Nick Bostrom and Milan M Cirkovic Introduction

The term 'global catastrophic risk' lacks a sharp definition. We use it to refer, loosely, to a risk that might have the potential to inflict serious damage to human well-being on a global scale. On this definition, an immensely diverse collection of events could constitute global catastrophes: potential candidates range from volcanic eruptions to pandemic infections, nuclear accidents to worldwide tyrannies, out-of-control scientific experiments to climatic changes, and cosmic hazards to economic collapse. With this in mind, one might well ask, what use is a book on global catastrophic risk? The risks under consideration seem to have little in common, so does 'global catastrophic risk' even make sense as a topic? Or is the book that you hold in your hands as ill-conceived and unfocused a project as a volume on 'Gardening, Matrix Algebra, and the History of Byzantium'?

We are confident that a comprehensive treatment of global catastrophic risk will be at least somewhat more useful and coherent than the above-mentioned imaginary title. We also believe that studying this topic is highly important. Although the risks are of various kinds, they are tied together by many links and commonalities. For example, for many types of destructive events, much of the damage results from second-order impacts on social order; thus the risks of social disruption and collapse are not unrelated to the risks of events such as nuclear terrorism or pandemic disease. Or to take another example, apparently dissimilar events such as large asteroid impacts, volcanic super-eruptions, and nuclear war would all eject massive amounts of soot and aerosols into the atmosphere, with significant effects on global climate. The existence of such causal linkages is one reason why it is can be sensible to study multiple risks together.

Another commonality is that many methodological, conceptual, and cultural issues crop up across the range of global catastrophic risks. If our interest lies in such issues, it is often illuminating to study how they play out in different contexts. Conversely, some general insights -for example, into the biases of human risk cognition - can be applied to many different risks and used to improve our assessments across the board. 2 Global catastrophic risks

Beyond these theoretical commonalities, there are also pragmatic reasons for addressing global catastrophic risks as a single field. Attention is scarce. Mitigation is costly. To decide how to allocate effort and resources, we must make comparative judgements. If we treat risks singly, and never as part of an overall threat profile, we may become unduly fixated on the one or two dangers that happen to have captured the public or expert imagination of the day, while neglecting other risks that are more severe or more amenable to mitigation. Alternatively, we may fail to see that some precautionary policy, while effective in reducing the particular risk we are focusing on, would at the same time create new hazards and result in an increase in the overall level of risk. A broader view allows us to gain perspective and can thereby help us to set wiser priorities.

The immediate aim of this book is to offer an introduction to the range of global catastrophic risks facing humanity now or expected in the future, suitable for an educated interdisciplinary readership. There are several constituencies for the knowledge presented. Academics specializing in one of these risk areas will benefit from learning about the other risks. Professionals in insurance, finance, and business - although usually preoccupied with more limited and imminent challenges - will benefit from a wider view. Policy analysts, activists, and laypeople concerned with promoting responsible policies likewise stand to gain from learning about the state of the art in global risk studies. Finally, anyone who is worried or simply curious about what could go wrong in the modern world might find many of the following chapters intriguing. We hope that this volume will serve as a useful introduction to all of these audiences.

Each of the chapters ends with some pointers to the literature for those who wish to delve deeper into a particular set of issues.

This volume also has a wider goal: to stimulate increased research, awareness, and informed public discussion about big risks and mitigation strategies. The existence of an interdisciplinary community of experts and laypeople knowledgeable about global catastrophic risks will, we believe, improve the odds that good solutions will be found and implemented to the great challenges of the twenty-first century.

1.2 Taxonomy and organization

Let us look more closely at what would, and would not, count as a global catastrophic risk. Recall that the damage must be serious, and the scale global. Given this, a catastrophe that caused 10,000 fatalities or 10 billion dollars worth of economic damage (e.g., a major earthquake) would not qualify as a global catastrophe. A catastrophe that caused 10 million fatalities or 10 trillion dollars worth of economic loss (e.g., an influenza pandemic) would count as a global catastrophe, even if some region of the world escaped unscathed. As for

Introduction 3

disasters falling between these points, the definition is vague. The stipulation of a precise cut-off does not appear needful at this stage.

Global catastrophes have occurred many times in history, even if we only count disasters causing more than 10 million deaths. A very partial list of examples might include the An Shi Rebellion (756-763), the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), and the famine of the Great Leap Forward in China, the Black Death in Europe, the Spanish flu pandemic, the two world wars, the Nazi genocides, the famines in British India, Stalinist totalitarianism, the decimation of the native American population through smallpox and other diseases following the arrival of European colonizers, probably the Mongol conquests, perhaps Belgian Congo - innumerable others could be added to the list depending on how various misfortunes and chronic conditions are individuated and classified.

We can roughly characterize the severity of a risk by three variables: its scope (how many people - and other morally relevant beings - would be affected), its intensity (how badly these would be affected), and its probability (how likely the disaster is to occur, according to our best judgement, given currently available evidence). Using the first two of these variables, we can construct a qualitative diagram of different types of risk (Fig. 1.1). (The probability dimension could be displayed along a z-axis were this diagram three-dimensional.)

The scope of a risk can be personal (affecting only one person), local, global (affecting a large part of the human population), or trans-generational (affecting

Fig. 1.1 Qualitative categories of risk. Global catastrophic risks are in the upper right part of the diagram. Existential risks form an especially severe subset of these.






Loss of one species of beetle

Global warming by 0,001 °C

Congestion from one extra vehicle

Drastic ioss : of biodiversity

^ Human

^ Human

Spanish flu : pandemic

••:••■•• • .v.v.v.-.v.-. •. .-.■.'.•.-.■.■ rfakg

Loss of one hair

Recession in a country

Car is stolen


Fatal car crash

Imperceptible Endurable Terminal

Intensity (Hellish?)

not only the current world population but all generations that could come to exist in the future). The intensity of a risk can be classified as imperceptible (barely noticeable), endurable (causing significant harm but not destroying quality of life completely), or terminal (causing death or permanently and drastically reducing quality of life). In this taxonomy, global catastrophic risks occupy the four risks classes in the high-severity upper-right corner of the figure: a global catastrophic risk is of either global or trans-generational scope, and of either endurable or terminal intensity. In principle, as suggested in the figure, the axes can be extended to encompass conceptually possible risks that are even more extreme. In particular, trans-generational risks can contain a subclass of risks so destructive that their realization would not only affect or pre-empt future human generations, but would also destroy the potential of our future light cone of the universe to produce intelligent or self-aware beings (labelled 'Cosmic'). On the other hand, according to many theories of value, there can be states of being that are even worse than non-existence or death (e.g., permanent and extreme forms of slavery or mind control), so it could, in principle, be possible to extend the 3c-axis to the right as well (see Fig. 1.1 labelled 'Hellish').

A subset of global catastrophic risks is existential risks. An existential risk is one that threatens to cause the extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or to reduce its quality of life (compared to what would otherwise have been possible) permanently and drastically.1 Existential risks share a number of features that mark them out as deserving of special consideration. For example, since it is not possible to recover from existential risks, we cannot allow even one existential disaster to happen; there would be no opportunity to learn from experience. Our approach to managing such risks must be proactive. How much worse an existential catastrophe would be than a non-existential global catastrophe depends very sensitively on controversial issues in value theory, in particular how much weight to give to the lives of possible future persons.2 Furthermore, assessing existential risks raises distinctive methodological problems having to do with observation selection effects and the need to avoid anthropic bias. One of the motives for producing this book is to stimulate more serious study of existential risks. Rather than limiting our focus to existential risk, however, we thought it better to lay a broader foundation of systematic thinking about big risks in general.

2 For many aggregative consequentialist ethical theories, including but not limited to total utilitarianism, it can be shown that the injunction to maximize expected value! can be simplified -for all practical purposes - to the injunction to minimize existential risk! (Bostrom, 2003, p. 439). (Note, however, that aggregative consequentialism is threatened by the problem of infinitarían paralysis [Bostrom, 2007, p. 730].)

We asked our contributors to assess global catastrophic risks not only as they presently exist but also as they might develop over time. The temporal dimension is essential for a full understanding of the nature of the challenges we face. To think about how to tackle the risks from nuclear terrorism and nuclear war, for instance, we must consider not only the probability that something will go wrong within the next year, but also about how the risks will change in the future and the factors - such as the extent of proliferation of relevant technology and fissile materials - that will influence this. Climate change from greenhouse gas emissions poses no significant globally catastrophic risk now or in the immediate future (on the timescale of several decades); the concern is about what effects these accumulating emissions might have over the course of many decades or even centuries. It can also be important to anticipate hypothetical risks which will arise if and when certain possible technological developments take place. The chapters on nanotechnology and artificial intelligence are examples of such prospective risk analysis.

In some cases, it can be important to study scenarios which are almost certainly physically impossible. The hypothetical risk from particle collider experiments is a case in point. It is very likely that these experiments have no potential, whatever, for causing global disasters. The objective risk is probably zero, as believed by most experts. But just how confident can we be that there is no objective risk? If we are not certain that there is no objective risk, then there is a risk at least in a subjective sense. Such subjective risks can be worthy of serious consideration, and we include them in our definition of global catastrophic risks.

The distinction between objective and subjective (epistemic) risk is often hard to make out. The possibility of an asteroid colliding with Earth looks like a clear-cut example of objective risk. But suppose that in fact no sizeable asteroid is on collision course with our planet within a certain, sufficiently large interval of time. We might then say that there is no objective risk of an asteroid-caused catastrophe within that interval of time. Of course, we will not know that this is so until we have mapped out the trajectories of all potentially threatening asteroids and are able to calculate all perturbations, often chaotic, of those trajectories. In the meantime, we must recognize a risk from asteroids even though the risk might be purely subjective, merely reflecting our present state of ignorance. An empty cave can be similarly subjectively unsafe if you are unsure about whether a lion resides in it; and it can be rational for you to avoid the cave if you reasonably judge that the expected harm of entry outweighs the expected benefit.

In the case of the asteroid threat, we have access to plenty of data that can help us quantify the risk. We can estimate the probability of a catastrophic impact from statistics of past impacts (e.g., cratering data) and from observations sampling from the population of non-threatening asteroids. This particular risk, therefore, lends itself to rigorous scientific study, and the probability estimates we derive are fairly strongly constrained by hard evidence.3

For many other risks, we lack the data needed for rigorous statistical inference. We may also lack well-corroborated scientific models on which to base probability estimates. For example, there exists no rigorous scientific way of assigning a probability to the risk of a serious terrorist attack employing a biological warfare agent occurring within the next decade. Nor can we firmly establish that the risks of a global totalitarian regime arising before the end of the century are of a certain precise magnitude. It is inevitable that analyses of such risks will rely to a large extent on plausibility arguments, analogies, and subjective judgement.

Although more rigorous methods are to be preferred whenever they are available and applicable, it would be misplaced scientism to confine attention to those risks that are amenable to hard approaches.4 Such a strategy would lead to many risks being ignored, including many of the largest risks confronting humanity. It would also create a false dichotomy between two types of risks -the 'scientific' ones and the 'speculative' ones - where, in reality, there is a continuum of analytic tractability.

We have, therefore, opted to cast our net widely. Although our topic selection shows some skew towards smaller risks that have been subject to more scientific study, we do have a range of chapters that tackle potentially large but more speculative risks. The page count allocated to a risk should not, of course, be interpreted as a measure of how seriously we believe the risk ought to be regarded. In some cases, we have seen it fit to have a chapter devoted to a risk that turns out to be quite small, because learning that a particular risk is small can be useful, and the procedures used to arrive at the conclusion might serve as a template for future risk research. It goes without saying that the exact composition of a volume like this is also influenced by many contingencies

3 One can sometimes define something akin to objective physical probabilities ('chances') for deterministic systems, as is done, for example, in classical statistical mechanics, by assuming that the system is ergodic under a suitable course graining of its state space. But ergodicity is not necessary for there being strong scientific constraints on subjective probability assignments to uncertain events in deterministic systems. For example, if we have good statistics going back a long time showing that impacts occur on average once per thousand years, with no apparent trends or periodicity, then we have scientific reason - absent of more specific information -for assigning a probability of A0.1% to an impact occurring within the next year, whether we think the underlying system dynamic is indetermmistic, or chaotic, or something else.

4 Of course, when allocating research effort it is legitimate to take into account not just how important a problem is but also the likelihood that a solution can be found through research. The drunk who searches for his lost keys where the light is best is not necessarily irrational; and a scientist who succeeds in something relatively unimportant may achieve more good than one who fails in something important.

beyond the editors' control and that perforce it must leave out more than it includes.5 We have divided the book into four sections:

Part I: Background

Part II: Risks from Nature

Part III: Risks from Unintended Consequences

Part IV: Risks from Hostile Acts

This subdivision into three categories of risks is for convenience only, and the allocation of a risk to one of these categories is often fairly arbitrary. Take earthquakes which might seem to be paradigmatically a 'Risk from Nature'. Certainly, an earthquake is a natural event. It would happen even if we were not around. Earthquakes are governed by the forces of plate tectonics over which human beings currently have no control. Nevertheless, the risk posed by an earthquake is, to a very large extent, a matter of human construction. Where we erect our buildings and how we choose to construct them strongly influence what happens when an earthquake of a given magnitude occurs. If we all lived in tents, or in earthquake-proof buildings, or if we placed our cities far from fault lines and sea shores, earthquakes would do little damage. On closer inspection, we thus find that the earthquake risk is very much a joint venture between Nature and Man. Or take a paradigmatically anthropogenic hazard such as nuclear weapons. Again we soon discover that the risk is not as disconnected from uncontrollable forces of nature as might at first appear to be the case. If a nuclear bomb goes off, how much damage it causes will be significantly influenced by the weather. Wind, temperature, and precipitation will affect the fallout pattern and the likelihood that a fire storm will break out: factors that make a big difference to the number of fatalities generated by the blast. In addition, depending on how a risk is defined, it may also over time transition from one category to another. For instance, the risk of starvation might once have been primarily a Risk from Nature, when the main causal factors were draughts or fluctuations in local prey population; yet in the contemporary world, famines tend to be the consequences of market failures, wars, and social breakdowns, whence the risk is now at least as much one of Unintended Consequences or of Hostile Acts.

1.3 Part I: Background

The objective of this part of the book is to provide general context and methodological guidance for thinking systematically and critically about global catastrophic risks.

5For example, the risk of large-scale conventional war is only covered in passing, yet would surely deserve its own chapter in a more ideally balanced page allocation.

We begin at the end as it were in Cgapter 2 by Fred Adams discussing the long-term fate of our planet, our galaxy, and the Universe in general. In about 3.5 billion years, the growing luminosity of the sun will essentially have sterilized the Earth's biosphere, but the end of complex life on Earth is scheduled to come sooner, maybe 0.9-1.5 billon years from now. This is the default fate for life on our planet. One may hope that if humanity and complex technological civilization survives, it will long before then have learned to colonize space.

If some cataclysmic event were to destroy Homo sapiens and other higher organisms on Earth tomorrow, there does appear to be a window of opportunity of approximately one billion years for another intelligent species to evolve and take over where we left off. For comparison, it took approximately 1.2 billion years from the rise of sexual reproduction and simple multicellular organisms for the biosphere to evolve into its current state, and only a few million years for our species to evolve from its anthropoid ancestors. Of course, there is no guarantee that a rerun of evolution would produce anything like a human or a self-aware successor species.

If intelligent life does spread into space by harnessing the powers of technology, its lifespan could become extremely long. Yet eventually, the universe will wind down. The last stars will stop shining 100 trillion years from now. Later, matter itself will disintegrate into its basic constituents. By 10100 years from now even the largest black holes would have evaporated. Our present understanding of what will happen at this time scale and beyond is quite limited. The current best guess - but it is really no more than that - is that it is not just technologically difficult but physically impossible for intelligent information processing to continue beyond some finite time into the future. If so, extinction is not a question of whether, but when.

After this peek into the extremely remote future, it is instructive to turn around and take a brief peek at the distant past. Some past cataclysmic events have left traces in the geological record. There have been about 15 mass extinctions in the last 500 million years, and 5 of these eliminated more half of all species then inhabiting the Earth. Of particular note is the Permian -Triassic extinction event, which took place some 251.4 million years ago. This 'mother of all mass extinctions' eliminated more than 90% of all species and many entire phylogenetic families. It took upwards of 5 million years for biodiversity to recover.

Impacts from asteroids and comets, as well as massive volcano eruptions, have been implicated in many of the mass extinctions of the past. Other causes, such as variations in the intensity of solar illumination, may in some cases have exacerbated stresses. It appears that all mass extinctions have been mediated by atmospheric effects such as changes the atmosphere's composition or temperature. It is possible, however, that we owe our existence to mass extinctions. In particular, the comet that hit Earth 65 million years ago, which is believed to have been responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs, might have been a sine qua non for the subsequent rise of Homo sapiens by clearing an ecological niche that could be occupied by large mammals, including our ancestors.

At least 99.9% of all species that have ever walked, crawled, flown, swum, or otherwise abided on Earth are extinct. Not all of these were eliminated in cataclysmic mass extinction events. Many succumbed in less spectacular doomsdays such as from competition by other species for the same ecological niche. Chapter 3 reviews the mechanisms of evolutionary change. Not so long ago, our own species co-existed with at least one other hominid species, the Neanderthals. It is believed that the lineages of H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis diverged about 800,000 years ago. The Neanderthals manufactured and used composite tools such as handaxes. They did not reach extinction in Europe until 33,000 to 24,000 years ago, quite likely as a direct result of competition with Homo sapiens. Recently, the remains of what might have been another hominoid species, Homo Jloresiensis - nicknamed 'the hobbit' for its short stature -were discovered on an Indonesian island. H. Jloresiensis is believed to have survived until as recently as 12,000 years ago, although uncertainty remains about the interpretation of the finds. An important lesson of this chapter is that extinction of intelligent species has already happened on Earth, suggesting that it would be naive to think it may not happen again.

From a naturalistic perspective, there is thus nothing abnormal about global cataclysms including species extinctions, although the characteristic time scales are typically large by human standards. James Hughes in Chapter 4 makes clear, however, the idea of cataclysmic endings often causes a peculiar set of cognitive tendencies to come into play, what he calls 'the millennial, Utopian, or apocalyptic psychocultural bundle, a characteristic dynamic of eschatological beliefs and behaviours'. The millennial impulse is pancultural. Hughes shows how it can be found in many guises and with many common tropes from Europe to India to China, across the last several thousand years. 'We may aspire to a purely rational, technocratic analysis', Hughes writes, 'calmly balancing the likelihoods of futures without disease, hunger, work or death, on the one hand, against the likelihoods of worlds destroyed by war, plagues or asteroids, but few will be immune to millennial biases, positive or negative, fatalist or messianic'. Although these eschatological tropes can serve legitimate social needs and help to mobilize needed action, they easily become dysfunctional and contribute to social disengagement. Hughes argues that we need historically informed and vigilant self-interrogation to help us keep our focus on constructive efforts to address real challenges.

Even for an honest, truth-seeking, and well-intentioned investigator it is difficult to think and act rationally in regard to global catastrophic risks and existential risks. These are topics on which it seems especiallyfollows:

Substantially larger numbers, such as 500 million deaths, and especially qualitatively different scenarios such as the extinction of the entire human species, seem to trigger a different mode of thinking - enter into a 'separate magisterium'. People who would never dream of hurting a child hear of an existential risk, and say, 'Well, maybe the human species doesn't really deserve to survive'.

Fortunately, if we are ready to contend with our biases, we are not left entirely to our own devices. Over the last few decades, psychologists and economists have developed an extensive empirical literature on many of the common heuristics and biases that can be found in human cognition. Yudkowsky surveys this literature and applies its frequently disturbing findings to the domain of large-scale risks that is the subject matter of this book. His survey reviews the following effects: availability; hindsight bias; black swans; the conjunction fallacy; confirmation bias; anchoring, adjustment, and contamination; the affect heuristic; scope neglect; calibration and overconfidence; and bystander apathy. It behooves any sophisticated contributor in the area of global catastrophic risks and existential risks - whether scientist or policy advisor -to be familiar with each of these effects and we all ought to give some consideration to how they might be distorting our judgements.

Another kind of reasoning trap to be avoided is anthropic bias. Anthropic bias differs from the general cognitive biases reviewed by Yudkowsky; it is more theoretical in nature and it applies more narrowly to only certain specific kinds of inference. Anthropic bias arises when we overlook relevant observation selection effects. An observation selection effect occurs when our evidence has been 'filtered' by the precondition that a suitably positioned observer exists to have the evidence, in such a way that our observations are unrepresentatively sampled from the target domain. Failure to take observation effects into account correctly can result in serious errors in our probabilistic evaluation of some of the relevant hypotheses. Milan Cirkovic, in Chapter 6, reviews some applications of observation selection theory that bear on global catastrophic risk and particularly existential risk. Some of these applications are fairly straightforward albeit not always obvious. For example, the tempting inference that certain classes of existential disaster must be highly improbable because they have never occurred in the history of our species or even in the history of life on Earth must be resisted. We are bound to find ourselves in one of those places and belonging to one of those intelligent species which have not yet been destroyed, whether planet or species-destroying disasters are common or rare: for the alternative possibility - that our planet has been destroyed or our species extinguished - is something that is unobservable for us, per definition. Other applications of anthropic reasoning - such as the Carter-Leslie Doomsday argument - are of disputed validity, especially m rneir generalized iorms, DUI nevermeiess wortn Knowing aDout. in some applications, such as the simulation argument, surprising constraints are revealed on what we can coherently assume about humanity's future and our place in the world.

There are professional communities that deal with risk assessment on a daily basis. The subsequent two chapters present perspectives from the systems engineering discipline and the insurance industry, respectively.

In Chapter 7, Yacov Haimes outlines some flexible strategies for organizing our thinking about risk variables in complex systems engineering projects. What knowledge is needed to make good risk management decisions? Answering this question, Haimes says, 'mandates seeking the "truth" about the unknowable complex nature of emergent systems; it requires intellectually bias-free modellers and thinkers who are empowered to experiment with a multitude of modelling and simulation approaches and to collaborate for appropriate solutions'. Haimes argues that organizing the analysis around the measure of the expected value of risk can be too constraining. Decision makers often prefer a more fine-grained decomposition of risk that allows them to consider separately the probability of outcomes in different severity ranges, using what Haimes calls 'the partitioned multi-objective risk method'.

Chapter 8, by Peter Taylor, explores the connections between the insurance industry and global catastrophic risk. Insurance companies help individuals and organizations mitigate the financial consequences of risk, essentially by allowing risks to be traded and shared. Peter Taylor argues that the extent to which global catastrophic risks can be privately insured is severely limited for reasons having to do with both their scope and their type.

Although insurance and reinsurance companies have paid relatively scant attention to global catastrophic risks, they have accumulated plenty of experience with smaller risks. Some of the concepts and methods used can be applied to risks at any scale. Taylor highlights the importance of the concept of uncertainty. A particular stochastic model of phenomena in some domain (such as earthquakes) may entail a definite probability distribution over possible outcomes. However, in addition to the chanciness described by the model, we must recognize two further sources of uncertainty. There is usually uncertainty in the values of the parameters that we feed into the model. On top of that, there is uncertainty about whether the model we use does, in fact, correctly describe the phenomena in the target domain. These higher-level uncertainties are often impossible to analyse in a statistically rigorous way. Analysts who strive for objectivity and who are expected to avoid making 'un-scientific' assumptions that they cannot justify face a temptation to ignore these subjective uncertainties. But such scientism can lead to disastrous misjudgements. Taylor argues that the distortion is often greatest at the tail end of exceedance probability curves, leading to an underestimation of the risk of extreme events. survey studies of perceived risk. One of these, conducted by Swiss Re in 2005, asked executives of multinationals about which risks to their businesses' financials were of greatest concern to them. Computer-related risk was rated as the highest priority risk, followed by foreign trade, corporate governance, operational/facility, and liability risk. Natural disasters came in seventh place, and terrorism in tenth place. It appears that, as far as financial threats to individual corporations are concerned, global catastrophic risks take the backseat to more direct and narrowly focused business hazards. A similar exercise, but with broader scope, is carried out annually by the World Economic Forum. Its 2007 Global Risk report classified risks by likelihood and severity based on opinions solicited from business leaders, economists, and academics. Risks were evaluated with a 10-year time frame. Two risks were given a severity rating of 'more than 1 trillion USD', namely, asset price collapse (10-20%) and retrenchment from globalization (1-5%). When severity was measured in number of deaths rather than economic losses, the top three risks were pandemics, developing world disease, and interstate and civil war. (Unfortunately, several of the risks in this survey were poorly defined, making it hard to interpret the reported opinions - one moral here being that, if one wishes to assign probabilities to risks or rank them according to severity or likelihood, an essential first step is to present clear definitions of the risks that are to be evaluated.6)

The Background part of the book ends with a discussion by Richard Posner on some challenges for public policy in Chapter 9. Posner notes that governmental action to reduce global catastrophic risk is often impeded by the short decision horizons of politicians with their limited terms of office and the many competing demands on their attention. Furthermore, mitigation of global catastrophic risks is often costly and can create a free-rider problem. Smaller and poorer nations may drag their heels in the hope of taking a free ride on larger and richer countries. The more resourceful countries, in turn, may hold back because of reluctance to reward the free riders.

Posner also looks at several specific cases, including tsunamis, asteroid impacts, bioterrorism, accelerator experiments, and global warming, and considers some of the implications for public policy posed by these risks. Although rigorous cost-benefit analyses are not always possible, it is nevertheless important to attempt to quantify probabilities, potential harms, and the costs of different possible countermeasures, in order to determine priorities and optimal strategies for mitigation. Posner suggests that when

6 For example, the risk 'Chronic disease in the developed world' is defined as 'Obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases become widespread; healthcare costs increase; resistant bacterial infections rise, sparking class-action suits and avoidance of hospitals'. By most standards, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are already widespread. And by how much would healthcare costs have to increase to satisfy the criterion? It may be impossible to judge whether this definition was met even after the fact and with the benefit of hindsight.

a precise probability of some risk cannot be determined, it can sometimes be informative to consider - as a rough heuristic - the 'implied probability' suggested by current expenditures on mitigation efforts compared to the magnitude of harms that would result if a disaster materialized. For example, if we spend one million dollars per year to mitigate a risk which would create 1 billion dollars of damage, we may estimate that current policies implicitly assume that the annual risk of the disaster is of the order of 1/1000. If this implied probability seems too small, it might be a sign that we are not spending enough on mitigation.7 Posner maintains that the world is, indeed, under-investing in mitigation of several global catastrophic risks.

1.4 Part II: Risks from nature

Volcanic eruptions in recent historical times have had measurable effects on global climate, causing global cooling by a few tenths of one degree, the effect lasting perhaps a year. But as Michael Rampino explains in Chapter 10, these eruptions pale in comparison to the largest recorded eruptions. Approximately 75,000 years ago, a volcano erupted in Toba, Indonesia, spewing vast volumes of fine ash and aerosols into the atmosphere, with effects comparable to nuclear-winter scenarios. Land temperatures globally dropped by 5-15°C, and ocean-surface cooling of = 2-6° C might have extended over several years. The persistence of significant soot in the atmosphere for 1-3 years might have led to a cooling of the climate lasting for decades (because of climate feedbacks such as increased snow cover and sea ice causing more of the sun's radiation to be reflected back into space). The human population appears to have gone through a bottleneck at this time, according to some estimates dropping as low as =500 reproducing females in a world population of approximately 4000 individuals. On the Toba catastrophe theory, the population decline was caused by the super-eruption, and the human species was teetering on the brink of extinction. This is perhaps the worst disaster that has ever befallen the human species, at least if severity is measured by how close to terminal was the outcome.

More than 20 super-eruption sites for the last 2 million years have been identified. This would suggest that, on average, a super-eruption occurs at least once every 50,000 years. However, there may well have been additional super-eruptions that have not yet been identified in the geological record.

This heuristic is only meant to be a first stab at the problem. It is obviously not generally valid. For example, if one million dollars is sufficient to take all the possible precautions, there is no reason to spend more on the risk even if we think that its probability is much greater than 1/1000. A more careful analysis would consider the marginal returns on investment in risk reduction.

The global damage from super-volcanism would come chiefly from its climatic effects. The volcanic winter that would follow such an eruption would cause a drop in agricultural productivity which could lead to mass starvation and consequent social upheavals. Rampino's analysis of the impacts of super-volcanism is also relevant to the risks of nuclear war and asteroid or meteor impacts. Each of these would involve soot and aerosols being injected into the atmosphere, cooling the Earth's climate.

Although we have no way of preventing a super-eruption, there are precautions that we could take to mitigate its impacts. At present, a global stockpile equivalent to a 2-month supply of grain exists. In a super-volcanic catastrophe, growing seasons might be curtailed for several years. A larger stockpile of grain and other foodstuffs, while expensive to maintain, would provide a buffer for a range of catastrophe scenarios involving temporary reductions in world agricultural productivity.

The hazard from comets and meteors is perhaps the best understood of all global catastrophic risks (which is not to deny that significant uncertainties remain). Chapter 11, by William Napier, explains some of the science behind the impact hazards: where comets and asteroids come from, how frequently impacts occur, and what the effects of an impact would be. To produce a civilization-disrupting event, an impactor would need a diameter of at least 1 or 2

km. A 10-km impactor would, it appears, have a good chance of causing the extinction of the human species. But even sub-kilometre impactors could produce damage reaching the level of global catastrophe, depending on their composition, velocity, angle, and impact site.

Napier estimates that 'the per capita impact hazard is at the level associated with the hazards of air travel and the like'. However, funding for mitigation is meager compared to funding for air safety. The main effort currently underway to address the impact hazard is the Spaceguard project, which receives about 4 million dollars per annum from NASA besides inkind and voluntary contributions from others. Spaceguard aims to find 90% of near-Earth asteroids larger than 1 km by the end of 2008. Asteroids constitute the largest portion of the threat from near-Earth objects (and are easier to detect than comets) so when the project is completed, the subjective probability of a large impact will have been reduced considerably -unless, of course, it were discovered that some asteroid has a date with our planet in the near future, in which case the probability would soar.

Some preliminary study has been done of how a potential impactor could be deflected. Given sufficient advance warning, it appears that the space technology needed to divert an asteroid could be developed. The cost of producing an effective asteroid defence would be much greater than the cost of searching for potential impactors. However, if a civilization-destroying wrecking ball were found to be swinging towards the Earth, virtually any expense would be justified to avert it before it struck.

Asteroids and comets are not the only potential global catastrophic threats from space. Other cosmic hazards include global climatic change from fluctuations in solar activity, and very large fluxes from radiation and cosmic rays from supernova explosions or gamma ray bursts. These risks are examined in Chapter 12 by Arnon Dar. The findings on these risks are favourable: the risks appear to be very small. No particular response seems indicated at the present time beyond continuation of basic research.8

Continue reading here: Risks from unintended consequences

Was this article helpful?

0 0