GRPS, 73% of respondents said they expect the risks associated with the erosion of multilateral trade rules and agreements to increase next year (see Figure 1.1).
Figure 1.1: Geopolitical Worries
Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks Perception Survey 2017–2018.
Our planet on the brink
Environmental risks have grown in prominence over the 13-year history of the Global Risks Report, and this trend continued in the latest GRPS. All five risks in this category occupy the top-right quadrant of The Global Risks Landscape 2018 (see Figure I), indicating higher-than-average perceptions of both likelihood and impact. Among the most pressing environmental challenges facing us are extreme weather events and temperatures; accelerating biodiversity loss; pollution of air, soil and water; failures of climate-change mitigation and adaptation; and transition risks as we move to a low-carbon future. However, the truly systemic challenge here rests in the depth of the interconnectedness that exists both among these environmental risks and between them and risks in other categories—such as water crises and involuntary migration. And as the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico has starkly illustrated, environmental risks can also lead to serious disruption of critical infrastructure.
Extreme weather events in 2017 included unusually frequent Atlantic hurricanes, with three high-impact storms—Harvey, Irma and Maria—making landfall in rapid succession. According to the Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) index, which is used to measure the intensity and duration of Atlantic storms, September 2017 was the most intense month on record. It was also the most expensive hurricane season ever.13 These extreme incidents continue a trend towards increasingly costly weather events over recent decades (see the US data in Figure 1.2), although rising costs reflect factors such as the location and concentration of assets as well as changing weather patterns. Extreme rainfall can be particularly damaging—of the 10 natural disasters that caused the most deaths in the first half of 2017, eight involved floods or landslides.14 Storms and other weather-related hazards are also a leading cause of displacement, with the latest data showing that 76% of the 31.1 million people displaced during 2016 were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related events.15
Figure 1.2: Billion-Dollar Disasters
Number of US weather-related disasters
Source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2017). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/
Note: Data are inflation-adjusted and valid as of October 2017.
Last year also saw numerous instances of extreme temperatures. When the data are finalized, 2017 is expected to be among the three hottest years on record—the hottest was 2016—and the hottest non–El Niño year ever. In the first nine months of the year, temperatures were 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels and further increases are inevitable—the most ambitious target included in the Paris Agreement envisages increases only to 1.5°C. Average changes are giving rise to localized extremes: during 2017, record high temperatures were experienced from parts of southern Europe to eastern and southern Africa, South America, and parts of Russia and China. California had its hottest summer ever and by the end of November, wildfire burn across the United States was at least 46% above the 10-year average, and was continuing into December. Chile had its most extensive wildfires ever—eight times the long-run average—while in Portugal more than 100 wildfire-related deaths were recorded.16
Rising temperatures and more frequent heatwaves will disrupt agricultural systems that are already strained. The prevalence of monoculture production heightens vulnerability to catastrophic breakdowns in the food system—more than 75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and it is estimated that there is now a one-in-twenty chance per decade that heat, drought, and flood events will cause a simultaneous failure of maize production in the world’s two main growers, China and the United States. 17 This would cause widespread famine and hardship. Fears of “ecological Armageddon” are being raised by a collapse in populations of insects that are critical to food systems: researchers in Germany found falls in such populations of more than 75% over 27 years.18
More broadly, biodiversity loss is now occurring at mass-extinction rates.19 The populations of vertebrate species declined by an estimated 58% between 1970 and 2012.20 Globally, the primary driver of biodiversity loss is the human destruction of habitats including forests—which are home to approximately 80% of the world’s land-based animals, plants, and insects21 —for farming, mining, infrastructure development and oil and gas production. A record 29.7 million hectares of tree cover was lost in 2016—an area about the size of New Zealand. This loss was about 50 percent higher than 2015.22 As much as 80% of the deforestation in Amazon countries is accounted for by cattle ranching, suggesting that pressures on environmental and agricultural systems will intensify as the global population increases, pushing up demand for meat.
Pollution moved further to the fore as a problem in 2017: indoor and outdoor air pollution are together responsible for more than one tenth of all deaths globally each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). More than 90% of the world’s population live in areas with levels of air pollution that exceed WHO guidelines.23 Deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in low- and middle-income countries, where health problems caused by pollution exacerbate strains on already stretched health systems and public finances. In November 2017, a public health emergency was declared in Delhi when air pollution reached more than 11 times the WHO guideline levels.24 Urban air pollution is likely to worsen, as migration and demographic trends drive the creation of more megacities.
Soil and water pollution cause about half again as many deaths, according to findings published in October 2017 by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health.25 The Commission estimates the overall annual cost of pollution to the global economy at US$4.6 trillion, equivalent to around 6.2% of output. Many of the associated risks to health are still not well understood. Research suggests, for example, that the huge volume of plastic waste in the world’s water—approximately 8 million more tons every year26—is finding its way into humans. People eating seafood could be ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of micro-plastic every year.27 Micro-plastic fibres are found in 83% of the world’s tap water.28 One concern is that these micro-fibres could bind with compounds containing toxic pesticides or metals, providing these toxins with a route into the body.29
The growing urgency of acting to halt climate change was demonstrated in 2017 with the news that emissions of CO2 had risen for the first time in four years, bringing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 403 parts per million, compared with a pre-industrial baseline of 280 parts per million. The increase in emissions last year was partly a result of developments in China, where the heatwaves mentioned above led to a 6.3% increase in energy consumption, and extreme drought in the north of the country led to a switch from hydro to coal-fired power generation. There are reasons to expect further upward pressure on CO2 concentrations in the future. Having absorbed 93% of the increase in global temperatures between 1971 and 2010,30 the world’s oceans continue to get warmer and studies suggest that their capacity to absorb CO2 may be declining.31 Research also suggests that tropical forests are now releasing rather than absorbing carbon dioxide.32
The risk that political factors might disrupt efforts to mitigate climate change was highlighted last year when President Trump announced plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. However, several other major economies—notably China—reaffirmed their support of the Paris Agreement during 2017. In addition, many US businesses, cities and states have pledged to help deliver on the country’s emissions reduction targets. This kind of network of subnational and public-private collaboration may become an increasingly important means of countering climate change and other environmental risks, particularly at a time when nation-state unilateralism appears to be ascendant.
In addition to meeting the immediate environmental challenges that we face, we also need to focus more acutely on the potential economic and societal risks that may arise as transition to a low-carbon and environmentally secure world accelerates. Moves towards financial disclosures to quantify the transition risks that businesses face have been accelerating, as has the idea of fossil-fuel divestment.33 For example, in November 2017 the managers of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund recommended divesting from oil and gas shares, and in December the World Bank announced a moratorium after 2019 on financing upstream oil- and gas-related investments.34
The potential spillover effects of climate-related transition will be more far-reaching than its effect on financial disclosure norms. For example, dramatic changes in the way energy is produced are likely to trigger large-scale labour-market disruptions.35 Structural economic changes in affected countries and regions could also stoke societal and geopolitical risks. There is no scope for complacency about the sufficiency of global efforts to deal with climate change and the continued degradation of the global environmental commons. Equally, however, it is time to prepare for the structural challenges and changes that lie ahead as those efforts gather pace.
Cyber-defences are being tested
Moving from the environmental commons to the virtual commons, cyber-risks intensified in 2017. Although in previous years respondents to the GRPS have tended to be optimistic about technological risks, this year concerns jumped, and cyberattacks and massive data fraud both appear in the list of the top five global risks by perceived likelihood.
Attacks are increasing, both in prevalence and disruptive potential. Cyber breaches recorded by businesses have almost doubled in five years, from 68 per business in 2012 to 130 per business in 2017.36 Having been choked off by law enforcement successes in 2010–2012, “dark net” markets for malware goods and services have seen a resurgence:37 in 2016 alone, 357 million new malware variants were released and “banking trojans” designed to steal account login details could be purchased for as little as US$500.38 In addition, cybercriminals have an exponentially increasing number of potential targets, because the use of cloud services continues to accelerate and the Internet of Things is expected to expand from an estimated 8.4 billion devices in 2017 to a projected 20.4 billion in 2020.39 What would once have been considered large-scale cyberattacks are now becoming normal. For example, in 2016, companies revealed breaches of more than 4 billion data records, more than the combined total for the previous two years.40 Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks using 100 gigabits per second (Gbps) were once exceptional but have now become commonplace, jumping in frequency by 140% in 2016 alone.41 And attackers have become more persistent—in 2017 the average DDoS target was likely to be hit 32 times over a three-month period.42
The financial costs of cyberattacks are rising. A 2017 study of 254 companies across seven countries put the annual cost of responding to cyberattacks at £11.7 million per company, a year-on-year increase of 27.4%.43 The cost of cybercrime to businesses over the next five years is expected to be US$8 trillion.44 Some of the largest costs in 2017 related to ransomware, a rapidly growing form of malware that locks targets out of their data and demands a ransom in return for restoring access. Ransomware attacks accounted for 64% of all malicious emails sent between July and September last year,45 affecting double the number of businesses compared with 2016.46 Notable examples included the WannaCry attack, which affected 300,000 computers across 150 countries, and Petya and NotPetya, which caused huge corporate losses: for example, Merck, FedEx and Maersk each reported third-quarter losses of around US$300 million as a result of NotPetya.47
Beyond its financial cost, the WannaCry attack disrupted critical and strategic infrastructure across the world, including government ministries, railways, banks, telecommunications providers, energy companies, car manufacturers and hospitals. It illustrated a growing trend of using cyberattacks to target critical infrastructure and strategic industrial sectors, raising fears that, in a worst-case scenario, attackers could trigger a breakdown in the systems that keep societies functioning. Many of these attacks are thought to be state sponsored. WannaCry’s ultimate impact was relatively low, largely because a “kill switch” was discovered, but it highlighted the vulnerability of a wide range of infrastructure organizations and installations to disruption or damage. Since the 2015 attack on Ukraine’s power grid—which temporarily shut down 30 substations, interrupting power supply to 230,000 people48 —evidence has been mounting of further attempts to target critical infrastructure. In 2016, for example, an attack on the SWIFT messaging network led to the theft of US$81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh. The European Aviation Safety Agency has stated that aviation systems are subject to an average of 1,000 attacks each month.49 Last year saw reports of attempts to use spear-phishing attacks (stealing data or installing malware using individually targeted email scams) against companies operating nuclear power plants in the United States.50
Most attacks on critical and strategic systems have not succeeded—but the combination of isolated successes with a growing list of attempted attacks suggests that risks are increasing. And the world’s increasing interconnectedness and pace heightens our vulnerability to attacks that cause not only isolated and temporary disruptions, but radical and irreversible systemic shocks.
Our growing vulnerability to systemic risks
Humanity has become remarkably adept at understanding how to mitigate countless conventional risks that can be relatively easily isolated and managed with standard risk-management approaches. But we are much less competent when it comes to dealing with complex risks in systems characterized by feedback loops, tipping points and opaque cause-and-effect relationships that can make intervention problematic.51
Societies, ecosystems, economies and the global financial system are all examples of such complex systems, and they have various intersections. Think of how the world’s infrastructure—from power generation to transport networks—is increasingly digitally networked. Think of the tensions between our creaking global institutional framework and the pace of change in the 21st century. Think even of the ethical value systems that shape behaviour within and between countries, and the unpredictability that can result when there is a re-evaluation of what is acceptable and unacceptable.
When a risk cascades through a complex system, the danger is not of incremental damage but of “runaway collapse”—or, alternatively, a transition to a new, suboptimal status quo that becomes difficult to escape. For example, even though a runaway collapse of the global financial system was averted a decade ago, the global financial crisis triggered numerous economic, societal, political and geopolitical disruptions. Many are still only poorly understood, but they shape a “new normal” that in turn will create its own disruptions, spillovers and feedback loops in the months and years ahead.
As the pace of change accelerates, signs of strain are evident in many of the systems on which we rely. We cannot discount the possibility that one or more of these systems will collapse. Just as a piece of elastic can lose its capacity to snap back to its original shape, repeated stress can lead systems—organizations, economies, societies, the environment—to lose their capacity to rebound. If we exhaust our capacities to absorb disruption and allow our systems to become brittle enough to break, it is difficult to overstate the damage that might result.