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New Surveys Aim To Shed Light On Top Global Risks And Their Interlinkages

As the COVID-19 crisis and the knock-on effects to our social, economic and governance systems dominate our newstreams and lives, in this blog post we look at what we can learn from two recent surveys on global risks, including foresight on where do we go from here? 

A glance at media headlines this year hammers home that the risks we are facing as a society are increasingly complex, interconnected and global in scale. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how deeply interdependent and fragile our economic, environmental and social systems are.  But it is also pointing to how resilient societies can be in the face of crisis. Understanding which risks matter the most and how different risks are structurally connected is essential to help us build effective responses and become more resilient.

In late 2019 an international research team from the Future Earth community conducted a major survey of over 200 global change scientists on their perceptions of what are the most urgent global risks facing the planet and on the interconnections among these risks (full report and results here). They compare their results with those of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2020  in a new commentary in Earth’s Future.  In light of the current pandemic, the team has also launched a new rapid foresight survey to better understand how people’s perception of these risks are changing in response to this global crisis, and what are the opportunities to rebuild towards a more resilient, sustainable and equitable future.

We spoke with the survey team members, Maria Ivanova, Matthais Garschagen, and Sylvia Wood to learn more. 

What was the most interesting new finding from your 2019 Global Risks Scientists’ Perception survey? 

Matthias Garschagen: It was interesting to see that our survey revealed similarities with the annual Global Risks Report produced by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In both surveys – ours with global change scientists and well as the one by the World Economic Forum with business leaders and other top-level decision makers – environmental risks dominated the top-ranked risks. These include extreme weather events, a failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as well as environmental disasters.  This agreement, in principle, provides an opportunity for prioritizing and mobilizing action on those top risks. However, where the two surveys differ is in the perceived urgency of these risks. Scientists taking our survey saw the likelihood of these risks as more urgent than the WEF survey community (see figure and caption, Garschagen et al. 2020). This divergence raises two key questions which need to be addressed: How can this difference be explained and which implications does it have for our ability to foster collective action for risk reduction. (See Risk Website page and commentary).


Figure source: Garschagen et al. 2020, Earth’s Future

Why is it important to consider the science community’s perception of risk when the WEF Global Risk Report has annually produced analysis on this topic for the last 15 years? 

Sylvia Wood: Over the past 15 years, the WEF annual Global Risks Reports has captured the perceptions of world leaders in business and policy on global risks. These have been important for shaping much of the global discourse on risks. But as global risks become increasingly complex and interrelated it is no longer possible for any one community to accurately and legitimately appraise risks. It is vital that we start to capture and bring together the perceptions of risk from multiple communities, including the science community. Global change scientists can provide unique insight on global risks. These scientists are trained to think about the world as a complex system where the natural and social systems that underpin risks are interrelated and can behave in unexpected ways. 

The voices of other communities also need to be brought into dialogues on global risks if we want to legitimately appraise risks on behalf of the global society and the planet. Only through more inclusive dialogues can different segments of society develop a common and shared understanding of risks, and move towards developing common strategies to address them. 

 What other interesting findings did the survey reveal?

Maria Ivanova: What stood out for me was the importance of the interactions between and among global risks (see figure below). Where we fall short is in our response to these risks. We continue to think about and act on risks as if they are separate and independent and the current global health crisis evidences this. The results of the survey, scientific literature, and the situation we now find ourselves in make clear that these risks are not separate, but interconnected. To address and mitigate these risks our responses need to be equally interconnected and integrated. Indeed, we are in dire need of effective global collective action

Figure source: Future Earth, 2020

Matthias Garschagen: I was very interested in the list of risks the surveyed scientists identified as the most important emerging risks, in addition to the top 30 global risks that the World Economic Forum has been assessing for some years. From answers that our respondents provided we pulled out seven common cited risks. Of these most were social risks such as the erosion of social cohesion or the perceived rise of inequality. I find this fact interesting because many of our top ranked risks were environmental, and this list of emerging risks suggests we might be overlooking some important societal trends which have potential to undermine human security. 

The survey results were published before the current pandemic and called for the world’s academics, business leaders, and policymakers to ensure that global risks are treated as interacting systems, rather than addressed one at a time, in isolation. How do you see this unfolding now?

Maria Ivanova: At the moment the governance systems at both the national and the global level are not able to address interconnected risks and their outcomes in a coherent or coordinated manner. Our current responses to crises and disasters are happening in an ad-hoc fashion. We are often caught off guard and surprised when these events have cascading impacts in other systems and are rarely prepared to act and this has been the situation in almost every country around the globe in the face of the current pandemic. A number of institutions jump in to deal with a crisis but function independently. Moreover, they often engage in unproductive competition. Effective response to global risks will require a much more effective system of global governance where national and international institutions act jointly with a view of the planetary situation to address interconnected risks.

What is this new rapid foresight survey about?

Sylvia Wood: The COVID-19 global pandemic is causing major disruption to our daily lives and the social, economic and governance systems that underpin them. While this is challenging, it also opens up opportunities to reconsider how these systems are built and how we want to rebuild them as we recover from COVID-19. To do this in a way that supports a more equitable and resilient future we need many perspectives and many voices contributing to this conversation which is why we are conducting the global survey asking, Where do we go from here?  This crisis also provides an opportunity to see how people’s perceptions on what the major global risks will be over the next 10 years have changed in light of the current health crisis. Interestingly neither the surveyed scientists nor the business world ranked the risk of Infectious Diseases as very likely in the previous surveys, although both groups rated them as having potentially major to severe impacts. Given that we are now living through a global crisis and seeing the interconnections that it can trigger, we are keen to now track with this survey how perceptions on risk may have changed and will continue to change as we adapt to a new normal. 

For more on survey participants, methodology and the full results, go to:


This blog post written with the input of:

Dr. Matthias Garschagen, Department of Geography, Human-Environment Relations, Ludwig-Maximillians Universität München 

Dr. Maria Ivanova, Center for Governance and Sustainability, John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts 

Dr. Sylvia Wood, Future Earth