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We Must Overcome Our Divisions and Come Together to Face Longterm Global Risks

4 minute read
Zahidi is a Managing Director and Head of the Centre for the New Society and Economy at the World Economic Forum  

As the world enters the third year of living through a pandemic, people are struggling.

COVID-19 has caused a staggering 5.4 million deaths globally and led to an additional 53 million cases of major depression. Notwithstanding the Great Resignation in advanced economies, global employment lags behind its pre-pandemic levels. And extreme weather is compounding a jobs crisis as it impacts business operations, working conditions and living standards globally.

Health and welfare challenges are weighing on societies, rich and poor. Today, the world’s top short-term risks include environmental catastrophe, social division and health concerns—according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022, which draws on the views of nearly 1,000 experts, policymakers, and industry leaders.

These global threats are compounding anxieties within borders. According to the report, social cohesion erosion is the risk that worsened the most due to COVID-19. Just 11% of experts believe the global recovery will accelerate towards 2024, while 84% are either concerned or worried about the outlook for the world. Meanwhile, domestic strife is growing: differing views over vaccinations and COVID-related restrictions are adding to social pressures, with several countries experiencing riots against national pandemic responses.

Yet experts are clear on the most pressing long-term challenge: addressing the climate and nature crisis. Environmental challenges dominate the long-term risk outlook; climate change, extreme weather and nature loss also rank as the three most severe risks for the next decade.

Short-term domestic pressures, along with pervasive disillusionment and mistrust, makes taking action on the climate crisis even more complicated. Social, political and economic realities will lead to divergent transition paths that risk stranding swathes of workers, further polarizing societies and rendering decarbonization efforts futile. Already, the most optimistic scenario for global warming estimates a 1.8°C increase in temperature.

Immediate concerns will also limit the attention and political capital that some governments worldwide will allocate to longer-term issues. Stronger national interest postures risk further fracturing the global economy and impacting the foreign aid and cooperation needed to resolve conflicts, protect refugees and address humanitarian emergencies.

COVID-19 responses could also exacerbate long-term risks if not addressed with an eye toward the future. In the poorest 52 economies, home to a fifth of the world’s population, the vaccination rate is just 6%. Vaccine disparity means that some economies have been able to sprint towards recovery while many are still struggling to get back on their feet.

The adoption of new digital practices and technologies spurred by the pandemic are also forcing relatively disconnected workers and countries to prioritize digital access over security to avoid getting stranded in the pre-pandemic economy. With ransomware attacks alone increasing by 435% in 2020, as parts of the world move rapidly toward an Internet 3.0 and the metaverse, the risk of vulnerabilities in this space will only grow.

But the future presents an opportunity for advanced and developing countries alike to build resilience and, in that way, restore public confidence.

Resilience starts at home. Governments need to rebalance risks and rewards so that neither taxpayers nor businesses alone bear the cost of confronting future crises. They must create data-sharing agreements to ensure rapid response and continuity of critical systems and streamline regulation to allow flexibility in in times of crisis.

At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has again proven that global challenges need global solutions. Stronger multilateral governance and more effective international risk mitigation are essential. On climate action, the urgency to recover jobs and livelihoods will make it especially harder for developing economies to balance short-term domestic pressures with long-term planetary goals. As a result, advanced and developing economies will need to cooperate more closely with each other to leverage the financing and technical cooperation mechanisms that emanated from COP26.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how vulnerable our economies and societies can be. Global leaders must come together now to address these rising threats and create durable solutions for the years ahead.

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