Identifying and Assessing the Drivers of Global Catastrophic Risk

Report by SJ Beard, Phil Torres
Published on 12 February 2020


This report reviews and appraises the methods and approaches for assessing the drivers of global catastrophic risk. The review contains five sections:

  1. A conceptual overview setting out the current understanding of the concept of global catastrophic risks (GCRs), their drivers, and how they can be assessed.
  2. A brief historical overview of the field of GCR research, indicating how our understanding of the drivers of GCRs has developed.
  3. A summary of existing studies that seek to quantify the drivers of GCR by assessing the likelihood that different causes will precipitate a global catastrophe.
  4. A critical evaluation of the usefulness of this research given the conceptual framework outlined in section 1 and a review of emerging conceptual, evaluative and risk assessment tools that may allow for better assessments of the drivers of GCRs in the future.
  5. A proposal for how the Global Challenges Foundation could work to most productively improve our understanding of the drivers of GCRs given the findings of sections 2, 3, and 4.

This report highlights how the body of emerging GCR research has failed to produce sufficient progress towards establishing a unified methodological framework for studying these risks. Key steps that will help to produce such a framework include moving away from a hazard-focused conception of risk, typified by the majority of quantitative risk assessments that we analyze, and toward a more sophisticated approach built on a mature understanding of risk assessment and disaster risk reduction and preparedness. We further suggest that a key barrier to the development of a mature science capable of comprehensively assessing the drivers of GCRs has been the political, philosophical, and economic context within which the field has arisen, as demonstrated by five distinct “waves” of GCR research. We believe that a suitably committed funder that transcends these contextual boundaries could have a transformative impact on the discipline, and with it our understanding of GCRs and their drivers. We propose that the Global Challenges Foundation is in a uniquely strong position to play this role.

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