Our view on global catastrophic risks as existential threats to humanity
During the past century, humanity’s situation has changed drastically – in many cases for the better. The scientific and technological achievements are impressive, and in most countries, people live longer and better lives than previously.
On the other hand, our way of living has created serious global problems. The world population has quadrupled, and consequently, the resources per capita are only a quarter of what they used to be. As a consequence of this, coupled with a dramatic increase in the standard of living in developed countries, we are seriously overtaxing our common natural resources. We have also adversely affected the ecological system in several ways, with consequences that are hard to foresee, and we have triggered a process of climate change with potentially devastating effects. Meanwhile, our capability to annihilate each other through the use of weapons of mass destruction is greater than it has ever been.
For the first time in history, humanity is capable of seriously disrupting or even destroying Earth’s ecosystem, on which we depend for our existence, and we are well on our way of doing just that.
How we consider, act on, and manage risks, is a major, urgent issue – one which is not fully reflected in current global governance. Our mutual interdependence and the increasing global risks demand more effective global decision making.
The work of the Global Challenges Foundation mainly focuses on stimulating and supporting the creation of more effective decision models, in order to handle three impending risks and their underlying drivers.
Today, in our view, the largest global catastrophic risks are three partially related risks:
Climate changeis the single greatest, direct threat to humanity. Human emissions of greenhouse gases have caused a global temperature rise which, due to known and unknown threshold effects in the ecosystem, can lead to continued self-heating with catastrophic consequences for humanity. Among the instances are exceptional weather phenomena, extreme drought, forest fires, desertification, floods and a sharply elevated sea level.
Even today, because of hitherto insufficient measures, if we take the most effective countermeasures, we cannot be absolutely sure of avoiding catastrophic consequences.
Other large-scale environmental degradation(in addition to greenhouse gas emissions) includes a variety of events that seriously damage the Earth's ecosystem and can lead to biological collapse. From over-utilization of natural resources and destruction of many ecosystems (for example, by depletion, soil degradation and deforestation) to pollution and poisoning of water, soil and atmosphere, as well as depletion of biodiversity. Potential effects include food and water shortages and weakening of the ecosystem's future resilience.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), natural resources equivalent to four Earths would already be needed today to allow all living people to live in the same way as the inhabitants of the industrialized countries do.
Weapons of mass destructionApart from the fact that war itself is a humanitarian disaster, weapons of mass destruction present a direct risk of virtually unlimited killing. Nuclear weapons, but also biological weapons that can be developed both significantly cheaper and more covertly, can cause large-scale, catastrophic damage. In order to take steps towards the elimination of these weapons, a global order is required where they are registered and controlled as far as possible.
In our view, the underlying drivers are primarily the following:
Climate change is the greatest single, direct threat to humanity. Human-induced greenhouse gas emissions have triggered a global rise in temperature which, due to known and unknown threshold effects in the ecosystem, could lead to a self-reinforcing warming cycle with catastrophic consequences for humanity; exceptional weather phenomena, extreme drought, forest fires, desertification, floods, and the sea level rising by up to 60 metres. The change is slow – scientists calculate a rise of 1 to 4 metres per century, depending on the rate of warming – but it is happening.
Because adequate measures have not been taken in the past, we cannot be certain of avoiding the worst-case scenario even if we put in place the most effective safeguards today.
Other large-scale environmental degradation (apart from greenhouse gas emissions) includes a wide range of interventions that seriously damage Earth’s ecosystem – from the overuse of natural resources and the destruction of many ecosystems (such as overfishing, soil degradation and deforestation) to the pollution and poisoning of water, land and atmosphere, as well as the depletion of biodiversity. Some of the potentially harmful effects are food and water shortages and the weakening of future ecosystem resilience.
According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), it would take four Earths’ worth of natural resources to afford every living person the lifestyle currently enjoyed by the inhabitants of developed countries.
Weapons of mass destructionpose a direct risk of virtually unlimited casualties – although, of course, any war is always a humanitarian disaster. Large-scale, catastrophic damage can be caused primarily by nuclear weapons, but also by biological weapons, which can be developed at a much lower cost and with less risk of detection. Until such weapons are banned, we need a global order in which they are registered and controlled to the greatest extent possible.
In our view, the underlying drivers are primarily the following:
Population growthis both a source of happiness for individuals and creates future potential for our common development. However, due to its wide scope, it is a risk multiplier. There are not enough natural resources to enable everyone to enjoy first-world standards of living. Also, the increased exploitation of natural resources – usually using fossil fuel – leads to a rapid increase in pollution and waste products.
The population explosion of the last century is a cause of the global risk panorama that we are experiencing today. The population increase is also expected to continue to be high. According to the UN's average forecast, by 2100 we will be almost fifty percent more: 11.2 billion.
If this forecast becomes a reality, work will be significantly hampered to an acceptable end to humanity's climate adventure. Population growth may well be the decisive factor for climate and environmental disasters.
Despite the drama of the increase in population, the problem is rarely mentioned in the political debate.
Povertyis a major, ongoing disaster in itself and a moral shortcoming for the world community. The fact that every eighth citizen is not given enough food, nor access to clean water or basic health care would be unthinkable in functioning nation states. Yet, this is the reality of the world community.
Poverty is also a very serious driving force. The expected increase in global population until the year 2100 is linked to people living in poverty. Part of the population increase in poor countries is offset by population decline in richer countries. Although population growth is expected to occur in countries with currently low environmental impact (of the 3.6 billion increase 3.2 billion is estimated from Africa), the trend towards changing lifestyles emulating industrialized countries can go fast.
These global intertwined risks and problems must be analyzed and addressed together.
Politically motivated violenceThe risk of being exposed to armed violence gives rise to suspicion, fear and hatred between nations and peoples. A fact that makes it more difficult to meet our common global risks.
In addition, political violence and its consequences are constantly creating new, urgent issues to be addressed by the world's politicians, accompanied by constant elements in the news flow with headlines on war, attacks, flows of refugees and more, which draws the public's and politicians' attention away from the larger but longer term problems.
Finally, military budgets devour unimaginable human and material resources. Although all nations want to live in peace, we spend almost $5 billion daily on military spending globally, without creating any real security for anyone. This is by far the world's greatest waste of resources!
How high are the risks?
Since climate change, other environmental degradation and weapons of mass destruction are the greatest direct threats to humanity, we primarily focus here on these risks.
After all, risk can be defined as the possible damage that can occur multiplied by the probability of it occurring. This means that when the possible damage is endless or almost endless, such as the death of several billion persons, then in practice the risk would also be endless if the probability of the disaster is at least conceivable.
Most evidence suggest that this probability already exists in terms of climate change, although researchers cannot quantify its probabilities with certainty. The common denominator in almost all climate news and new research findings is that "the situation is worse than we thought". The reason is, among other things, known (but difficult to assess) and unknown threshold effects in the ecosystem. A recent research report in PNAS states that "even at 2 degrees of global warming, we can pass a 'planetary threshold' that leads to self-propelled warming, which in turn can lead the Earth towards a so-called 'Hot-House Earth', a future with even higher temperatures and with even more difficult global environmental risks." The likelihood of us achieving a two-degree warming is very high today. The risks increase every day until we have succeeded in reversing the development. So we should do everything in our power to minimize climate risks.
The damage from other large-scale environmental degradation can be very large but can also be manageable. Here, hopefully, we can influence the outcome to a greater extent than in connection to climate change. The most important - but also very difficult - factors that will affect the damage are:
- The political will to stop environmentally destructive activities as soon as possible.
- Population trends. If we cannot stop the population increase, it will increase the risks exponentially.
- The extent to which we succeed in reallocating resources from the richest to the poorest countries.
It is impossible, even in this context, to cover probabilities and risks in meaningful figures. However, given that the potential damages are very large, we should also consider major risks.
How big is the risk of a global catastrophe because of weapons of mass destruction? The answer when it comes to nuclear weapons is that the likelihood of a nuclear war is very difficult to assess. According to the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) the risk of a nuclear war has never been higher than now since World War II. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a risk that they will be used. Several times in history, only fortunate circumstances have prevented the outbreak of a nuclear war based on misunderstandings and mistakes.
Of the other weapons of mass destruction, it is mainly biological weapons that can lead to global disasters. Here, the risks are even more difficult to assess. The costs of developing and manufacturing biological weapons are incomparably lower than for nuclear weapons. An effective defense against these weapons is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create.
Global risks have become extremely large due to our slow and ineffective management of them so far.
Why have we failed to address the global risks more effectively?
Humanity has significantly increased its ability to destroy itself, because we have avoided managing the risks we created in any serious way. Coming up with a range of reasons for this is easy enough, though:
The world has gone through rapid and radical change. Up until the twentieth century, humanity lacked the ability to significantly degrade living conditions for itself and future generations. Consequently, we have never before experienced the need to assess large-scale risks to our survival. We have never been forced to think globally and long-term.
The complexity of the problems that are ours to solve. The climate change may be the most well-known and thoroughly analysed of the major global risks. But revolving around climate change is, as we just saw, a range of other factors that either aggravate the threat or hinder and delay the necessary actions.
Consequently, our political system has not adapted to the realities of the present. We are trying to solve today’s problems with the tools of yesterday. Intergovernmental negotiations are guided by national interests, and result in inadequate or belated action. The national perspective still dominates our thinking and our political system. In the global community, there is no politician or institution with the authority or the responsibility to effectively manage global risks.
Our politicians are preoccupied with short-term domestic problems that voters show the most interest in. Leading up to the 2018 parliamentary election in Sweden, the electorate ranked the most important problems as follows: healthcare, immigration, education, law and order, elder care, the economy, jobs, and pensions. Climate and environmental issues only came in ninth. The other global risks did not even make the list.
Urgent international problems and events, such as war, terrorism and refugee flows, draw the attention of politicians and the public even further away from more important, long-term risks.
Lack of crisis awareness.Most of humanity – including political leaders – realizes that climate change is a major problem, but there seems to be no awareness that the existence of all humankind is at stake, and that the time to act is now. In the Paris treaty of 2015, the countries of the world agreed to limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius”, and to “pursue efforts” to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, according to scientists, the concrete promises of emissions reductions actually made so far only amount to limiting warming to 3 degrees Celsius at best.
Some politicians and public figures deny or underestimate climate risks for various reasons. The worst disasters are expected to happen many decades, or even further, into the future. When mitigating risk means making financial or lifestyle sacrifices, some choose to deny the risk.
Climate action requires changes in lifestyle and consumer habits.
In conclusion, we would like to state that the way in which population growth aggravates all other problems is an issue that not only is being seriously underestimated, but also appears difficult to manage.
Unmanageable global risks can only be effectively managed through global decisions and joint efforts of all nations in consensus and with an understanding of our mutual interdependence.
Our ambition is to speed up the process that leads to a decision model that can optimally manage the risks. Read more about the Global Challenges Foundation's work.