The Cartography of Global Catastrophic Governance

Published on 06 January 2020


The international governance of global catastrophic risks (GCRs) is fragmented and insufficient. This report provides an overview of the international governance arrangement for 8 different GCR hazards and two drivers. We find that there are clusters of dedicated regulation and action, including in nuclear warfare, climate change and pandemics, biological and chemical warfare. Despite these concentrations of governance their effectiveness if often questionable. For others, such as catastrophic uses of AI, asteroid impacts, solar geoengineering, unknown risks, super-volcanic eruptions, inequality and many areas of ecological collapse, the legal landscape is littered more with gaps than effective policy. We suggest the following steps to help advance the state of global GCR governance and fill the gaps:

  • Work to identify instruments and policies that can address multiple risks and drivers in tandem;
  • Closer research into the relationship between drivers and hazards to create a deeper understanding of our collective ‘civilizational boundaries’.
  • This should include an understanding of tipping points and zones of uncertainty within each governance problem area;
  • Exploration of the potential for ‘tail risk treaties’: agreements that swiftly ramp-up action in the face of early warning signals of catastrophic change (particularly for environmental GCRs);
  • Closer examination on the coordination and conflict between different GCR governance areas. If there are areas where acting on one GCR could detrimentally impact another than a UN-system wide coordination body could be a useful resource.
  • Further work on building the foresight and coordination capacities of the UN for GCRs.

The international community is underprepared for natural or man-made catastrophes. The recommendations above can ensure that international governance navigates the turbulent waters of the 21st century, without blindly sailing into the storm.

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