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- Global catastrophic risks (GCRs) include those events or incidents consequential enough to significantly harm or set back human civilization at the global scale (including: severe global pandemics, nuclear war, asteroid and comet impacts, supervolcanoes, sudden and severe changes to the climate, and intentional or accidental threats arising from the use and development of emerging technologies).
- Recognising the potentially unbearable impact of global catastrophic risks, the US has just passed the Global Catastrophic Risk Management Act.
- The Act requires the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate an assessment of GCRs within one year, and every ten years thereafter.
- The report must be coordinated with senior officials from 16 other specified national agencies.
- Each Federal Interagency Operational Plan will then be updated to include an annex containing a strategy to ensure basic needs are met in the aftermath of global catastrophe.
- Aotearoa NZ should replicate this Act, with the National Security Group and NEMA coordinating the report. The upcoming shake-up of NZ’s research sector could include a National Science Challenge on Mitigating GCRs.
Global Catastrophic Risks
Global catastrophic risks (GCRs) could inflict serious damage to human wellbeing on a global scale, exceeding humanity’s collective ability to respond, potentially killing billions of people. Existential catastrophes are those GCRs that would either cause human extinction or prevent a full recovery. The significance of such events is potentially very great, superseding the salience of many day-to-day issues when assessed according to likelihood, consequences, neglectedness, and cost-benefit of action.
The US GCR Management Act
Lawmakers in the United States appear to have recently recognised the importance of these risks for people here and now, as well as those living in the future, and the US has recently passed the US Global Catastrophic Risk Management Act.
The Act was folded into the National Defence Authority Act, on the strength of a broad coalition of interest among stakeholders each concerned with various risks.
The Act defines global catastrophes as well as existential risks to human civilisation. These risks include many that have concerned scholars of existential risk for years, namely: severe global pandemics, nuclear war, asteroid and comet impacts, supervolcanoes, sudden and severe changes to the climate, and intentional or accidental threats arising from the use and development of emerging technologies.
The Act requires a broad assessment of all such risks within one year and every ten years thereafter. These reports will be coordinated by the Secretary for Homeland Security and the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These individuals are to coordinate with senior officials from 16 other national agencies, as follows:
- Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
- Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy
- Secretary of State and the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security
- Attorney General and the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
- The Secretary of Energy, the Under Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Security, and the Director of Science
- Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, and the Assistant Secretary of Global Affairs
- Secretary of Commerce, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology
- Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the United States Geological Survey
- Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Assistant Administrator for Water
- Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- Director of the National Science Foundation
- Secretary of the Treasury
- Secretary of Defense, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, and the Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the Army Corps of Engineers
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
- Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development
- Secretary of Transportation
Reports on GCRs now mandated by law
The report must include expert estimates of cumulative risk across 30 years, analysis of the most concerning risks, technical assessments, an explanation of uncertainties, whether risk is likely to increase across 10 years, and various recommendations for action.
The Act also requires a supplement to each Federal Interagency Operational Plan that includes a strategy to ensure the health, safety, and general welfare of the civilian population affected by catastrophic incidents. This strategy is to assume the military is otherwise engaged and not able to assist. Plans for critical sectors should include: transportation, communications, energy, healthcare and public health, and water/wastewater.
Finally, the strategies developed above must be validated through exercises.
Increasing global action in the face of catastrophic risk
Global awareness of the risk of major catastrophe has been growing in recent years. We have seen ‘existential risk’ mentioned in the UN Secretary General’s Report ‘Our Common Agenda’. We have experienced the warning shots of the Covid-19 pandemic, Russian invasion of Ukraine, and impactful new weather patterns.
Drawing in part of a House of Lords report on ‘Preparing for Extreme Risks’ the new (Dec 2022) UK Government Resilience Framework takes an explicit focus on value for money, and the cost-effectiveness of resilience planning. They note that every £1 spent advising on flood risk matters saved £12 in future flood damages. Analysis already exists showing that investments to mitigate GCRs might have even more favourable business cases. It is now time for action to systematically determine this. In Australia a new Disaster Ready Fund will provide up to $200 million every year over five years to disaster resilience and mitigation projects across Australia.
New Zealand needs to act
GCRs would affect every country and it is time for Aotearoa New Zealand to get on board and contribute with local analysis, and New Zealand-specific action plans. No country can mitigate the suite of GCRs on their own. New Zealand needs to pivot to a focus on broad resilience rather than merely maximising sector profits. This need was stated clearly by Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, in his letter to the Minister of Energy (Dec 2022) about energy security.
The new US GCR Management Act has lain the gauntlet. There is no reason why NZ’s National Security Group in conjunction with NEMA can’t lead a similar assessment to that now required in the US. They just need appropriate resourcing, perhaps equivalent to the per capita sum Australia is investing in resilience projects. Indeed, the benefits are likely to be economically positive. NZ Research, Science and Innovation Minister Ayesha Verrall plans an upcoming shake-up of the NZ research sector. Now would be an opportune time to include a National Science Challenge on ‘Mitigating Extreme Risks’ as one of New Zealand’s new science missions. Political Parties in NZ should state where they stand on these possibilities during the present election year.
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