Davos Crib Sheet: Top Global Risks of 2013 (Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid)

Want to know what keeps the people behind Davos up at night? Pretty much everything.

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With world leaders, business titans, celebrity do-gooders and other publicity-and-hors-d’oeuvres hounds gathering in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland this week for the World Economic Forum annual meeting, now is as good a time as any to examine what this self-appointed group of world savers believes are the most pressing and/or dangerous problems at which to aim their impressive intellects. So here, for your reading pleasure and/or terror, is a highly edited summary and analysis of the WEF’s Global Risks 2013 report. It’s interesting reading, as much for what it tells us about the 1,000 experts whose opinions factored into its formation as it does about society’s impending perils. The good news—if such a phrase can be used to describe a report whose subject matter runs the gamut from “cyber attacks” through “rising religious fanaticism” all the way to “militarization of space”—is that only two threats appear on the WEF’s lists of top-five risks by likelihood and by impact. That is, according to the thousand or so experts from industry, academia, and civil society asked by the WEF to evaluate a set of 50 global risks—which Scientific American did a splendid job putting into graphic form—only two of those deemed most likely to cause the most damage are also deemed likely to happen in the near future.

So, yes, the phrase “good news” is relative. “Bad news,” on the other hand, can be used without qualification, in that all the WEF’s most-likely risks are fairly terrifying, and none of the high-impact dangers seem especially far-fetched. But don’t let us influence your personal threat level; decide for yourself:

Top 5 Most-Likely Risks

1. Severe Economic Disparity

2. Chronic Fiscal Imbalances

3. Rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions

4. Water Supply Crises

5. Mismanagement of Population Aging

Top 5 Highest-Impact Risks

1. Major Systemic Financial Failure

2. Water Supply Crises

3. Chronic Fiscal Imbalances

4. Food Shortage Crises

5. Diffusion of Weapons of Mass Destruction

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As riveting as these lists of really bad things are—as well as Eurasia Group’s Top Risks 2013 and Ernst & Young’s Top 10 Risks—the WEF report also highlights three “risk cases,” a trio of problems chosen for in-depth analysis. Each reveals a set of circumstances and dynamics that any commerce-minded humans, or humans in general, ought to keep in mind when making plans, business or otherwise. That said, not all of them seem equally scary. They are:

Testing Economic and Environmental Resilience. The central issue explored here is the prospect of what the report authors term the “perfect global storm”—simultaneous environmental and economic catastrophes—and the ability of national and collective efforts to deal with them. In this case, the WEF seems justified in ringing alarm bells. It’s difficult not to see this threat as real and pressing, and just as difficult to identify more than a handful of national governments (or any outside of Scandinavia) with the wherewithal and political functionality to handle such a one-two punch.

Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World. The problem targeted here? The internet, essentially. (Turns out it’s a dangerous place for rumors and viruses!) But while it’s true that the WWW is ideally suited to aid and abet global freakouts among the citizenry and viral sickness among the hardware, it’s also true that the technology is ideally suited to put out these wildfires, with orders of magnitude more people thinking about stopping arsonists than there are folks throwing gasoline on the flames. In other words, the WEF might be making more out of this potential conflagration than it deserves.

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The Dangers of Hubris on Human Health. We’d be hard-pressed  to argue against any threat evaluation based on human hubris. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the Star Trek franchise, it’s that we’re a particularly arrogant species. But the underlying premise of this test case—the rising resistance of bacteria to antibiotics—feels at once important but overblown. While its true that super bacteria are becoming more common, it’s also true that parts of the medical-industrial complex and global health establishments have been slow to recognize the scope and urgency of the the dilemma. Now that most everyone who matters is focused on the threat of increasing resistance, it’s hard not see new frontiers of bacteria-fighting being blazed in the coming decade. (And we’re not just talking about fecal transplants.)

Feeling better? Or worse?

Whatever your answer, the extent to which you experience the above or any of the threats outlined in the WEF report is surprisingly dependent on your demographics—specifically, your age, gender, location, and employment sector.  As it happens, one of the more interesting aspects of Global Risks 2013 is its discussion about who among the experts surveyed was most likely to identify threats in general as more pressing or dangerous.

In general, residents of North American were more anxious, generally rating risks as more of a problem than those from other regions of the globe. Some of the biggest bogeymen for North Americans are “chronic fiscal imbalances,” “prolonged infrastructure neglect,” “rising greenhouse gas emissions,” “diffusion of weapons of mass destruction,” and “cyber attacks.”

Likewise, people who work for NGOs were more likely to rate risks as more problematic than people who work for governments or business. The same goes for women, who were generally more likely to rate any and all risks as more dangerous and more likely to occur. (Although women are often thought to be more optimistic than men, the WEF findings dovetail with recent research suggesting that men in general are more optimistic than women when it comes to economic matters.)

Finally, respondents 40 or younger were consistently more concerned about risks than those 40 and up, specifically seeing “prolonged infrastructure neglect,” “failure of climate change adaptation,” “rising greenhouse gas emissions” and “diffusion of weapons of mass destruction” as more likely to escalate in the  next decade than were their older peers.

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This last divide might, in the end, may be the most important takeaway from Global Risks 2013. It’s hard to argue against the notion that a large chunk of the blame for many of the world’s problems falls in the lap of political and business leaders in the second half of their careers. The fact that those in the first half of theirs are more anxious, in general, augurs well for the prospects that real change may happen, and soon.

Call it a needle of optimism in a haystack of gloom.