Governments are failing to understand global catastrophic risks and need to take urgent action, says new report

Flood  Credit: skeeze (Pixabay)

Governments are failing to understand the human-driven catastrophic risks that threaten global security, prosperity and potential, and could in the worst case lead to mass harm and societal collapse, say researchers at the University of Cambridge.

The plausible global catastrophic risks include: tipping points in environmental systems due to climate change or mass biodiversity loss; malicious or accidentally harmful use of artificial intelligence; malicious use of, or unintended consequences, from advanced biotechnologies; a natural or engineered global pandemic; and intentional, miscalculated, accidental, or terrorist-related use of nuclear weapons.

Researchers from Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) have released a new report on what governments can do to understand and inform policy around these risks, which could threaten the global population.

The likelihood that a global catastrophe will occur in the next 20 years is uncertain, say the researchers, but the potential severity means that national governments have a responsibility to their citizens to manage these types of risks.

Des Browne, former UK Secretary of State for Defence, said: “National governments struggle with understanding and developing policy for the elimination or mitigation of extreme risks, including global catastrophic risks. Effective policies may compel fundamental structural reform of political systems, but we do not need, nor do we have the time, to wait for such change.

“Our leaders can, and must, act now to better understand the global catastrophic risks that are present and developing. This report offers a practical framework for the necessary action.”

Governments must sufficiently understand the risks to design mitigation, preparation and response measures. But political systems often do not provide sufficient incentives for policy-makers to think about emerging or long-term issues, especially where vested interests and tough trade-offs are at play.

Additionally, the bureaucracies that support government can be ill-equipped to understand these risks. Depending on the issue or the country, public administrations tend to suffer from one or more of the following problems: poor agility to new or emerging issues, poor risk management culture and practice, lack of technical expertise and failure of imagination.

The report provides 59 practical options for how governments can better understand the risks. Ranging from improving risk management practices to developing better futures analysis, to increasing science and research capability, most national governments must take major policy efforts to match the scale and complexity of the problem, say the researchers.

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Image: Flood

Credit: skeeze (Pixabay)

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

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