Taking an all-hazards approach to global catastrophic risk
A brief explainer on how Global Shield views the problem facing all nations and how governments can tackle it
The Global Shield newsletter is a twice-monthly newsletter that highlights the latest policy, research and news on all-hazards global catastrophic risk (GCR).
Even with the deadly, record-breaking weather and correlated catastrophes in recent months, the last few weeks have especially stood out as warning signs of global catastrophic risk to come. Unprecedented wildfires around the world have killed people, forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate entire towns, burned structures to the ground in regions, and destroyed over a hundred thousand square kilometers of land. Meanwhile, historic levels of rainfall and flooding drove 1.5 million people in China to evacuate, and a rare hurricane and tropical storm struck Mexico and the US southwest, bringing flash floods and mudslides. All of this against the backdrop of a new strain of Covid and Russia targeting Ukraine’s capital in its biggest attack in months.
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale and number of current disasters and what this might mean for the near future, especially given the uncertainty around climate change, geopolitical challenges and emerging technologies. The Global Shield newsletter will empower policy researchers, advocates and practitioners to take action. It aims to highlight the latest policy developments and news in global catastrophic risk and provide our insight on what it means for you.
Before we return to that format in future newsletters, it might be useful to dive a bit deeper into how Global Shield views the problem facing all nations and how governments can tackle it.
Why global catastrophic risk?
Global catastrophic risk is the potential for a collection of threats or hazards to inflict significant harm to human wellbeing on a global scale. There is little point in getting caught up in definitional quibbles about the scale of harm required to be classified as globally catastrophic. Fundamentally, humanity faces a situation where millions, or even billions, of people around the world are at risk of death and suffering.
Typically, when people think of global catastrophic risk, they think of the threats and hazards. Climate change, pandemics, nuclear weapons, the misuse of advanced artificial intelligence, volcanoes and asteroids, among others, could produce global catastrophes.
It is important to recognise that threat and hazard is half the equation. The other half is the vulnerability of human and societal systems. These systems include our political and governance systems, the economy, our food, water and energy resources, the environment, infrastructure and healthcare. Human wellbeing relies on the functioning and resilience of these systems.
Global catastrophic risk is an important problem because the harm could be so high. And it’s a mistake to think the risk is long-term or highly unlikely. The risk is emerging and increasing before our eyes. And there still remains significant uncertainty about timelines, trajectories and potential scenarios for various threats.
Importantly, aiming to reduce GCR does not ignore or dismiss the harms these disasters can inflict at the individual, local, national or regional level. After all, risk sits on a spectrum. And preparedness for the worst that humanity could face will pay dividends for more localized disasters.
So we must be aware of, and look to reduce, the far end of the risk spectrum - where threats and hazards could be global, and where collapse of a critical system could have catastrophic consequences for humanity.
That brings us to the all-hazards approach.
Global Shield’s approach to reducing GCR is what we refer to as ‘all-hazards’ - basically addressing GCR as a whole. We want governments to take an all-hazards approach to GCR and to take action that would reduce GCR as a whole.
It doesn’t necessarily mean or require that the policies pursued will be applicable to every possible hazard. But this approach means that governments can strategically reduce the full range of potential risk and address commonalities between many kinds of risk. It’s already an approach many governments take for emergencies and disasters. We simply want to apply it to the GCR context.
An all-hazards approach has important benefits. It provides the government a holistic view of risk reduction efforts. If governments tackle the threats separately and distinctly, they will miss ways to better prioritize and coordinate across government. And it helps governments build capabilities and conduct activities that are common across a wide spectrum of disasters.
It also allows for opportunities to develop policies that address multiple sources of GCR. This seems self-evident. But most current efforts for reducing GCR tends to focus on tackling the individual threats and hazards. Want to reduce AI risk? Implement AI policy. Want to reduce pandemic risk? Implement pandemic policy. Is it necessary to do anything else?
Yes, it is! Global catastrophic risk policy should not only be split along these lines. We want policymakers to understand and govern GCR holistically. We want policymakers to address the drivers of multiple threats and hazards. And we want them to build or reinforce critical systems so that humanity can deal with a range of potential catastrophes. Ultimately, an all-hazards approach is a more efficient use of government resources.
Taking an all-hazards approach does not preclude addressing specific threats and hazards. In some instances, threat-specific policies will be required and are important to establish. It is certainly not an either-or situation. Indeed, these approaches are mutually reinforcing. As long as we get the right all-hazards policies in place.
What is all-hazards GCR policy in practice?
All-hazards sounds great in theory. Tackling the entire set of risk - let’s do that! In practice, we should be clear about the types of policies that can be implemented.
We’re not going into specific policies right now - that’s for another time. But there is a simple framework we use to consider all-hazards policy.
1 - Risk understanding. Before you can reduce risk, you have to understand it. So governments must take steps to identify, assess and monitor GCR.
For example, what are the specific threats and hazards, and how do we prioritize between them? What are our vulnerabilities? How should we track and monitor the risk? How do we foster scientific and academic expertise to better understand the risk? How concerned should we be about “black swans” and the unknown unknowns in our risk profile?
2 - Risk prevention. Global catastrophic risk is so severe that preventing it in the first place will be key. Risk prevention is ultimately about reducing the likelihood that the threats or hazards occur. While threat-specific approaches are needed here, so too are ways to prevent multiple threats and hazards at the same time.
For example, how do we steer malicious actors away from the development and use of potentially harmful technologies? How do we incentivise private industry to reduce risky behaviors and increase safety-conscious ones? How do we reduce tensions between great powers and create space for engagement on reducing GCR?
3 - Risk preparedness. If a global catastrophe were to occur, we want humanity to be as prepared as possible. Risk preparedness is about reducing the vulnerability to risk. Back to the critical systems described earlier, it’s about positioning those systems so that the threats and hazards have a reduced impact, and certainly do not cause them to collapse.
For example, how do we build resilience in our food, health and economic systems? How do we maintain critical infrastructure in the face of catastrophe? What are our contingency and scenario plans? How do we ensure that government processes and decision-making continue to function?
4 - Risk response. If a global catastrophe occurs, governments need to respond and recover quickly. These are the actions they take during and immediately after the event in order to reduce its impact.
For example, what actions do governments need to prioritize immediately? How can governments rebuild food and energy production? How can infrastructure be repurposed? What political and governance arrangements should be established?
5 - Risk communications. These are the activities to exchange information and conduct dialogue with stakeholders. After all, governments must communicate with citizens and broader society at all stages of GCR, including prevention, preparation and response. As we saw with COVID-19, communications can be haphazard, muddied, distorted and confused. Governments must have a solid GCR communications plan.
For example, how should governments communicate with citizens without creating fear, apathy or division? Through what methods should governments communicate during a catastrophe with the public and other governments? What information and data do governments need from other stakeholders to inform its own policies?
6 - Risk collaboration. Governments cannot do it alone. Reducing GCR is a whole-of-society and a global effort. It will require engaging, coordinating and partnering with stakeholders across society. It particularly requires collaborating with other governments. The collaboration around GCR reduction will be critical to success.
For example, how should governments engage with the private sector and civil society? What multilateral mechanisms are needed for GCR? How do governments manage risk that originates from outside its control?
7 - Risk governance. It is challenging for governments to effectively manage all these various risk management efforts. So it needs functions that guide, coordinate and oversee GCR activities. It could include the way government is designed to deal with GCR and the policy guidance and strategic planning for GCR.
For example, where does GCR sit within government priorities? Who is responsible for reducing GCR, and how does that affect the rest of their responsibilities? How do efforts to reduce GCR integrate with other risk management efforts, including national security policy or efforts to reduce local natural hazard risk? What processes are required to develop and decide on GCR policy?
Where to from here?
We will return to our regularly scheduled programming for the next newsletter. Future editions will emphasize all-hazard policy approaches to GCR. We will look for concrete examples where it is taking place, identify options for policymakers to take action, and showcase policy research where all-hazard approaches are key.
Global Shield itself will be advocating for all-hazard policy to governments around the world. We are starting in the US, but intend to expand from there. We want to work with organizations around the world, including those focused on specific threats and hazards, to advance the full range of policy options to governments.
Reach out to us if you have any thoughts, comments, feedback or input into this. We look forward to working with you.