Four months in, this year has already been a remarkable showcase for existential and catastrophic risk. A severe drought, devastating bushfires, hazardous smoke, towns running dry – these events all demonstrate the consequences of human-induced climate change.
While the above may seem like isolated threats, they are parts of a larger puzzle of which the pieces are all interconnected. A report titled Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, published today by the Commission for the Human Future, has isolated ten potentially catastrophic threats to human survival.
Not prioritized over one another, these risks are:
- decline of natural resources, particularly water
- collapse of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity
- human population growth beyond Earth’s carrying capacity
- global warming and human-induced climate change
- chemical pollution of the Earth system, including the atmosphere and oceans
- rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
- nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction
- pandemics of new and untreatable disease
- the advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technology
- national and global failure to understand and act preventatively on these risks.
The start of ongoing discussions
The Commission for the Human Future formed last year, following earlier discussions within emeritus faculty at the Australian National University about the major risks faced by humanity, how they should be approached and how they might be solved. We hosted our first round-table discussion last month, bringing together more than 40 academics, thinkers and policy leaders.
The commission’s report states our species’ ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-20th century. Global trends in demographics, information, politics, warfare, climate, environmental damage and technology have culminated in an entirely new level of risk.
The risks emerging now are varied, global and complex. Each one poses a “significant” risk to human civilisation, a “catastrophic risk”, or could actually extinguish the human species and is therefore an “existential risk”.
The risks are interconnected. They originate from the same basic causes and must be solved in ways that make no individual threat worse. This means many existing systems we take for granted, including our economic, food, energy, production and waste, community life and governance systems – along with our relationship with the Earth’s natural systems – must undergo searching examination and reform.
COVID-19: a lesson in interconnection
It’s tempting to examine these threats individually, and yet with the coronavirus crisis we see their interconnection.
The response to the coronavirus has had implications for climate change with carbon pollution reduction, increased discussion about artificial intelligence and use of data (including facial recognition), and changes to the landscape of global security particularly in the face of massive economic transition.
It’s not possible to “solve” COVID-19 without affecting other risks in some way.