On what basis do we justify that our leaders’ and policy makers’ attention should go to a specific issue? Our current decision-making systems discount future generations, and the results of risk mitigation efforts are often untrackable. On this basis, considering their enormous potential impact on humanity’s future, we can assume that global catastrophic risks deserve more attention than they currently receive.
Global catastrophic risks are hazards with relatively low probability of occurrence but very high potential impact. Some of these risks come from natural events (e.g. comets and super-volcanoes), while others are caused by humanity itself (e.g. climate change and the development of new weapons of mass destruction). Addressing them will clearly yield positive outcomes in the long-term – catastrophic risks can cause huge damage and put society’s whole future in doubt.
The fact that only 0.1% of spending from key foundations and philanthropic bodies goes towards tackling these risks strongly suggests that the area is uncrowded relative to what’s at stake. There may be various reasons for catastrophic risks receiving less attention than issues such as education policy or global poverty. These risks especially threaten future generations, and there’s good reason to expect that we undervalue their interests relative to our own. A focus on the present is encoded in almost all government and business decision-making. This comes in the form of a ‘discount rate’ on benefits and costs in the future of at least 3% a year. This alone means that a projected impact on someone living in 2116 is weighed just 5% as much as an identical impact on someone today.
“A focus on the present is encoded in almost all government and business decision-making, in the form of a ‘discount rate’ of at least 3% a year. This alone means that a projected impact on someone living in 2116 is weighed just 5% as much as an identical impact on someone today.”
Anecdotally, it seems that government decision-makers pay little attention to low probability risks that haven’t already occurred, because there is little pressure from voters to do so. Much more attention is given to the risk of terrorists using anthrax than using smallpox, even though the latter could do thousands of times as much damage. The natural explanation is that as anthrax has been used as a weapon, people have responded by making governments responsible for preventing it from happening again.
Work on global catastrophic risks has two main aspects: studying the risks, and then reducing the probability and magnitude of the risks. Three main types of skills can put one in a good position to tackle these problems:
- expertise in developing and advocating for government policies, especially in security (e.g. deep knowledge of existing policy and interests groups involved in government food stockpiles)
- analytical thinking skills (e.g. many philosophers and mathematicians work on identifying and quantifying catastrophic risks)
- subject-specific expertise (e.g. a PhD in how pandemics begin and spread).
Overall, 80,000 Hours regards global catastrophic risks as one of the most pressing problems in the world today, and we would recommend that people with suitable skills use their career to tackle them, so that the next generations aren’t wiped out by their impact.
Many of us want to do good, but it is often unclear where our efforts would be most effectively directed. Effective altruism is a movement that aims to answer the question: how can we do the most good? 80,000 Hours is one of the founding organisations in the effective altruism movement. Its goal is to figure out how people can use their career to make the biggest possible contribution to society. One key way to increase impact is to choose the right problem to work on. 80,000 Hours assesses how pressing problems are relative to one another based on three criteria: how much harm the problem is causing or could cause; how difficult it is to solve; and whether it is already getting the appropriate level of attention. On all criteria, work on global catastrophic risks scores very highly.