The world has undergone radical change during the last hundred years. In many respects it has changed for the better. The standard of living has risen substantially in most countries. Technical achievements offer new, innovative solutions and have made our society truly global - economically as well as culturally.
However, there is a distinct downside to this essentially positive development. Our global society is in greater danger due to new, wide-reaching global problems, and new, catastrophic risks which threaten humanity.
The world’s population has quadrupled over the last one hundred years. The consumption of natural resources and energy has increased dramatically during this time in order to enable increased production of food and other goods and substantially increase the standard of living in many countries. This has not only led to various kinds of environmental destruction, but also substantially increased emissions of greenhouse gases, resulting in global warming, which may have catastrophic effects on the earth's climate and human living conditions. For example, rising sea levels and the risk of extreme weather (hurricanes, torrential rains and extreme drought) may disrupt food production and lead to extensive displacement of populations and increased risks of pandemics. Predictable and unpredictable tipping points in the ecosystem may also lead to much more severe outcomes than scientists today are able to assess the probability of, including self-generating warming that could, in a worst-case scenario, make the planet uninhabitable.
The continuous politically-motivated violence and the weapons of mass destruction that ever more countries possess present a different set of global risks against humanity. Though virtually all nations say they would like peace, the equivalent of US$4 billion is spent every day on military expenditures to defend nations against each other.
This is in sharp contrast to the catastrophe many live with daily: poverty. Today every sixth inhabitant on earth is living in extreme poverty (defined as having to survive on less than US$1.25 per day), and a substantial portion of the population lacks access to clean water and basic healthcare. Every year, nearly 6 million children die before the age of five, mostly due to causes that are entirely preventable.
During the rest of this century the earth's population is expected to increase by 50% to almost 11 billion people, with the largest increase happening in the poorest countries in Africa. We know that the earth's natural resources aren't nearly enough to support even today's 7.3 billion people with a western standard of living. It is easy to see that such a continuous population explosion would not only present a formidable obstacle to the fight against poverty, but also substantially increase all global risks.
People today live not only in national societies, but also in a global community. This means that inhabitants in every country affect the vital interests of the inhabitants of all other countries through their behaviour and decisions. For example, greenhouse gas emissions in any single country impact global climate change.
No society can function well without a well thought-out political governance system. Our new reality requires a functioning global governance model which can effectively and equitably manage global risks and problems. It is obvious that today's international institutions, primarily the UN and its organisations – at least in their current forms – can't fulfil these requirements in a satisfactory manner.
The Foundation's goal
The goal of the Foundation is to reduce the risk of large global catastrophes that could threaten humanity and to facilitate solutions to mankind's big, new problems.
To achieve this the Foundation works in two parallel ways:
Risk = potential future damage x probability of occurrence
The basis for all risk analysis, whether on the stock market, in road construction, when determining insurance premiums or when making medical decisions, is the following formula: The risk equals the potential future damage multiplied by the probability that the event occurs. For global risks, the damage includes human suffering and the loss of human lives, which are severe losses that cannot be financially compensated. Hence, even low probabilities result in very large risks, and the damage cannot be calculated mathematically, but has to be determined on ethical grounds. And when the damage is unlimited – for example, if the planet becomes uninhabitable – it follows mathematically that the risk is unlimited, regardless of how low the probability of its occurrence is.
This insight may be evident in risk analysis, but it is all too often missing in the global political debate, specifically regarding the biggest threats to humanity. Let's make a comparison: Nobody would accept that a cable car system were allowed to operate if one out of every hundred cabins crashed. But when it comes to climate change, we accept that same level of risk. We have a concentration of greenhouse gases that has a 1% probability - the same as in the cable car example - of leading to a 6 degree warming. This in turn would catastrophically affect billions of people, and not enough is being done to stop it.
The Foundation predominantly focuses on global risks that can lead to major catastrophes which have the capacity to threaten the existence of the global population in the magnitude of ten percent or more. Currently, the primary focus is on the following risk areas and underlying problems:
These risks and problems have two things in common: firstly, they concern all of humanity, and therefore affect all states. Secondly, effective responses require cooperation between practically all states.
Today the Foundation is working with world-leading academic institutions on the identification and dissemination of knowledge regarding the greatest global risks and problems, the factors that influence them, and how they are connected.