Why Global Catastrophic Risks need Greater Awareness & Legislative Action

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Why Global Catastrophic Risks need Greater Awareness & Legislative Action

GLOBE partner, the Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) based in Sweden has published its Annual Report on Global Catastrophic Risk (April 2016) summarizing the state of the world in dealing with catastrophic global risks.

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Established in 2012 by the Swedish-Hungarian philanthropist, Laszlo Szombatfalvy, the Foundation set out to create a new category of risk – global catastrophic risks (GCRs) that can result in the death of 1/10th of humanity – and to raise public awareness and debate on these issues.

The work of the foundation proceeds from the assumption that societies and governments have significantly under-invested in managing large and extreme risks in the past, and that the threat level with a global population pushing toward 10 billion people is unconscionably high. Over the course of human history, civilisations have come and gone. There is nothing about modern societies that places us at lesser risk. On the contrary, global interdependence and increasingly complex and mobile societies increase vulnerability.

Creating credibility and a new professional community around the emerging category of “global catastrophic risk”, however, is challenging. When most risk managers are unable to deal with the notion of “systemic risk”, as in the financial sector, gaining acceptance for the possibility of Armageddon-like scenarios as implied by GCRs will take some effort.

Ironically, history and science fiction probably have the most to teach us. GCRs are common to both. For example, great plagues in the past have decimated human societies, or worse. In 1665, London lost 1/3rd of its population of 300,000 to the Plague - in the space of just three months. In the 20th century, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war or major nuclear accident not once but several times from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Chernobyl and other lesser-known nuclear events.

Science fiction from HG Well’s War of the Worlds to contemporary post-apocalyptic memes from Mad Max to the Hunger Games have much to teach us in terms of risk management.

Popularising and embedding these concepts of prevention of large-scale human or natural disasters is a core aspect of GLOBE’s partnership with the Global Challenges Foundation.

Parliamentarians in representative democracies have a constitutional duty of care to their constituents. Engaging them in dialogue could have a significant multiplier effect for the educational work and policy engagement that GCF seeks to promote. This is the premise of our year-long partnership, which has already seen outreach through the GLOBE International network of legislators promoting improved awareness and global risk management on GCRs.

In an earlier blog in 2015 on the Foundation’s 2015 risk report, GLOBE International’s Malini Mehra had discussed the relevance of this effort to improved institutional risk management and policy, in particular in terms of the role of parliaments.

This year’s recently-published GCF Annual Report 2016 contains much useful further data and analysis. The result of a 2-year collaboration with the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) and the Global Priorities Project (GPP) at Oxford University, the 100–page report provides a state-of-the-art overview of key global catastrophic risks from epidemics to nuclear war, climate change and cybercrime, describing the probability of their occurring and their likely impacts. The rapid pace of technological developments, as in smart weapons and artificial intelligence, effectively outstripping human control is a key concern for the report writers.

As Max Tegmark, co-founder of the Future of Life Institute and Professor of Physics at MIT notes: “As a global community, we need to win the race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we manage it.”

Some of the report’s headline messages are:

• The most significant ongoing risks are natural pandemics and nuclear war
• The most significant emerging risks are catastrophic climate change and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence

The report’s key recommendations are as follows:

To reduce the risk of global catastrophe caused by pandemic:
• The World Health Organisation, nation states, and other bodies should increase their planning for extremely bad pandemics.
• The global health community should improve developing world capacity for response, for example by ensuring that vaccine production facilities are well-distributed around the world.
To reduce the risk of global catastrophe caused by climate change:
• Research communities should increase their focus on understanding the pathways to and likelihood of catastrophic climate change, and possible ways to respond.
• Nations should continue to implement and improve mechanisms for emissions abatement such as carbon taxes or tradable emissions quotas, as for non-catastrophic climate change.

To reduce the risk of global catastrophe caused by nuclear war:
• The international community should continue the policy of nuclear non-proliferation, and nuclear states can continue to reduce stockpiles.
• Nuclear-weapon states should continue to work to reduce the chance of accidental launch or escalation.
To reduce the risk of global catastrophe caused by emerging technologies:
• Research communities should further investigate the possible risks from emerging capabilities in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, and possible solutions.
• Policymakers could work with researchers to understand the issues that may arise with these new technologies, and start to lay groundwork for planned adaptive risk regulation.
To reduce global catastrophic risk in a cross-cutting way:
• Research communities should focus greater attention on strategies and technologies for resilience to and recovery from global catastrophe, for example by developing alternate food sources.
• Nations should work to incorporate the interests of future generations into their decision-making frameworks.

As the above list shows, unlike in previous years the 2016 report also takes a stab at identifying the links between the different GCRs, as well as what preventative measures can be taken, and by whom.

The latter has benefited from close engagement with GLOBE in helping to identify deficiencies in terms of risk governance and ownership. The theme of “Whose problem is it anyway, and what needs to be done?” will be the subject of discussion at the GCF’s Annual Gathering in Stockholm in May.

GLOBE International will be in attendance and contributing to the further articulation of this important emerging agenda, in particular in dialogue with legislators and their constituencies across the world.