Hazards with escalation potential: Governing the drivers of global and existential catastrophes

Report by Maxime Stauffer, Jenty Kirsch-Wood, Anne-Sophie Stevance, Lara Mani, Lalitha Sundaram, Sarah Dryhurst, Konrad Seifert
Published on 14 September 2023

A new report 'Hazards with Escalation Potential: Governing the Drivers of Global and Existential Catastrophes' was published by the UNDRR, International Science Council, CSER & Simon Institute for Longterm Governance. 

Executive Summary

The future of humanity and the planet hinges on human choices. How societies invest in critical infrastructure, political systems, military capacity and technological development creates both opportunities and risks. The impact of human activity has become so extensive that the risk of global and existential catastrophe is increasing fast.

What could cause global and existential catastrophe? What set of events and processes would lead to such worst-case scenarios? And what are the implications for risk research and governance?

This briefing note answers these questions by identifying the hazards that, once paired with corresponding vulnerabilities and exposures, would escalate and cause global and existential catastrophes. Its goal is to distil governance insights on risk cascades from a review of the literature, an expert survey and expert consultations.

Overall, out of the 302 hazards identified in the Hazard Information Profiles (HIPs) developed by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and the International Science Council to guide more holistic disaster risk reduction,1 10 geological, biological, technological and social hazards were identified as having a global escalation potential. In addition to this list, climate change and artificial intelligence were identified as the most transformative processes with the potential to create, modify or amplify other hazards, vulnerabilities and exposures. This minority of known hazards, which could trigger cascades leading to global and existential catastrophe, warrants focus.

Escalating hazards share core characteristics such as the ability to affect multiple systems and to bypass established response and coping capacity. Focusing on these characteristics of the worst hazards can refine governance strategies, making them more adaptive to the various manifestations of risk. Current governance systems are built to prepare and respond to events with known frequency and
manageable severity, but they are not fit for purpose to address worst-case scenarios, which are emerging, exponential and global in scope. This briefing note calls for important changes in risk research and governance to remedy these gaps.

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