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All the catastrophes that the World Economic Forum says we should worry about

Houses are swept by water following a tsunami and earthquake in Natori City in northeastern Japan March 11, 2011.
Reuters/ Kyodo
Hello, future.
  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate and emerging industries editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Every year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) asks its community of experts what keeps them up at night. Their answer is a collage of our greatest fears. For the year ahead, environmental risks top the list, climate foremost among them, alongside cybersecurity, in the wake of massive corporate data breaches, as well as election meddling and cyber-sabotage around the world.

The survey (pdf) collected about 760 responses in late 2017 from specialists in business, government, academia, non-profits, and international institutions. Respondents were asked to assess, on a scale of 1 to 5, the global likelihood and potential impact of a list of risk factors. While every global region was represented, 65% of responses came from Europe and North America.


At the heart of humanities’ challenges is social instability. The fragmenting of societies and international cooperation inhibits our ability to tackle systemic problems. The report finds the world has become “remarkably adept” at mitigating conventional risks, likely referring to disasters such as infrastructure failures or airline collisions, “we are much less competent when it comes to dealing with complex risks in the interconnected systems that underpin our world, such as organizations, economies, societies and the environment.”

The WEF warns that these complex systems will not gradually decay. Instead, they tend to suffer “runaway collapse,” and rapidly transition into less desirable state, such as the collapse of overexploited fisheries, which can’t recover past a certain threshold. This threat has intensified, the report states, as no international consensus on how to address the vulnerability of these systems has emerged among the world’s major powers.

Regardless, the trend lines are clear. Respondents are increasingly worried about climate change, which grabbed the top spots in terms of impact and likelihood.

Extreme weather events
Weapons of mass destruction
Natural disasters
Extreme weather events
Natural disasters
Data fraud or theft
Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation
Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation
Water crises
Large-scale involuntary migration
Man-made environmental disasters
Food crises
Terrorist attacks
Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse
Illicit trade
Large-scale involuntary migration
Asset bubbles in a major economy
Spread of infectious diseases

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