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Intel community warns of fragile future shaped by pandemics, climate change

Intel community warns of fragile future shaped by pandemics, climate change
© Julia Nikhinson

A new report from the U.S. intelligence community paints a bleak picture of what Americans can expect over the next 20 years, warning of a planet that will be ravaged by pandemics and climate change.

“During the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded the world of its fragility,” the report states. “In coming years and decades, the world will face more intense and cascading global challenges ranging from disease to climate change to the disruptions from new technologies and financial crises.”

The Global Trends report comes from the National Intelligence Council, a wing of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and provides an assessment every four years on the “trends and uncertainties” the U.S. can expect over the next two decades.

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The latest report, released Thursday, paints a picture of a world sure to be shaped by the aftermath of a global pandemic that will sharpen existing inequalities in wealth and health care while heightening nationalism and polarization.

“Efforts to contain and manage the virus have reinforced nationalist trends globally as some states turned inward to protect their citizens and sometimes cast blame on marginalized groups,” the report stated.

“The response to the pandemic has fueled partisanship and polarization in many countries as groups argue over the best way to respond and seek scapegoats to blame for spreading the virus and for slow responses.”

It’s also expected to exacerbate existing health challenges, including battling other infectious diseases and growing resistance to antibiotic treatments.

COVID-19 has also had a severe impact on many countries' economies, a trend the report says will continue as new technologies replace workers. Those challenges will be compounded as climate change increases demands on resources and fuels migrations, according to the report.

The report says that COVID-19 “is slowing and possibly reversing” gains made on the international development front, particularly the reduction of poverty and disease and closing gender inequality gaps.

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Meanwhile, the report says that the breadth and speed at which artificial intelligence could replace current jobs makes it unclear whether countries will be able to generate enough jobs for the future workforce and whether those workers will have the skills needed to compete for them.

While the overall effect could be net job creation over time, “it may lead initially to an overall decline if jobs disappear faster than new ones are created,” Global Trends says.

It’s a trend that furthers existing competition between the U.S. and China, which the report paints as the major rivalry of the next 20 years. The report warns of developing nations whose  “economic weight” is likely to increase.

“These economies, led by China, could increasingly demand more influence over the direction of economically focused international organizations, altering standards and norms to reflect their economic interests, some of which may be incompatible with the interest of advanced economies,” the report stated.

Climate change will act as another disrupter, both economically and on the world stage.

The report predicts greater climate migration — a trend already seen as rural populations struggling to farm in changing weather conditions increasingly move to urban areas.

“Climate change probably will exacerbate this as sea level rise or extreme heat makes certain locales permanently uninhabitable, although mainly after 2040,” the report warns, particularly in coastal areas where flooding and weather will become more extreme. 

On a more positive note, the report notes that countries are scaling up their responses to dealing with climate change. The U.S. has reentered the Paris climate accord as part of its own efforts to recapture leadership on climate change.

Still, the report warns that the burdens of addressing climate change are likely to fall most heavily on poorer nations, “intersecting with environmental degradation to intensify risks to food, water, health, and energy security.” 

All of these trends are likely to lead to further fragmentation.

“As trust in governments, elites, and other established institutions erodes, societies are likely to fragment further based on identities and beliefs. People in every region are turning to familiar and like-minded groups for community and a sense of security,” the report states, adding that “many people are gravitating to more established identities, such as ethnicity and nationalism.

“Intensifying and competing identity dynamics are likely to provoke increasing political debate and polarization, societal divisions, and in some cases, unrest and violence.”

Updated at 1:34 p.m.