Environmental dangers, economic inequality and social polarisation are the main risks the world faces in the next ten years. This is the message of the latest Global Risks Report 2017 by the World Economic Forum, which evidences the complexity of these issues and their possible solutions.
Social, economic, environmental and political risks are increasingly interconnected, and the simultaneous occurrence of apparently disparate risks points to a potential systemic crisis, where any of these risks will always attack the weakest links (poorest communities, areas of water stress, etc.). Solutions to emerging problems must be horizontal, tackling all the causes, in a world where there are more initiatives than ever, but they are still insufficient. The links between income inequality, vulnerability to climatic catastrophes and social instability emphasise the need to direct economic policies to protecting the weakest.
Environmental dangers dominate global risk
The WEF has been analysing economic, environmental, geopolitical, social and technology risks since 2007. This year, the report warns mainly about the interconnections between environmental and social, economical and geopolitical risks, which result in involuntary migration, for example. The environmental risks that will have a negative impact in the next ten years are:
- Extreme weather events
- Failure of climate change mitigation or adaptation
- Natural disasters
- Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse
- Man-made environmental disasters
Great progress was made concerning environmental protection in 2016. On 4 November, the Paris Agreement came into force, setting a clear path towards emission reduction with the support of the most polluting countries, including the US and China. Another milestone was the inclusion of hydrofluorocarbons in the Montreal Protocol. Moreover, the cap on emissions by airlines on international flights will be set in 2020 (the industry is responsible for around 2% of global CO₂ emissions). According to the WEF's Global Risks Report, this collective momentum against global warming may be diminished, but not defeated, by recent political changes in Europe and US.
Meanwhile, reality is accelerating along its own bitter path. Extreme weather phenomena are now the main threat; in 2015 alone, one billion people were affected by natural disasters, while in 2016 we beat the record for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and also for temperature increases. Moreover, we continue to exploit natural resources at a record pace that is unevenly distributed (20% of the world's population consume 80% of the resources).
Getting ready for a world of constant change
At the moment, the average citizen's only voice with regard to technological development is in deciding whether or not to buy an iPhone. Nonetheless, this revolution has already marked our lives and, while offering great opportunities, the technology also poses risks that will force us to "rebuild society", taking into account that, according to research conducted at Oxford University, around 700 professions will be replaced by machines within just 20 years. We must face the impact of technological development, not only by considering the growing convenience it affords but also by focusing on the millions of people whose jobs will be phased out and become obsolete in the coming years.
In advanced societies and within less developed countries, the spectre of SDG 10 rises again: the need to reduce inequality, within and between countries. The unequal distribution of wealth confronts us with a dilemma that will affect the development of many countries: are we focused on making the cake bigger for a few, or on sharing it better?
Environmental threats evidence the urgent need to apply mitigation and adaptation measures. The current national commitments to reduce emissions (NDCs) will bring us to a situation where the temperature will increase by 2.7°C; consequently, we need to guarantee a more ambitious review of those commitments to comply with the Paris Agreement so as to keep the temperature rise below 2°C and prevent global warming from running out of control, in a situation whose consequences are unpredictable, as the scientific community warned in the fifth IPCC report
Philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, who died recently, described the present times under the "theory of liquid modernity", comprising complex societies in constant change, where risks can not be dealt with using simplistic miraculous solutions that belong more to populist improvisations. Perhaps one of the responsibilities of developed societies is that of understanding the complexity and interrelatedness of these problems, and providing not only financial resources but also human and technological resources, which are essential to achieve global cooperation on the major challenges.