We’re in a new ‘polycrisis’ era and the World Economic Forum just warned us what to prepare for

A man walks past a stuck boat in a dried-out riverbed in Iraq
Climate change is just one crisis the world is facing.
ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images

Multiple concurrent economic, political, and ecological shocks are converging to rock the globe in the next decade, and the world is playing catch-up to address them.

The next 10 years are shaping up to be a transformational period for the world economy, which is under threat from a number of interrelated crises. The veteran economist and well-known pessimist Nouriel Roubini, also known as Dr. Doom for his gloomy forecasts of the future, broke down 10 massive economic challenges in his recent book Megathreats, ranging from unprecedented debt chaos to global climate disruption. 

The world has faced each of these crises individually before, but experts including Roubini and economic historian Adam Tooze fear that these threats could morph into a singular “polycrisis,” a state of risk where multiple crises intersect to amplify their collective impact. And now one of the world’s premier forums for international business and political cooperation agrees we are on the brink of such a crisis.

While governments and business leaders around the world are racing to meet short-term challenges such as rising inflation and recession risks, long-term risks may converge into a polycrisis by the end of the decade according to a new report on global risks by the World Economic Forum.

“The world’s collective focus is being channeled into the ‘survival’ of today’s crises,” the WEF’s managing director Saadia Zahidi wrote in a preface to the report. “Yet much-needed attention and resources are being diverted from newly emerging or rapidly accelerating risks.”

Long-term threats

The report, released Wednesday ahead of the WEF’s annual conference of economic and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland, next week, interviewed 1,200 global risk experts associated with the WEF hailing from academia, business, and politics. Experts were surveyed on their views regarding major short- and long-term risks facing the world in the decade ahead. 

While issues such as rising cost of living, slow economic growth, and tight global food and energy supplies rank as pressing short-term global risks, the report found that long-term threats primarily center on ecological crises. 

The four most pressing long-term risks over the coming decade are failure to mitigate climate change, failure to adapt to climate change, extreme weather events, and the threat of biodiversity collapse. Left unaddressed, the WEF says, short- and long-term risks could combine to create a collective crisis world leaders may not be prepared for.

“These present and future risks can also interact with each other to form a ‘polycrisis’—a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects, such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part,” the report said.

The “polycrisis” era

The WEF’s report adds to a growing chorus of warnings about the collective risks humanity could face in the next decade.

Tooze even popularized the term “polycrisis” as a complex network of entangled crises that once put together make the task of addressing all of them significantly harder. He heralded the arrival of a polycrisis age in a Financial Times op-ed last year, warning that geopolitical crises combined with the threat of global ecological collapse were just the beginning.

“Our tightrope walk with no end is only going to become more precarious and nerve-racking,” he wrote, as isolationism takes hold and global cooperation becomes less tenable.

The WEF report made the same case that while global cooperation is normally a “guardrail” against global risks, geopolitical dynamics in the first half of the 2020s stemming from U.S.-China tensions and the Ukraine war threaten to weaken international ties to tackle climate change and global development when they are most needed. 

The Ukraine war has also refocused many governments’ priorities toward short-term risks, the WEF said, by triggering global food and energy shortages while aggravating inflation worldwide. Long-term risks have consequently received relatively little attention, the report warned, contributing to the risk of a polycrisis.

“In the years to come, as continued, concurrent crises embed structural changes to the economic and geopolitical landscape, they accelerate the other risks that we face,” the report said.

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