Leading researchers have identified a number of what is known as global catastrophic risks – risks that could threaten the existence of more than ten percent of the world’s population.
These risks can be divided into the following main categories:
- Existing risks that are caused by human actions. These include climate risks and other environmental risks, and risks from weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological). What they have in common is that we still have time to act to reduce, or, preferably, eliminate them.
- Emerging risks. These include future risks that are also man-made, such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology. The reason for researching such technologies is to improve living conditions for humanity. However, there is a growing awareness that there are large potential risks associated with these technologies, which means that they need to be monitored closely.
- Natural disasters. Asteroids, supervolcanoes and pandemics have caused catastrophic damage previously in history. A characteristic of these risks is that they are mostly outside of human control. However, human action and global cooperation can still reduce them and/or mitigate their consequences.
The Global Challenges Foundation has chosen to initially focus its work on three large global risks with two large underlying problem areas.
These three risks are:
- Climate change – the greatest and most well-known of the risks that could threaten the existence of all humanity. With the Paris agreement of 2015, a majority of the world’s heads of government made a commitment to keeping global warming at less than 1.5–2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. However, it is unclear whether this work will be successful, especially if the United States stands by its decision to leave the agreement. Another worry is that large-scale climate catastrophes will occur even if the warming is halted at 2 degrees.
- Other large-scale environmental damage. The Earth’s ecosystem is the foundation for all human life on this planet. In the long term, overuse of several natural resources, as well as other large-scale environmental damage, is a threat to the supply of both food and water, as well as the resilience of the ecosystem.
- Politically motivated violence. Political violence takes many forms: war between states, civil war, genocide and ethnic cleansing. During the past decades it has also resulted in extensive, involuntary migration that is hard to manage. This is accompanied by the latent threat of use of weapons of mass destruction by certain states – nuclear weapons as well as chemical and biological weapons.
The two underlying problems are:
- Extreme poverty. This is not a threat – it is an ongoing catastrophe. About ten percent of the world’s population is living in extreme poverty at this very moment, which means that they live on less than US$1.90 a day. A significant proportion of the poor lacks access to clean water and basic healthcare. Perhaps the most tragic consequence of this is that about 16,000 children under the age of five die every day, mainly from preventable causes.
- Population growth. According to the United Nations’ latest prognosis, the Earth’s population will grow from today’s circa 7.5 billion to 11.2 billion in 2100. This increase would not only make the fight against poverty harder, but would also significantly increase the other global risks, and would result in unprecedented levels of migration.
These five main challenges are interdependent and influence each other detrimentally. This means that immediate joint action by the world’s states is an absolute necessity. As these risks include the greatest threats to humanity, they should be on top of the international political agenda in order to ensure safety for existing and future generations.
This is not the case today. The global system that was created to address global problems – in particular, the United Nations and its subsidiary bodies – is not equipped to handle large global problems in an effective and equitable manner. The actions that have been taken and decided upon so far to address the largest risks have been inadequate. The risks and challenges remain, and in many cases have even increased, despite having been known for decades. There are two main reasons for this:
- The scope of risks and problems has been underestimated due to an inadequate understanding and lacking or nonexistent risk and problem analysis.
- The international political system has not yet adapted to today’s global community.
Underestimating risks and challenges
The Global Challenges Foundation believes that the three most severely underestimated risks and challenges are climate change, politically motivated violence and population growth.
Climate change is a problem which is recognized by almost everyone, yet it is underestimated, mainly for the following four reasons.
- There are threshold effects inherent in the Earth’s ecosystem, which are not commonly taken into consideration. Some of them are predictable, others are not. Not even the predictable ones are commonly included by researchers in reports and forecasts, if their probability cannot be estimated with reasonable certainty – even though the threshold effects could prove catastrophic. (One example would be if the arctic permafrost were to thaw and release trapped methane into the atmosphere. In a worst-case scenario, this could trigger a self-reinforcing cycle of warming.) As a consequence, the outcomes are usually worse than what researchers have predicted. As for the threshold effects that are not predictable, the only thing we know is that they exist.
- Because of threshold effects, we cannot be certain of avoiding devastating climate disasters even if we were to do everything in our power, as quickly as possible, to stop further emissions of greenhouse gases. We are already in the danger zone, while the existing risk of catastrophe increases every day.
- Most people do not take climate risks seriously if they have a low probability, even if the potential damage is huge. For example, if we succeed in stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to a level of 450 parts per million (an optimistic assumption), the probability of a temperature rise of 6 degrees is 1.6 percent, which would result in catastrophic consequences for the climate. A probability of 1.6 percent (one in sixty) may seem negligible at first glance. However, consider the same probability applied to another, more everyday context – airplane safety. Who would ever get on an airplane if one out of every sixty flights ended in a crash?
- Finally, because the worst effects of climate change are expected to occur only in the longer term, many believe that taking steps to deal with the climate threat is not an urgent matter. We will find better solutions in time, they think. But it would be truly frivolous to risk the future of humanity on such shaky grounds. In reality, as noted above, we are already at a dangerous level of risk, and any delay in taking effective measures aggravates the risk.
Politically motivated violence is the risk complex that is the most familiar to the general public. Yet its importance is still underestimated (not least its side effects) for the following reasons:
- Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945, which has given many people a false sense of security. However, we have been on the verge of nuclear conflict several times – and on some of those occasions disaster was averted only by sheer luck. Since then, the number of countries in possession of nuclear weapons has grown considerably. Furthermore, complete nuclear disarmament seems unlikely as long as the USA remains completely dominant in terms of conventional weaponry. As long as the other states cannot threaten the USA except with nuclear weapons, the only way to abolish nuclear weapons seems to be total global disarmament.
- Many neglect the fact that there are other weapons of mass destruction, which are relatively simple, as well as cheaper, to build and develop – biological and chemical weapons.
- In addition, there is the indirect psychological effect. The risk of being subjected to armed violence by other states creates suspicion, fear and hatred between nations. This worsens the conditions for consensus and cooperation between states, which are required if we are to effectively manage the shared global challenges facing humankind.
- Politically motivated violence and its effects constantly creates new, urgent problems for world leaders to solve, accompanied by a continuous stream of news with headlines shouting about war, terrorist attacks, refugee streams, and so on. This draws the general public’s attention away from larger problems of long-term importance.
- Today, the world’s states spend an immense amount of human and material resources on military expenditures. In 2016 the sum reached US$1,680 billion. Practically every state in the world claims to want peace, yet they spend nearly US$5 billion every day to defend themselves against each other. This has been called the greatest waste in the world. If global disarmament were to be achieved, just to pick an example, a global police force could guarantee the safety of all nations and peoples for a fraction of the cost. The remaining resources could be used to avert or reduce global risks, and to find solutions to other shared problems.
Rapid population growth is not even on the political agenda, despite the ominous prognosis made by the United Nations. This may seem baffling, considering that politicians constantly and uniformly profess their commitment to human rights and to the equal value of all people, and considering the fact that the Earth’s resources are not sufficient to provide even the population alive today with a current Western standard of living. A common counterargument is the hope that the problem will be solved by the continuing progress of science and technology. However, risking the future of humanity on such a gamble is indefensible.
The most likely explanation for why politicians neglect this very important problem is that they are elected based on their knowledge and ideas about current, national problems, and that, in general, they lack the time, energy or motivation to learn enough about every global problem with a longer time perspective than their current term in office.
The political system has not been adjusted to today’s global community
The structure of the global community has changed dramatically during the past century. Whether we want it or not, we no longer only live in national societies, but also, to a growing extent, in a globalised international community. The most important effect of globalisation may be that we are now globally interdependent: The actions and decisions of everyone in every country can affect everyone else’s vital interests, regardless of where they are. Greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, affect climate change on the entire planet, regardless of where they are taking place.
In many ways, our global community is suffering from the same ailments that typically affect developing countries, such as political instability and inadequate social institutions. The symptoms clearly reveal that the global community is seriously lacking in comparison with most national societies. It is unlikely that a developed national society would allow lethal local environmental damage to continue decade after decade. Yet this is what is happening when the global community allows greenhouse gas emissions to continue without intervening. What civilised national society would allow disputes to be settled by the parties’ physical and financial strength ratios, rather than by the courts? And what developed national society would let every tenth citizen live in extreme poverty, or die from it? Yet our global community does all these things.
The current system for managing global risks was created under very different circumstances, after the second world war. This system is no longer fit to handle 21st century problems and risks that can impact people anywhere on the planet. For lack of better alternatives, politicians are trying to solve the problems of today with the tools of yesterday: multilateral negotiations, which are too heavily influenced by national interests. As a result, the necessary action is not taken, or is taken too late, while the risks keep growing larger.
Under the current system, national politicians are not accountable for the good of all humankind, and lack the powers to make and implement decisions aiming to solve global problems and risks. As a consequence, there is no political leadership in the global community that could manage global challenges effectively and equitably in this world, with its many problems and its multifaceted and fragmented structure.