January 11, 2017 / 9:04 AM / a year ago

Polarised societies fuel risks at Davos after year of upheaval

* Inequality, divisions in society and climate top concerns

* Global Risks report comes ahead of Jan. 17-20 Davos forum

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Divided societies, rising populism and fears for the world’s climate top the list of risks facing politicians, central bankers and business leaders gathering in Davos next week.

The world has changed dramatically in the year since they last met in the Swiss Alps, with Donald Trump’s election in the United States and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union exposing deep public disenchantment with globalisation.

“Davos Man” - those who meet each year at the World Economic Forum (WEF) - faces further threats in 2017 too, with elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and probably Italy all offering scope for an anti-establishment backlash.

Ahead of its annual meeting, the WEF’s 2017 Global Risks report on Wednesday highlighted rising income and wealth disparity as the trend most likely to determine global developments over the next decade.

While the world economy is expected to carry on growing this year - helped by anticipated U.S. tax cuts and infrastructure spending under a Trump administration - the threat of protectionism presents a rising long-term risk.

Other dangers have not gone away, with climate concerns moving up the agenda as Trump’s arrival as President in the White House casts a shadow over curbing carbon emissions. Extreme weather events are now rated as the single most prominent global risk.

“Many of these risks have been highlighted in past reports, except now they are moving in the direction of having a higher impact,” said Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer of Zurich Insurance, one of the report’s authors.

The Jan. 17-20 Davos meeting will bring together 3,000 participants, including President Xi Jinping, the first Chinese head of state to attend the WEF, and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, however, have decided to skip the event. Trump, who will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, will also not be there.

The fallout of Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” will be debated intensely, however, and his stance on the Middle East and the threat of terrorism is also an area of uncertainty.

Another risk in the spotlight is the rise of robots and the threat posed to jobs. The report names artificial intelligence and robotics as the technologies with the greatest potential for both positive and negative consequences, including exacerbating the threat posed by hacking.

Without effective governance and retraining of workers, technology may destroy more jobs than it creates at a time when cash-strapped governments can no longer afford historical levels of welfare.

The report analysed 30 global risks and 13 underlying trends over a 10-year horizon by surveying around 750 experts and decision makers. (Editing by Alexander Smith)

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