Income disparity 'biggest risk to global security'

Michael Millar
9 January 2013

LONDON (ShareCast) - The biggest single threat to global security in the next ten years is severe income disparity, according to the World Economic Forum's annual Global Risks Report.

The survey of more than 1,000 experts from industry, government, academia and civil society, also found the risk that would cause the most damage - were it to happen - is major systemic financial failure.

Two risks appeared in the top five risk categories in terms of impact and likelihood - chronic fiscal imbalances and water supply crisis.

Unforeseen consequences of life science technologies was the biggest mover among global risks in terms of likelihood.

Meanwhile, unforeseen negative consequences of regulation moved the most on the impact scale when comparing the result with last year's report.

Economic environment
The 2013 report also puts forward three in-depth "risk cases" based on analysis of survey data.

The first is a combination of stress of the global economy and the Earth's environmental system.

"Future (LSE: FUTR.L - news) simultaneous shocks to both systems could trigger the 'perfect global storm', with potentially insurmountable consequences," the WEF's report warns.

"On the economic front, global resilience is being tested by bold monetary and austere fiscal policies.

"On the environmental front, the Earth's resilience is being tested by rising global temperatures and extreme weather events that are likely to become more frequent and severe.

"A sudden and massive collapse on one front is certain to doom the other's chance of developing an effective, long-term solution," it says.

The report also questions whether misinformation spread on the Internet could have an effect similar to the 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds (OTC BB: WDDD - news) .

Thousands of Americans confused the drama with an official news broadcast and panicked, in the belief that the United States had been invaded by Martians.

"While the benefits of our hyperconnected communication systems are undisputed, they could potentially enable the viral spread of information that is either intentionally or unintentionally misleading or provocative," the report says.

"Imagine a real-world example of shouting 'fire!' in a crowded theatre.

"In a virtual equivalent, damage can be done by rapid spread of misinformation even when correct information follows quickly."

Killer bacteria
The third scenario the report flags up is emerging pandemics or chronic illnesses.

It warns that antibiotics that we rely on day-to-day may no longer be readily available in the near future as bacteria mutate.

"Until now, new antibiotics have been developed to replace older, increasingly ineffective ones," the report notes.

"However, human innovation may no longer be outpacing bacterial mutation," it warns.

"None of the new drugs currently in the development pipeline may be effective against certain new mutations of killer bacteria that could turn into a pandemic."

Alien life
The WEF also outlines risks that it calls 'X Factors', which may be unlikely, but could be disastrous nonetheless.

These include runaway climate change and rogue deployment of geo-engineering, where a state or private individual could use technology currently under development to manipulate weather systems.

It goes as far as covering the impact of the discovery of alien life.

"Proof of life elsewhere in the universe could have profound psychological implications for human belief systems," the report warns.

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