This report considers a type of situation that the present generation has never experienced directly: one that would cause the death of 10% of humanity, or severe damage on a similar scale. Traditional risk analysis considers the following equation: the total risk equals the magnitude of potential future damage multiplied by the probability that this damage will occur. The risks in this report deserve attention on the basis of their potential damage alone, even if the probability seems low.
Global catastrophes are not unprecedented. In the past, plagues have killed over 10% of the world’s population. More recently, in the 20th century, the world has come close to nuclear war several times. Beyond pandemics and political violence, catastrophic damage may result from climate change, other large-scale environmental damage, emerging risks from technology, rare major natural disasters, or risks as yet unknown. (Introducing global catastrophic risk, Sebastian Farquhar and Kevin Wong)
Robust risk modeling entails developing an analytical scenario that unpacks the full chain of causes and consequences. In addition, to assess the probability and magnitude of each successive link, it needs to gather adequate data from scientific expertise and historical observations. In the case of nuclear war, with only one occurrence to observe, near-misses might also constitute valid data. Systematic analysis conducted in this manner offers a methodology applicable for all key risks, and reveals new potential aversion or mitigation tactics. (New models of nuclear war risk, Seth Baum)
To measure impact adequately, risk modeling must understand not only the chains of cause and consequence, but also the situation where risk might occur. The potential impact of a risk is not only correlated to the trigger event, but also to characteristics of the impacted object. As our planet has become increasingly interconnected, it has also become increasingly fragile. Seemingly minor hazards can ripple across our interdependent productive, social, and political systems, and produce catastrophic outcomes. (Understanding global systemic risk, Magali Reghezza)
Definition: global catastrophic risk - risk of events or processes that would lead to the death of approximately a tenth of the world's population.
Our assessment of risk is always embedded in a certain ethical framework, which informs our judgement as to whether priority should be given to immediate or future impacts, and whether uncertainty about the future should affect our current efforts to address risk. The very modest scale of efforts to handle global catastrophic risks today shows that our global society does not pay much attention to future generations. (Why do global catastrophic risks deserve our attention, Robert Wiblin)
It is tempting to believe that global catastrophic risks are beyond our control, and consequently, that we cannot and should not try to do anything about them. This belief is both dangerous and false. We can reduce the probability that a trigger event will occur at a certain magnitude, we can reduce the probability that a certain consequence will follow, and we can reduce our own fragility to risk, to decrease the potential damage or support faster recovery. This can be done by identifying and implementing positive initiatives and policies, improving trust and coordination, and increasing public awareness to gain traction and endorsement. These actions can be led or initiated by individuals and collectives, by businesses and civil society, and across all levels of government.
Market mechanisms have been used to address risk. A campaign led by the Future of Life Institute in the US resulted in the city of Cambridge divesting pension funds away from any company involved in making nuclear weapons. In Sweden, Mats Andersson, the new vice-chairman of the Global Challenges Foundation, divested away from carbon intensive businesses. His motive was not only ethical: it appears that businesses pursuing more environmentally sustainable practices also yield better long-term returns. (Divestment: a financial tool for risk reduction, Ariel Conn)
Local initiatives have the power to jointly reduce risk and increase resilience. The Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte developed a food security policy framework that improved the immediate well-being of its population, while building long term resilience from systemic disruption and pandemics, and reducing carbon emissions. This model is now scaling up to other cities in the Global South through city-to-city partnerships. (Resilience building and risk reduction: the Belo Horizonte food security model, Alexandra Wandel)
International trends, as demonstrated by the recent vote in favour of Brexit, may indicate a shift towards increased regional fragmentation. In this context, maintaining regional collaboration for catastrophic risk management should be seen as a priority. By building a sense of mutual trust and joint interest, regional organisations such the EU and ASEAN play a considerable role in increasing the capacity to effectively coordinate national reactions in emergency situations, whether pandemics or other catastrophic risks. (Managing pandemics in a fragmented world: contributions of regional systems, Catherine Rhodes)
Global Catastrophic Risks are not restricted by national boundaries – but at a global level, who owns them? The UN Security Council is the clear issue owner for nuclear war, and the recent Paris agreement will increase the role of the UN in managing climate change. But in both cases, effective action is currently limited. Meanwhile, individuals have successfully resorted to the judiciary in order to take action to address the pressing risk of climate change. This opens a window of hope, and alternative avenues for individual action. (Global catastrophic risk: whose problem is it anyway, Malini Mehra)
Our efforts to address risk ultimately rest on a core ethical question: how far should we track the consequences of our actions? Depending on our position, whether we live in the developed North or the Global south, our answers to this question will have distinct implications, and the stories we tell will differ. In order to face the challenges ahead, financial, regulatory and institutional solutions will be required, but underlying these, there needs to be a cultural change. An integral form of this change will be telling stories of a unified world where risks and challenges are part of a shared destiny. (Building a shared narrative, Ama Van Dantzig)