Global Justice and Global Catastrophic Risk

Inequality, corruption, and structural discrimination are drivers of global risk. Reducing global risk requires tackling global injustice.

Many global risks are not exogenous to human civilisation, they are the products of choices and decisions taken (or not taken) at all levels of human society. The backdrop to these decisions is one characterised by global injustice: profound inequality, corruption, and structural discrimination (such as anti-Black racism and White supremacy). The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is working to understand how issues of distributive, procedural and relational justice at the global level act as drivers of global risk. It is also committed to foregrounding critical perspectives from postcolonialism and anti-racism in its work in this area.

A key focus of our research will be on the creation of better institutions for promoting global justice and responding to global risk concurrently. Who should participate in discussions about governing global catastrophic risks, for instance within intergovernmental organisations, public-private fora, or industry discussions? What are the ways in which the activities of international financial institutions such as multilateral development banks contribute to global risk? What are the systemic interactions between the reinforcement of global inequalities and the exacerbation of global risk within these institutions? 

Global injustice as a driver of risk

Global injustice is not only a direct driver of hazards, like climate change, discriminatory AI systems, and global conflict, it also increases civilizational vulnerabilities and exposures to these hazards:

  • Global injustice prevents appropriate risk management actions and policies being taken and affects how risks are perceived, as is the case with industry-funded ‘merchants of doubt’ sowing disinformation on nuclear winter, ozone depletion and climate science. 
  • It disempowers those at the risk frontlines, such as communities who are most affected by climate change or most at risk from diseases due to poverty, healthcare inequalities and racial descrimination.
  • It has led to structural inertia and risk management strategies which protect the interests of the elites who create them. When this is the case, attempts to address global risks can exacerbate rather than alleviate injustices.
  • It creates the potential for difficult and unnecessary dilemmas and constraints in achieving the twin goals of human development and the management of global risk, such as in cases where states rely on subsistence emissions to meet basic energy needs.
  • Finally, injustice and inequality slow the process of recovery from disasters. This is a key finding of over a century of disaster studies. It is expected that global injustice would create significant barriers to recovery from potential future global catastrophes.

The catastrophic legacy of past global injustice

While the risks currently facing humanity are unprecedented, there is a rich history of catastrophic global events that we can learn from, including instances of massive loss of life, civilization collapse and the loss of cultures and ways of life. Many of these previous global catastrophes are closely connected with global injustice. For instance, the European colonization of the Americas resulted in potentially over 80% of the indigenous populations being lost, the collapse of the Aztec, Inca, and Zapotec civilizations, and the death, torture, cultural disruption and political destabalization that occured as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. To this day European colonization continues to have catastrophic impacts at a global scale, including the neglect of tropical diseases.

Studying these catastrophes is vital if we are to learn lessons for the management of present global risks. It also helps to reveal how the continuing privilege of elite global institutions (including CSER and the University of Cambridge) is built on a legacy that has contributed, and is still contributing to, the imposition of catastrophes and risks of catastrophe on all of humanity. We are thus committed to examining our own role in these systems, taking responsibility, and doing our part to dismantle unjust systems and bring about a safer world for all.

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