We live in a world of risk – but not necessarily a world on the brink of disaster.  The reason for this is our risk awareness, aided by studies like the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) annual Global Risks Report 2024.  Armed with such foresight, we can plan contingencies and build buffers against the challenges facing us as we continue our journey towards becoming a truly sustainable civilization.

The latest WEF risks report, the 19th edition, published in January 2024, portrays a multifaceted risk matrix in both the near and long term.  It arrives after a year that was often all too newsworthy: A year officially declared the warmest on record[1].  A year of conflict and uncertainty in Europe and the Middle East.[2]  A year in which several leading lights of the AI revolution warned against the calamitous potential of the very technology they helped create.[3]

So, looking beyond the drama of the news headlines, what do the WEF’s analysts and survey respondents consider to be the most ominous flashpoints looming on our horizon?

Experts predict a more uncertain future

WEF Managing Director, Saadia Zahidi

WEF managing director Saadia Zahidi outlines a period of “rapidly accelerating technological change and economic uncertainty, as the world is plagued by a duo of dangerous crises: climate and conflict.”[4]

All these uncertainties, and more, feature prominently in the report, which is based on interviews with almost 1,500 experts across business, academia, civil society and government.

It examines risks deemed most pressing over the next two years, and those likely to come to the forefront over the coming decade.

In many regards, the outlook for the world over the next two years is troubled, with even shakier prospects when looking 10 years ahead.

In the short term (two years), experts predict an unsettled (54%), turbulent (27%) or even stormy (3%) period; just 16% anticipate stable or calm times.  In the longer term (10 years) such pessimism increases, with the same experts forecasting unsettled (29%), turbulent (46%) or stormy (17%) times, and a mere 9% expecting stable or calm conditions.

The risks within both forecast periods can be broken down into five categories:

  1. economic
  2. environmental
  3. geopolitical
  4. societal
  5. technological

Let us start with a deeper dive into the two-year outlook.

Misinformation tops short-term risk list

The year 2024 is already being heralded as the most significant ever from a political perspective, with a raft of major elections incoming.  In the US, voters could soon be deciding whether to send Donald Trump back to the White House as President for a second time.  In the UK, a power play is unfolding between the Conservative and Labour parties for control of the world’s sixth largest economy (US$ 3.3 trillion as of January 2024[5]).  Elections are also set to be held in the world’s largest democracy, India, as well as in Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia South Korea, the European Union and more.  Overall, some 49% of the world’s population will head to voting booths in 2024, often with stark choices on the ballot slips.[6]

In this context, it is perhaps understandable why the top two-year risk identified in the WEF report is ‘misinformation and disinformation’ – a threat which failed to register in 2023’s two-year risk list at all.

The increasing polarization of social media, combined with the danger of false news and AI-enabled deep-fake video and audio clips, could jeopardize the integrity of these crucial polls.

Together, according to the WEF, they threaten to undermine the legitimacy of newly-installed governments, with resulting unrest ranging from ‘violent protests and hate crimes to civil confrontation and terrorism’.  Ramifications could include more domestic propaganda, stricter censorship laws, tighter controls on independent media, or even limits on internet access.

On a severity scale of one to seven, more than half of respondents (54%) rated ‘misinformation and disinformation’ five or higher.

The two-year risk list also highlights ‘extreme weather events’, ‘interstate armed conflict’, ‘lack of economic opportunity’, ‘inflation’, ‘involuntary migration’ and ‘pollution’.  Cast our gaze further ahead, however, and the corresponding 10-year risk list is dominated by one meta-threat – the climate crisis.

Climate looms over long-term risk report

The top four spots on the WEF’s 10-year risk list are all based on deteriorating environmental conditions, demonstrating the existential threat posed by this unprecedented crisis.

These four prime hazards are, in order of predicted severity, ‘extreme weather events’, ‘critical changes to Earth systems’, ‘biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse’, and ‘natural resource shortages’.

That is not all.  ‘Pollution’ also merits a spot on the list, albeit in tenth place, with ‘involuntary migration’ registering in seventh.  The WEF categorizes involuntary migration as a societal risk, but its genesis is undoubtedly environmental in nature.  Without dramatic climate intervention, some estimates suggest hundreds of millions of people will have to abandon their homes by 2050[7], with “one to three billion people projected to be left outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6,000 years”.[8],[9]

While other dangers loom large on the WEF’s 10-year risk list (‘misinformation and disinformation’, ‘cyber insecurity’ and ‘societal polarization’), it is the climate crisis that will likely dictate downturns in living standards and developmental progress in the long term.

Before we shift our focus to this existential challenge, it is worth taking a closer look at two particular risk areas singled out for special analysis in the new report: The rising potential for interstate conflict, and the prospect of ceding our governorship of the world to ever-more capable AI systems.

Confronting risks of hostility and runaway AI

World events can unfold rapidly; the WEF’s investigation into the growing threat of large-scale warfare was compiled before the outbreak of conflict in the Levant region between Israel and Gaza.  Given developments in the Middle East since the report’s publication, it is likely the debut appearance of ‘interstate armed conflict’ at number five in the two-year risk rankings is merely a foretaste of a higher placement in next year’s list.

Israel, along with Taiwan and Ukraine, was prophetically identified as one of three hotspots for potential conflict escalation, posing ‘high-stakes’ risks for the global economy, security dynamics and international supply chains.

Active conflicts, the report notes, were already at their highest levels for decades, with a corresponding quadrupling of related deaths between 2020 and 2022 – largely attributed to wars in Ukraine and Ethiopia.

In a worst-case scenario, current hostilities could lead to ‘conflict contagion’, and an exponential growth in humanitarian crises.

The sands continue to shift beneath the feet of the established global order.  Ukraine cannot necessarily count on continued US support after the forthcoming November elections, which may embolden Russia.  At the same time, fossil fuel supplies and sea trade routes are endangered by the Middle East conflict, especially if it evolves to draw in adjacent states.  Either conflict has the potential to sink into “prolonged, sporadic” violence that could endure for decades to come.

Against this backdrop, forecasting the future becomes a trickier business.  In an increasingly multipolar world, the WEF warns, “a widening array of pivotal powers will step into the vacuum, potentially eroding guardrails to conflict containment”.[10]  More countries, particularly those considered resource-rich, might become “ungoverned”, falling prone to proxy warfare between neighboring economies, paramilitary groups and crime networks.

Such a turbulent new reality threatens to exacerbate widespread dissatisfaction at the ongoing political and economic dominance of the Global North.  And these gnawing grievances could well intensify if the impending bounties promised by advanced AI serve to accentuate wealth disparities worldwide.

Quite apart from widening the rich/poor divide, AI comes with its own suite of potential consequences.

In an ideal world, an untested, embryonic technology like AI would be rolled-out gradually, with powerful safety measures in place to prevent unforeseen consequences.  But this is not an ideal world.  It is a world where interstate competitiveness and national security myopia could see AI unleashed hurriedly and in a spirit of self-interest.  A world where, in the words of the WEF report, “deeper integration of AI in conflict decisions could lead to unintended escalation, while open access to AI applications may asymmetrically empower malicious actors”.[11]

We cannot simply curtail research into AI.  It is already with us in its present, immature form, and will only accelerate from here, often in tandem with other technologies such as synthetic biology and quantum computing.  Nor should we wish to prohibit its growth entirely, considering the productivity benefits it promises and the associated advances in climate change, education and healthcare.  Medical care could be unrecognizable a decade from now, with x-rays scanned for anomalies by AI interpreters, and a range of conditions treated with novel drugs barely imagined at present.

Still, the speed of AI progress should be paramount in the minds of both private sector players driving the technology’s evolution, and public sector lawmakers wielding vital regulatory powers.  Each group could prove pivotal in constraining AI’s potential impacts on misinformation, job losses, criminal activity, cyberattacks, terrorism and discrimination.

One thing is certain, “unchecked proliferation of increasingly powerful, general-purpose AI technologies,” the WEF cautions, “will radically reshape economies and societies over the coming decade – for better and for worse.”[12]

With luck and care, we could learn to tame the excesses of AI and eventually harness it as a force for good.  With equal diligence, we could one day tame our own human excesses and neuter our propensity for armed conflict.  However, one risk continues to tower above them all: Global warming and the breakdown of our ecological life support system.

Alarm at rapid approach of 1.5oC milestone

The impact of climate change a decade from now, and further into the future, is deemed to have undergone a “systemic shift” in this year’s WEF risk analysis.  This, the report states, is because the threshold of limiting global heating to 1.5oC above pre-industrial temperatures (as specified in the 2015 Paris Agreement) is now expected to be breached in the early-to-mid 2030s.

Indeed, that could even prove an optimistic outlook.  The World Meteorological Organization, a UN agency, released a report last year predicting a 66% chance that Earth would start intermittently crossing the 1.5oC milestone as soon as 2027.[13]

All respondent groups to the WEF survey agree that changes to Earth systems pose a severe risk over the next decade.  Yet the report goes on to consider whether environmental hazards could conspire to catapult us beyond 1.5°C towards the nightmare scenario of a 3°C warmer world – a world to which we cannot hope to adapt.

What would exceeding such a tipping point mean?  Imagine long-term and self-perpetuating shifts on critical planetary mechanisms, with sudden and severe impacts on human welfare.  These could manifest in sharp sea level rises from collapsing ice sheets, carbon release from thawing permafrost, and irreversible disruption to oceanic or atmospheric currents.  Even where mitigation technologies exist, there could be severe implications for legal liabilities, geopolitical dynamics and the climate agenda.

Even at 1.5°C, our systems are likely to commence irrevocable decay: The abrupt thawing of permafrost, low-latitude coral reef die-off, and the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets.

The unpredictable interconnectedness of many of these impacts is especially pernicious, making cascading impacts hard to forecast.  The WEF cites the example of the Greenland Ice Sheet melting, leading to an influx of fresh water, which in turn destabilizes the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, thereby melting the West Antarctic Ice Sheet even faster.

Many global economies, it is feared, remain wholly unprepared for the coming shocks of climate change.  After all, climate tipping points could herald not just biodiversity loss, but also ecosystem collapse, more extreme weather events and a dire shortage of natural resources.  Socioeconomic ripples will follow: Mass migrations, border conflicts, spikes in infectious diseases (particularly if ancient viruses are released from melting permafrost) and widespread economic crashes.  Declining agricultural outputs and increasing water scarcity could forever rupture global trade patterns and alliances.

Funding shortfalls mean we are not preparing for climate change with due urgency.  The difference between current international finance commitments, and estimated adaptation finance requirements by 2030, is a sobering US$ 366 billion per year.

Bold strategies offer hope for climate mitigation

While the outlook for climate-based risks is deeply concerning, there is plenty of cause for optimism, and many reasons for tackling the emerging issues with vigor.

Current climate modelling tools remain less than perfect and come with sizable margins of error.  The increasing sophistication of AI, while carrying its own risk potential, promises a new dawn for predictive analytics.  Equipped with more detailed and reliable data about tipping points and the effectiveness of potential remedies, governments and private bodies will soon be able to target their resources towards the most impactful strategies with unprecedented efficiency.

“These efforts could be supported through the creation of a global data commons for climate science,” the WEF notes, “alongside further investment in relevant equipment (such as remote sensing equipment and computing power) and ecological forecasting.”[14]

Global treaties are regarded as the most potent weapon for tackling climate change, among respondents to the latest risk survey.  Properly designed and integrated, such agreements are the fastest way to ensure robust emission reductions and avoid the most dangerous tipping points.

To further increase their effectiveness, these treaties (of which the COP28 climate agreement is the most high profile example) need supporting with national and local regulations.

Other strategies gaining traction include:

  • Better early warning systems, promising more rapid responses to imminent climate and weather-based events.
  • States, NGOs and development banks working to de-risk private sector investments in environmental projects.
  • ESG (environmental, social and governance) investments opening new funding pathways for priority projects and R&D ventures aimed at counteracting the environmental crisis.
  • Decentralized energy networks, based on wind, solar and hydro power, strengthening resilience at community level.
  • Geoengineering overcoming early misgivings and counteracting key drivers of climate change. While doubts remain over its scalability, carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) projects raise the prospect of removing ever larger amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.  CCUS investment reached a record US$ 6.4 billion in 2023.  Other geoengineering technologies, such as solar radiation management (SRM), propose cooling the climate directly, perhaps by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere or brightening marine clouds to increase reflectivity.
  • The growing public awareness of climate change and explosion in neighborhood action groups. The Climate Action Network, notably, is a global collective of more than 1,900 civil society organizations across some 130 countries driving sustainable climate action and campaigning for social justice.[15]

Strident support from the private sector is essential for any of these remedial actions to pay dividends.  It is here where organizations like Abdul Lateef Jameel can emerge as a powerful force for change.

Working together to de-risk a precarious world

In line with UN Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals, we are using the power of our private capital to help de-risk the world by combating climate change and spurring a green recovery.

Green energy is the cornerstone of cleaner communities for the future.  Our flagship renewable energy business, Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV) oversees an expanding portfolio of wind, solar, energy storage and hybrid energy projects throughout the Middle East, Europe and Latin America and Australia.

FRV’s innovation arm, FRV-X, is spearheading efforts to ensure 24/7 renewable energy supplies to homes everywhere.  Already FRV-X manages utility-scale battery storage (BESS) plants across the UK at Contego, West Sussex; Holes Bay, Dorset; and Clay Tye, Essex; along with a hybrid solar and BESS plant at Dalby, Queensland, Australia.  FRV-X continues to expand its reach, purchasing two additional BESS projects in the UK in autumn 2022 along with a majority stake in a BESS project in Greece.

FRV-X is also behind a US$ 10.6 million investment in ecoligo, a German ‘solar-as-a-service’ provider that develops bespoke solar projects in underdeveloped markets.  Each is funded by individual investors sourced via a crowd investment platform.  Currently, ecoligo’s operations span South America, Africa and Asia.

Water shortages could represent a potential risk vector sooner than anticipated, with some 700 million people facing displacement due to intense water scarcity by 2030.[16]  We are helping to combat water risks through Almar Water Solutions, part of Abdul Latif Jameel Energy and Environmental Services.  The focus here is on strengthening the efficiency of water systems to ensure cleaner and more plentiful supplies of this essential resource.

With an every-growing global population, food security is equally prominent on our agenda.  The Jameel Water and Food Systems lab at MIT (J-WAFS), co-founded by Community Jameel in 2014, drives research and innovation to solve urgent food system challenges.  Another Community Jameel/MIT collaboration, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), promotes the virtues of science-based policymaking to combat the scourge of global poverty.

Fady Jameel
Deputy President & Vice Chairman
Abdul Latif Jameel

“If 2023 has proven anything it is that risk, far from being static, is an ever-evolving concept,” says Fady Jameel, Deputy President and Vice Chairman, International, Abdul Latif Jameel.  

“The latest WEF Global Risks Report is astute in focusing on climate breakdown and the rise of hostile AI, but already its respondents might feel caught unawares by the sudden rise in armed conflict globally.

“This turbulence, however, is no reason to jettison entirely the idea of forecasting risk.  

The coming year will bring its own perils, its own challenges, its own revelatory data.  Far from surrendering to a chaotic world, the onus is on us to counter the meta-threat of global warming with renewed vigor, while targeting the kind of global cohesion that fosters stability and coordinated action.”

Our shared awareness of the challenges lying ahead motivate these initiatives to build a safer, fairer world for generations to come.  Those who inherit the Earth will face unique risks of their own, and the examples we set now will echo long into the future.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2024/jan/03/2023-hottest-year-on-record-fossil-fuel-climate-crisis

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-67972962

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/may/05/geoffrey-hinton-godfather-of-ai-fears-for-humanity

[4] https://www.weforum.org/publications/global-risks-report-2024/

[5] https://www.forbesindia.com/article/explainers/top-10-largest-economies-in-the-world/86159/1

[6] https://time.com/6550920/world-elections-2024/

[7] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2021/09/13/climate-change-could-force-216-million-people-to-migrate-within-their-own-countries-by-2050

[8] https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1910114117

[9] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20221117-how-borders-might-change-to-cope-with-climate-migration

[10] https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Global_Risks_Report_2024.pdf

[11] https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Global_Risks_Report_2024.pdf

[12] https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Global_Risks_Report_2024.pdf

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/may/17/global-heating-climate-crisis-record-temperatures-wmo-research

[14] https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Global_Risks_Report_2024.pdf

[15] https://climatenetwork.org/

[16] https://www.unicef.org/wash/water-scarcity