When the potential damage of a risk is of enormous scale, can we simply discount it on the basis of uncertainty or seemingly low probability? Beyond pandemics and political violence, our world may face catastrophic damage from climate change, major natural disasters, emerging technologies or risks as yet unknown.
Our world faces many risks. Particularly serious are global catastrophic risks, those with the potential to end the lives of a tenth or more of the world’s population, or inflict comparable damage on our planet. Even though the probability that these risks will happen is comparatively small, the damage could be so devastating that they deserve preparation and consideration.
Though rare, global catastrophic risks are not unprecedented. Over the course of history, the world has seen several disasters of catastrophic scale. In the mid 6th-century, the ‘Great Plague of Justinian’ killed more than 10% of the world’s population. The extraordinary scale of such an event can hardly be overstated. World War II, though calamitous, killed a comparatively small 3% of the global population. Measured in deaths alone, several of the risks that we are currently facing could reach an even greater scale.
The Global Priorities Project is a collaboration between Oxford’s Future for Humanity Institute and the Centre for Effective Altruism. In April of this year, we authored the Global Catastrophic Risk Report on behalf of the Global Challenges Foundation. The report focused on identifying areas of high risk, understanding interactions between risks, and suggesting how we might respond to prevent or mitigate those risks.
Global catastrophic risks present interdisciplinary problems, so solutions must draw on expertise from several domains in order to provide adequate understanding and options to reduce and mitigate risks.
The threats that can hit us in the near term are nuclear warfare, biological weapons of mass destruction and natural pandemics. Consequently, these risks deserve immediate attention. Risks that may materialise in the longer term, such as catastrophic climate change resulting in extreme levels of warming, as well as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and geoengineering, all need to be managed and mitigated in advance, and consequently deserve attention today. In addition, we should devote some resources to mitigating risks from rare natural events with catastrophic potential – such as asteroid impacts and large volcanic eruptions – as well as risks from as-yet-unknown processes.
A number of steps can be taken to mitigate these dangers. Some potential initiatives address a specific threat, such as improved mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions, a continued focus on nuclear stockpile reduction, and enhancing collaboration between researchers and governments on emerging technologies. Other opportunities are cross-cutting, like integrating the interests of future generations into decision-making frameworks, for example by appointing dedicated ombudspersons or public advocates to national governments.
Global catastrophic risks present interdisciplinary problems, so solutions must draw on expertise from several domains in order to provide adequate understanding and options to reduce and mitigate risks. Research into ethical models to weigh up our responsibilities to future generations must be coupled with technical scientific knowledge. Implementing change then requires political and institutional know-how. If we consider catastrophic climate change, a proposed response must first be grounded in an understanding of the relative priority we should place on the well-being of future generations and preserving the environment. Researchers must help both understand the risks and create technical solutions to address their causes. Finally, implementing a climate strategy requires sophisticated political negotiation to overcome major collective action problems.
Institutions are likely to systematically neglect global catastrophic risks, largely as a result of market and political failures, including the influence of special interests, the lack of incentive to provide global and intergenerational public goods, and the absence of precedent for these kinds of disasters. This makes their study all the more pressing.