Global Shield Newsletter (7 December 2023)
Planetary defense and multilateral efforts for GCR
This twice-monthly newsletter highlights the latest policy, research and news on global catastrophic risk (GCR).
Rather than thinking about GCR as a new policy issue, it might be best to reframe and expand existing policy work to better consider GCR. Protection from near-Earth objects has been a successful global effort for decades. And various multilateral efforts – for climate change, AI, biological weapons and future generations – are underway in their respective institutional homes. These endeavours could serve as stepping stones and building blocks for GCR reduction as a whole.
Defending the planet
Research out of the Planetary Defense Conference 2023 provides insights into the governance of detecting and preventing impacts from near-Earth objects. Nikola Schmidt of Prague’s Center for Governance of Emerging Technologies studies the last 30 years of planetary defense governance development to find potential challenges and pitfalls. Researchers from Cornell University’s Department of Government investigate the impact of public opinion on planetary defense. NASA researchers look hurricanes and nuclear explosions to inform evacuation and shelter plans for asteroid impacts. Another study looks at the diplomatic, geopolitical and economic aspects of dealing with an imminent asteroid.
Policy comment: Planetary defense is one of the world’s most successful efforts on GCR. Most extinction-level asteroids have been detected, and mitigation plans are in place, at least in the US. It is a model and learning opportunity to use for other threats. The Planetary Defense Program in NASA, as well as the international coordination, has gone from strength to strength since the 1990s.
Detecting, tracking and deflecting near-Earth objects continues to have political and public support, despite an understanding that catastrophic impactors are very rare. This support is probably based on trust in the field’s scientific institutions, such as NASA, and awareness of the risk through public communications and popular culture. For reducing GCR in general, policy advocates and practitioners must consider how to collect and disseminate scientific research, while maintaining and building trust in institutions. Small policy efforts that are seeded early can grow into well-resourced and multilateral programs.
Policy for mitigating the risk of near-Earth objects should sit within a broader all-hazards policy approach. This approach would allow for better planning and response across a range of scenarios that require emergency services, mass evacuation and international coordination. Where planetary defense is already an accepted program, it could serve as a home for monitoring and assessing other threats. And, given the increased complexity of global systems, even a small asteroid striking a strategically significant area could ripple globally. This size of asteroid can easily go undetected: a potentially severe impactor that just missed Earth on 13 July 2023 was discovered two days after it passed us.
Broadening existing multilateral efforts for GCR
A number of multilateral efforts and engagements on global risk issues are occupying countries in the last stretch of 2023. Here is a snapshot of these efforts.
The Working Group on the Strengthening of the Biological Weapons Convention is meeting over 4-8 December, ahead of the Meeting of States Parties the following week. It is the first substantive discussion on verification measures in over 20 years.
The atmosphere of COP28 – the largest Conference of the Parties in its almost-30 year run – has been somewhat positive. US Vice President Kamala Harris announced that more than 110 countries have pledged to triple renewable energy production and double energy efficiency by 2030. But the first-ever “Global Stocktake” – a UN effort to track the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement – concludes that implementation of the Paris Agreement is lacking across all areas.
The UN’s High-Level Advisory Body on Artificial Intelligence is finalizing its interim report on the global AI governance landscape, which is due by the end of the year. Launched by the UN Secretary-General in October, the body brings together 38 experts to look into the risk and opportunity from AI.
Discussions and engagement continues in preparation for the Summit of the Future, including negotiations on the Pact for the Future. Representatives of major groups and other stakeholders (MGoS) and civil society will be attending a virtual consultation on 13 December to share their overall views and expectations for the Summit and to offer concrete suggestions for the pact. The two co-facilitators – the permanent representatives of Germany and Namibia – plan to circulate a zero draft by early 2024.
Policy comment: The various activities across the multilateral system provide an opportunity to engage member states and multilateral institutions, such as UN bodies, on global catastrophic risk. However, it also demonstrates the continued challenges in addressing the risk. The threats that could cause global catastrophes are treated in their institutional silos. So it restricts the ability of multilateral institutions to develop a full assessment of risk this century or to improve governance that ameliorates each individual threat through a more holistic approach.
Effort to increase the multilateral focus on global catastrophic risk could build on existing efforts. The Global Risk Report, commissioned by the UN Secretary-General through the Common Agenda process, could provide an all-hazards assessment. Delivery of it ahead of the Summit could help shape discussions on how to address the major threats and hazards.
From an all-hazards preparedness perspective, the work of the UN’s Office of Disaster Risk Reduction is notionally all-hazards and is moving towards a slightly broader view of resilience. Their report in August on hazards with global escalatory potential offers a small but meaningful conceptual reframing of global catastrophic risk in the UN ecosystem.
The OECD is recruiting for a Policy Advisor to focus on policies that manage existential risk. Applications close 12 December.
The Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) is a multilateral initiative focused on infrastructure resilience to climatic and other natural hazards. Infrastructure resilience is a form of all-hazard preparedness, and so CDRI’s work could provide a path forward on other catastrophic threats.