Nuclear War and NZ: Impact and Mitigation Approaches


  • The McGuinness institute has released a report summarising the likely impacts of nuclear war on NZ and calling for a national risk assessment and strategy
  • This report was published the same week as our peer-reviewed paper on islands and nuclear war, which uses NZ as a case study
  • Nuclear war is a representative global catastrophic risk, and a national risk assessment would increase understanding of risk and mitigation strategies across multiple global catastrophes
  • There are additional reasons to undertake this kind of assessment which include the wellbeing of future generations, preservation of complex functioning society in the wake of global catastrophe, and potential synergies with other risk mitigation plans such as a net-zero carbon transition
  • It may be strategically better for this kind of assessment to be conducted from outside of the traditional national security silo, given recent indications that Cabinet might move to narrow the scope of the NZ National Security System
  • A Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme National Risks is one possible approach


The world still faces the risk of nuclear conflict and resulting severe cascading global impacts. A new paper from the McGuinness Institute provides a summary of the excellent work on the nuclear risk to NZ that was completed in the 1980s. This work found that the likely impact of a Northern Hemisphere nuclear war on NZ would be felt largely through collapse of global trade, as combatant and non-combatant Northern Hemisphere nations dealt with what would be the most significant internal catastrophe they have ever faced.

The known impacts of nuclear weapon use including blast, thermal radiation, and ionizing radiation would be spectacularly devastating wherever the weapons are detonated.

The uncertain impacts of nuclear weapon use potentially raise the stakes. We know the lower bound of impact could be severe, but the effects of any electromagnetic pulse, nuclear winter, ecological catastrophe, and cascading impacts of destruction on the interrelationships among sectors, trade, social cohesion, and international relations could be beyond comprehension.

It is important to note at the outset, that it is not just nuclear war that threatens these kinds of severe cascading global impacts. Risk is also posed by natural hazards such as supervolcano eruptions, massive solar flares, asteroid or comet impacts, and other disasters. Contemporary civilization may be more susceptible to these risks than ever before.

The 1980s work on NZ and nuclear war emphasized that radiation and physical destruction are not likely to be the problem for NZ and focused on establishing potential impacts of a Northern Hemisphere nuclear war on NZ health, agriculture, energy, trade, transport, communications, social responses, the impacts on government and sector interactions.

If trade were to collapse as anticipated, then a cursory look at a list of commodities imported to NZ demonstrates how wildly impactful this would be for every sector. Notably surveys in the 1980s found that only 4% of respondents recognised the impact on trade as most concerning. This view may be gaining more recognition now, given NZ’s experience with Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but is probably still not fully recognised as the dire threat it is likely to be.

Key points in the McGuinness Report

The core vulnerabilities NZ possesses in the face of nuclear war (or other trade disrupting global catastrophes) still exist or, as the report notes, have gotten worse across the last 35 years. This is because:

  1. NZ’s energy security has decreased, the country has become less energy self-sufficient in recent years and is also completely dependent on imports of refined fuel for almost all road transportation, and therefore all industrial and agricultural functioning.
  2. Dependence of almost all communication on digital technologies operated by external entities is also a key vulnerability for societal function.
  3. Social cohesion is more fragile, as evidenced by the social responses during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Key examples demonstrate a lack of strategic thinking around these issues, such as the closure of the Marsden Point oil refinery, which in the context of global catastrophes is a strategic asset.

It is problematic that NZ appears to have no rationing or resource allocation plan to smooth the shock of massive disruption to the import of essential industrial inputs.

There remain key knowledge gaps, which should be explored to better understand the impact of nuclear war (and other trade disrupting global catastrophes) on the functioning of NZ society.

There is a need to collate and provide information about the impacts of nuclear war to the public. This would serve two purposes. Firstly, it would allow feedback and peer review of the findings, thereby enhancing their robustness. Secondly, it would help encourage wide-ranging resilience thinking by businesses and individuals beyond the direct reach of policy.

It is encouraging that the recent Draft National Security Long-term Insights Briefing explicitly calls for more public national risk information and engagement.

For these reasons we suggested in consultation feedback to DPMC that nuclear war as a representative global catastrophic risk warrants inclusion in the final version of the Long-term Insights Briefing.

The McGuinness report highlights the wide range of risks that could all to some degree have similar deleterious impacts on NZ:

“the seriously disruptive consequences of more likely crises such as severe global economic difficulty or breakdown, regional conflicts that seriously disrupt trade, oil price shocks, far more deadly pandemics, and climate-change-induced disruptions. All these risks have in common a focus on building more resilience into our social, economic and political systems to better weather and recover from major shocks.”

Importantly, a focus on analysing nuclear war could accelerate the analysis and therefore potential mitigation strategies for the entire suite of global catastrophic risks.

The McGuinness report further notes that:

“Resilience, the ability to sustain/recover essential functions, would be the difference between a tolerable, cooperating society or social collapse and conflict”

However, it is even more important than that, because:

  • Social collapse and conflict might lead to future generations being much worse off than they might have been. It is striking that ‘future generations’ is not one of the ‘interests to protect’ proposed in two 2022 Cabinet papers outlining an approach to restructuring the NZ National Security System.
  • New Zealand is often argued to be one of the regions of the world most ‘safe’ from nuclear catastrophe and other global catastrophic risks. If even NZ is vulnerable to devastating collapse of industry due to the cascading impacts of global trade disruption, then the future of industrial civilization could be threatened. Such potential outcomes greatly strengthen the argument for nuclear war being analysed as a national threat.

As the McGuinness report argues, there should be a short-term phase of investigation (one should add followed by cost-effectiveness analysis and an intervention prioritisation process) and then a long-term phase of implementation.

The implementation phase should focus on resilience strategies that cut across multiple global catastrophic risks, and which also further other interests of value such as a green transition and decarbonisation. For example, it is striking that some of the most effective measures to mitigate the risk of global catastrophe on NZ are also those that would advance a carbon net-zero goal. Expected cost-utility of these kinds of projects should include the impact in expectation of global catastrophes across the rest of this century.  

Key strategic questions remain open

Although operational stockpiling of critical imported resources is mentioned in the report it may be the case that there are just too many ‘critical’ imported commodities. It’s quite likely that focus on pivoting at least a proportion of each sector to a ‘self-sufficient’ posture would help mitigate global catastrophes. Analysis and crowdsourcing should investigate how this might successfully be achieved.

The McGuinness report advocates for the inclusion of nuclear war as a risk overseen by the National Security System and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The rationale given is that in recent years an ‘all hazards’ approach to National Security has been taken (with the inclusion of a wide range of hazards in a classified National Risk Register).

However, this is at odds with Cabinet papers proactively released in 2022 that appear to chart a course away from the ‘all hazards’ approach to National Security, and, particularly in the wake of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attacks, towards a more specific focus on malicious agential risks against NZ (counter to present global trends in national risk assessment).

It certainly sometimes appears that the National Security System can become politicised with a focus on recent striking events rather than the largest longer term risks to NZ. A related problem occurred in Switzerland. Switzerland’s first national risk register of 1999 illustrated the precedence of civilian public dangers before military issues so clearly that the Ministry of Defence rejected its publication.

The issues identified above show clearly that the likely impact of nuclear war (and other global catastrophes) on NZ are predominantly civil rather than security issues. We have therefore offered constructive critique of these Cabinet papers and the approach to revamping the National Security System.

For the reasons just given, we favour a National Risk Assessment entity independent of the silos of DPMC, the National Security System (and even NEMA – with its traditional focus on natural hazards), that is anticipatory, central/aggregating, coordinating, apolitical, transparent, adaptive and accountable, and looks across all major national risks, providing the short-term assessment work and advising on longer-term implementation work as mentioned above. A Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme National Risks (or similar, with a well-resourced office) could play such a role providing open, independent, wide-ranging analysis and advice.

Such analysis should start to focus particularly on sectors not addressed by the 1980s NZ Nuclear Impacts Study, such as manufacturing, and welfare, and a better understanding of recently emerging vulnerabilities such as social cohesion, misinformation, and our dependence on digital technologies. Secrecy is not going to solve these issues.

Figure 1: Possible structure of a National Risk Approach

Figure caption: Global catastrophes such as a regional or great power nuclear war, supervolcanic eruption/industry-disabling solar flare, or devastating accidental engineered pandemic should be assessed in comparison with other traditional NZ threats and hazards. An independent office could look across the entire National Risk Approach and conduct an integrated risk assessment, advising parliament and providing information to the public. This information and advice can feed into rationally targeted action based on expected consequences and uncertainty.

Next steps

The 1980s NZ Nuclear Impacts Study identified four major themes of NZ’s vulnerability to major global catastrophe. These were dependence on trade, interdependence among sectors, the fact that vulnerabilities are increasing (largely with technological dependence and globalisation), and a lack of contingency planning.

A Phase II study was proposed at the time but never progressed due to bureaucratic impedance. This study would have aimed to improve public knowledge, coordinate a rationale for preparing contingency plans, and identify strategic areas where NZ’s vulnerabilities could be reduced.

Such a project must be initiated, should assess the risk, and should recommend a long-term strategy to address low-hanging fruit in neglected areas of risk mitigation likely to have the largest marginal cost-benefit when all goals are considered. Contingency planning should only be one element to such a project.

Governments often defer to a ‘response’ focus regarding hazards, but in cases of severe global catastrophe there may not be much role for government in the response phase. However, government must play a critical role in preparing the social conditions, resources, and infrastructure of the nation to maximize the chance that such uncertain but inevitable catastrophes can be weathered. A strategy to build the most resilient ecosystem of NZ industry ahead of inevitable catastrophe (whatever form the next catastrophe takes) is probably the most important plan.

We have started work on such a project, although the 1.7 FTE that we can deploy across one year is in stark contrast to the 8.0 FTE across three years recommended by the McGuinness report for nuclear war alone. We will only be able to take a ‘quick look’ across most issues and present a bullet point strategy and plan building on our recent work through 2022 on the impact of nuclear war (and other global catastrophes). We invite those with additional resourcing, or additional government resources, to complement or integrate with our approach.

Finally, we emphasise that the business case for analysing nuclear war and its impacts on NZ is not just the usefulness of a plan for this (hopefully unlikely) eventuality, but that the same analysis also contributes to resilience and mitigation plans to combat the whole spectrum of global catastrophic risks, which collectively have a concerning probability and large consequences in expectation.

The case for action is enhanced not just by the need to protect New Zealanders alive today and their interests, but to ensure stable wellbeing for future NZ generations, to help accelerate other important transitions such as carbon-zero, and to increase the probability that hubs of functioning social and industrial complexity survive such global catastrophes for the benefit of all humanity. All these benefits need to be assessed in the relevant cost-utility assessments.

Development of a National Security Strategy (plus NEMA) is one part of a National Risk Approach

Matt Boyd & Ben Payne


  • Following the Royal Commission of Inquiry into domestic terrorism, two Cabinet papers outline how NZ might improve the National Security System
  • A proposed National Security Strategy would address malicious threats
  • Improved national security oversight, and links with agencies such as NEMA would form a more comprehensive national risks approach
  • However, this approach still omits accountability and resources for analysing, prioritising, and mitigating large global catastrophes and their impact on NZ
  • Potentially, most of the risk to NZ lies in such rare but devastating scenarios
  • An integrating office is still needed, which looks across all risks, comparing likely harms and prioritising resources. 


The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet proactively released two Cabinet papers describing a plan for improving how security risks of national significance are managed in New Zealand.

These Cabinet papers address aspects of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terror attacks, the ongoing development of NZ’s first National Security Strategy, and cover some common ground with the recently released Draft National Security Long-term Insights Briefing (LTIB), upon which we have commented here.

Two National Security papers proactively released by Cabinet/DPMC

The Cabinet papers are:

·  Charting a New Path for Aotearoa New Zealand’s National Security: Developing our first National Security Strategy

·  Charting a New Path for Aotearoa New Zealand’s National Security: Strengthening the design of our machinery of government

Two primary Boards govern the existing National Security System (NSS) outside of crisis scope:

·  The Security Intelligence Board (focusing on malicious threats)

·  The Hazards Risk Board (focusing on civil contingencies)

In the Cabinet papers, however, national security is narrowly defined as, “actively protecting Aotearoa New Zealand from malicious threats to our national security interests, from those who would do us harm” (emphasis added). This very much limits the set of risks managed by the NSS, which is perfectly fine provided all other risks are picked up elsewhere.

At present 42 risks of national significance are compiled in a classified National Risk Register. The Cabinet papers propose creating a clear division between risks of a national security nature (ie threats from malign agents) and natural hazards and civil contingencies such as earthquakes and floods. This is because the ‘securitisation’ of risk in somewhat ad hoc fashion over time has stretched the national security apparatus, which is under-resourced and roles within it are not always formally legislated or appropriately funded. 

This issue, perhaps best summarised as the question of ‘who is responsible?’ is highlighted in the Cabinet paper on design of our machinery of government, which states that the NSS relies: “on mechanisms of coordination that do not impose formal responsibilities or specific accountabilities [across a wide ecosystem of agencies]”

Addressing National Security shortcomings

The Cabinet papers highlight that a core task moving forward will be to identify an “appropriate system leader” for the NSS (malign risks), as well as “independent statutory oversight for any new agency and/or the system as a whole”. The Cabinet papers are clear that any structural change must ensure, “our national security and hazard risk systems as a whole are not left worse off by piecemeal change, and are supported by an all-of-government National Risk Approach”.

It is this kind of ‘National Risk Approach’ that we particularly favour, which would account for security risks, hazards and civil contingencies such as those concerning the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), and also other major risks that fall through the cracks of the present system (as we discuss below).

Risks and risk amplifying factors 

The Cabinet papers acknowledge important risk amplifying factors including low social cohesion and stability, misinformation, and the impact of climate change. Other risk amplifying factors plausibly include rising technological capabilities (eg AI, bioengineering), geopolitical tensions, threats to trade, and consolidation of power in, and dependence on, large multinational firms (for example polarising and immensely powerful social media and technology firms). 

The Cabinet papers note that social and environmental policy are needed to address some of these issues. Trends across some, though not all, of these risk amplifying factors are discussed in the recent draft LTIB. 

These issues are examples of risks that currently fall outside NEMA and the National Security System. Important global risks and risk factors need to be identified as part of a complete set of national risks and risk factors. Analysing and addressing risk in ad hoc fashion means that resources may not be directed where they are most effective. 

Also missing from the discussion in the Cabinet papers is the intent to analyse and mitigate global catastrophes, which could include the future risk of nuclear conflict/winter, extreme climate change scenarios and potential for super-pandemics of significantly greater scale and impact than Covid-19. 

Global catastrophic risks are often not traditionally seen as ‘national risks’, due to uncertain probabilities of occuring in the nearer timeframes often applied in national level risk management and planning. However, we argue that the potential for such events across the longer-term should be central to national risk profile development and anticipatory governance and that a large amount of critical risk to NZ arising from these external sources may be missed by what amounts to a clear separation of NEMA and NSS with some additional aims of building interconnections between these risk entities.

Reforms to the system need to ensure all risk finds a home

Overall, we agree with the Cabinet papers where they acknowledge that the NZ NSS needs to:

1. Be clear on what interests are being protected (a list is offered, but notably future generations are absent)

2. ‘Securitise’ fewer risks (while making sure that the NSS is one component of a wider risk assessment and approach)

3. Identify threats earlier and act to influence them before they manifest

4. Be more open and transparent with risk information (to foster engagement and the possibility of resilience-building) 

However, it is still not entirely clear where management of some risks would lie with the proposed clear separation of NSS and NEMA. For example, is nuclear war between, eg India and Pakistan, causing a global famine and trade collapse, a malicious threat to NZ, where some agent wants to do us harm? Or is it more like a natural hazard in NZ, that impacts us without there being an overt ‘security’ risk? What about major global catastrophes such as a climate changing supervolcanic eruption in Indonesia (akin to  the Toba eruption 70,000 years ago), or a similarly consequential asteroid impact, or a global industry-disabling solar flare? What about a bioengineered pandemic that occurs accidentally? Or an accidental AI catastrophe with global impact, or a great power war not involving NZ, or a yet unknown risk devastating key pinch points of global commerce? Which agency is responsible for assessing these global catastrophic risks, and advising on resource allocation for analysis and, if necessary, mitigation and investment in resilience? There needs to be some systematic assessment and prioritisation across the complete set of risks.

The Cabinet paper on Developing our First National Security Strategy hints at an important solution to managing such a diverse set of risks in paragraph 110:

“On the basis of the Policy Review findings, I [the PM] therefore recommend a transition to a national security system that manages the subset of national security risks, complemented by a hazard risk system and supported by an all-of-government National Risk Approach and strategic crisis management mechanism” (emphasis added).

We think that this ‘National Risk Approach’ should not be merely NSS plus NEMA and various strengthened interconnections between them (even with the addition of engagement with other external agencies). Such an arrangement could still result in important risks (perhaps the majority of all actual risk, if significant global catastrophes are considered) falling through the cracks. Figure 1 shows these cracks schematically and the kinds of risks that slip through. A backstop is needed to prevent this from occurring (as outlined below). 

Figure 1: There are important risks which neither NEMA nor a more focused National Security System appear responsible for managing

Figure caption: Global catastrophes such as a regional or great power nuclear war, supervolcanic eruption/industry-disabling solar flare, or devastating accidental engineered pandemic should be assessed in comparison with other traditional NZ threats and hazards. An independent office could look across the entire National Risk Approach and conduct an integrated risk assessment, advising parliament and providing information to the public. This information and advice can feed into rationally targeted action based on expected consequences and uncertainty, ie building resilience across a range of catastrophic scenarios. 

The Cabinet papers envision, “oversight across all nationally significant risks and a cohesive approach.” This should include all risks and should generate resource prioritisation advice based on the expected magnitude of the consequences, the marginal utility of action, and the likely value gained. If earthquake strengthening is costing tens of millions of dollars per life saved (as it plausibly is) but lives can be saved for $1m each elsewhere in the risk landscape, then those tens of millions should be shifted. The public needs access to risk information, but also to cost-effectiveness information in order to engage in informed prioritisation discussions (across the spectrum of multi-attribute risk impacts).

A fully comprehensive national risk approach (of which NEMA’s domain of expertise, and that of the NSS are important sub-components, along with assessment of risks that have yet to find a home) could be engineered. Indeed, the Cabinet papers ask, “who is best placed to lead and coordinate the National Risk Approach?” There are different possible answers to this question, and we discuss them (at least as they pertain to global catastrophic risks – the ones falling through the NEMA/NSS cracks) in our paper arguing for a Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme National Risks.

Overall, resourcing needs to be allocated in proportion to the risk (while also considering the marginal benefit of additional resources, or reallocation of existing resources, and the likely value obtained). Both NSS risks and NEMAs traditional focus are subsets of all things that can go badly at a national level and should receive an appropriate slice of the national risk management pie (for analysis, resilience building, prevention, and mitigation). But overarching advice looking across these sets of risks, and all other risks, is needed to ensure comprehensive risk coverage. The new NSS (plus NEMA) will then be integral parts of a wider cohesive whole.

NZ’s National Security Draft Long-term Insights Briefing (LTIB): Excellent Progress but Scope for Improvement

Matt Boyd, Nick Wilson, Ben Payne

(12 min read)



  • The draft NZ National Security Long-term Insights Briefing (already informed by a public survey) is currently out for public consultation.
  • The briefing identifies national security trends, potential scenarios, and provides additional detail on six important national security issues: Disinformation, Hacking and cyber attacks, Transnational organised crime, Foreign interference and espionage, Terrorism and violent extremism, Pacific resilience challenges.
  • The briefing identifies ten features that could help progress to a secure future for New Zealanders.
  • This post details our three suggestions to improve the briefing: (1) important improvements to future iterations of the public survey, (2) the need to explicitly articulate the extreme tail risks of each major trend identified, and (3) the importance of signalling a move towards an integrated and comprehensive National Risks Assessment.

The Draft NZ National Security LTIB (November 2022)

The draft NZ National Security Long-term Insights Briefing (LTIB) has been presented for public consultation.

The LTIB was produced by a group of nine government agencies that are responsible for protecting NZ from national security threats.

The briefing draws on information obtained from communities, businesses, and government agencies. This includes information from a survey, which we discuss below.

The LTIB examines key global trends across the next 10 to 15 years, some national security risks, and challenges ‘of concern’ and how they might change across time.

Four key global trends are identified:

  • Increasing competition and continued deterioration of the international ‘rules-based order’
  • Transformational technology changes
  • Climate change
  • Covid-19 and future pandemics

Three plausible global scenarios are outlined:

  • Continued decline: continuing armed conflict, competition for resources and the impact of malicious actors
  • Dramatic decline: spreading conflict, unmitigated climate impacts and the possibility that ‘a nuclear weapon’ could be used
  • Optimistic scenario: including international collaboration, technological innovation, and investment in climate adaptation.  

The draft of the National Security LTIB focuses on six security issues:

  • Disinformation
  • Hacking and cyber attacks
  • Transnational organised crime
  • Foreign interference and espionage
  • Terrorism and violent extremism
  • Pacific resilience challenges

Each threat is profiled and followed by sections describing ‘what we expect to see in the next 10-15 years,’ and how NZ can be ‘preparing for the future now’.

The LTIB rightly acknowledges the competing demands of, ‘investing in response to current crises and building our capacity and capability to respond to future challenges, including preparing for high impact but rare events.’

The briefing concludes with Ten Features that could support a bright future for national security. 

  • Transparent accessible public information
  • National security sector stewardship
  • Strengthened political leadership on national security
  • International partnerships that grow and strengthen our national security
  • A national security sector that reflects the diversity of our nation and is adaptable and capable of responding to future challenges
  • Open debate among, and advice from, experts outside of government
  • Active and engaging media coverage
  • Recognising and working with partners outside of government
  • Communities that feel enabled and empowered to engage with the national security sector
  • Trusted and accountable institutions

Our feedback on the draft LTIB

The NZ Government and its officials are to be congratulated on this excellent draft National Security LTIB. This work represents a substantial move forward in thinking in this domain. Nevertheless, we take this consultation opportunity to offer ideas for further developing this document and for its future iterations – as outlined below.

1. Scope for Improving Subsequent Surveys of the Public

The survey of public opinion conducted by Ipsos provides a lot of interesting information. We understand that the survey questions were chosen to be consistent with global research undertaken by Ipsos. However, as a basis for decision-making the survey has some shortcomings which should be addressed in future iterations or through other public engagement channels.

Survey results show that New Zealanders want more information about the threats the country faces. The LTIB could specifically advocate for additional research and knowledge generation/dissemination about risks and threats that are poorly understood. The survey also revealed that the NZ population wants the opportunity to comment on national security issues (we discuss this below).

Potentially fruitful areas for improvement in the next iteration of the survey are as follows:

Firstly, many survey respondents indicated that they wanted more information about national security issues. This begs the question of whether their responses are fully informed responses or merely guesstimates based on partial information.

Secondly, the descriptions of some threats are either too broad or too specific.

  • For example, one of the items included was ‘nuclear, chemical or biological attack somewhere in the world’. The use of a single nuclear weapon could escalate into nuclear war, the effects of which NZ would not escape (see our recent study here: [1]; and previous NZ work on nuclear war impacts here: [2] [3] [4] [5]). However, it was not clear whether respondents were to consider threats such as an all-out NATO-Russia nuclear war and any ensuing global nuclear winter, or whether respondents were contemplating something as localised as chemical attacks in the Syrian conflict. The potential impacts are vastly different – since some nuclear war scenarios could potentially result in the permanent collapse of civilisation.
  • Some threats as described were possibly overly specific. For example, ‘breakdown in national infrastructure due to attack’ might have implied a direct cyber or physical assault on infrastructure. However, a breakdown in national infrastructure could occur due to the cascading impacts of other threats, such as Northern Hemisphere conflict and abrupt NZ trade isolation, or the impacts of a large supervolcanic eruption, devastating solar flare, or nuclear war. The more causal paths leading to an effect, the more probable (and threatening) a scenario might be ranked by respondents.
  • This problem of ‘scenario choice’ has important implications for public engagement on risk and we discuss it in our recent paper on national risk assessments and national risk registers [6].

Thirdly, the importance of a threat is often taken to be some product of two factors, probability and consequences, which together generate an estimate of consequences in expectation.

  • Some survey questions clearly asked about consequences, ‘IF these were to happen… which do you think poses the greatest threat’. However, other questions used ambiguous phrasing, ‘how real do you feel the threat is of any of the following happening…’ It is unclear whether respondents would interpret this as asking about probability, consequences, a combination of probability and consequences, or something else. It is particularly ambiguous given that the word ‘threat’ is also used in the question about consequences. If interpreted as probability by respondents then the latter question reveals nothing about the salience or importance of a risk, this could only be deduced by combining responses to both questions. However, when presenting the following matrix of government capability vs ‘level of perceived threat’ it is the ambiguous item that is graphed. The problem is that a respondent might feel there is a high probability of something happening, but that the consequences are trivial. In which case ‘Act and Improve’ (see ‘Survey Report’ p.10) is the wrong response. There is therefore a strong case for a future survey that accesses more decision relevant risk information across a more comprehensive spectrum of risks. The LTIB should ideally indicate aspiration to commission or conduct such survey work.
  • The survey might also imply (if we interpret ‘how real do you feel the threat is of any of the following happening’ as accessing consequences in expectation, not merely probability) that violent conflict in NZ, a nuclear ‘attack’, or breakdown of infrastructure in NZ are more salient (deserve more focus moving forward) than, for example, terrorism and violent extremism, since the respondents felt that the government was already well placed to deal with the latter threats. Importantly nuclear attack (the LTIB should be far more explicit that major nuclear war is possible, not merely an ‘attack’), breakdown of infrastructure and violent conflict in NZ are not independent risks.

Future iterations of the survey could be conducted with improved wording, after a public information campaign, and include the full spectrum of risks.

We have previously argued for a two-way communication platform connecting information gathered through a comprehensive National Risk Assessment (all risks, not just national security, see below) with a portal for ongoing public and expert feedback and scrutiny [6]. A comprehensive LTIB could signal aspirations to develop such a tool, promoted by the media, and thereby effect the goals of the previous paragraph as well as advance the desirable national security features of:

  • Transparent accessible public information
  • Open debate among, and advice from, experts outside of government
  • Active and engaging media coverage
  • Recognising and working with partners outside of government
  • Communities that feel enabled and empowered to engage with the national security sector

2. Suggestions for completing the Draft National Security LTIB

We agree with the four trends outlined in the LTIB. Increasing global competition, technological advance, climate change and pandemics are growing threats. But each of these four trends has an associated global catastrophic or existential threat to humanity and these extreme tail risks should be acknowledged and analysed because they would be unbearable.

Those that study the largest risks the world faces often prioritise risks from nuclear war, artificial intelligence not aligned to human values, extreme climate change, and engineered pandemics (eg, well summarised in work by Ord [7]). These four risks correspond with the four trends outlined. However, the wording of the LTIB could be clarified to specify that each trend has a globally catastrophic form, or even a tail risk that is an existential threat to humanity. NZ is in a privileged position in that it may well suffer less direct consequences from some of these threats (nuclear war [1], supervolcanic disaster [8]), however as our research has indicated, NZ may be extremely fragile to the cascading consequences of such major threats [1].

Looking to the results of the survey, of these four trends, ‘health epidemic’ tops the list of NZ citizens’ concerns (however they are interpreted). This is probably appropriate, especially if including concerns around natural pandemics (ongoing Covid-19 harms and newly emerging pandemic diseases), bioweapon pandemics, laboratory accidents, and gain-of-function engineering. Nevertheless, the LTIB could be more explicit that the scope of pandemic threats is not limited to influenza pandemics or Covid-19-like events and future biological threats could be extreme (even being existential threats to humanity [7]).

It is particularly appropriate to include misinformation as a major national security risk. A healthy information environment that facilitates accurately informed public discussion on threats is essential, and underpins the ability to analyse, prevent, respond to, and recover from all other threats.

Although the LTIB profiles five important threats other than misinformation, the omissions are interesting. It is not entirely clear why some threats depicted in the four-quadrant figure (public survey results p.10) were selected for inclusion and others for exclusion from further discussion in the LTIB.

  • For example, domestic terrorism is rated by survey respondents as a moderate threat, that is well-handled by the government at present. Whereas nuclear/biological/chemical attack is rated as at least as threatening, but poorly addressed by the government (noting the ambiguity we discuss above over probability, consequences, and consequences in expectation in the survey).
  • Some emphasis could be placed on unknown threats. There are likely many risks both internal and external to NZ and indeed to government itself that we do not know about yet (eg, pandemics from synthetic bioweapons was not appreciated as a future threat before genetic engineering technology was invented). General resilience building may be able to mitigate the impact of such unknowns.

The LTIB acknowledges the existence of tension between prioritising resources for current risks (eg, misinformation) vs future risks (eg, nuclear war). This tension is a strong argument for ensuring a methodology to systematically analyse national risks (present and future, national security risks and other risks) in terms of the ‘level of threat’ and how ‘concerning’ they are (with appropriate operationalisation of these concepts, making clear what kinds of wellbeing, assets, and values – now or in the future – are being considered) and make both the methodology and findings of the analysis public, so the public can have a say in resource prioritisation decisions.

Finally, although ‘natural disaster in New Zealand’ could be considered a national security threat, or at least a national risk, then relevant ‘natural disasters outside NZ’ should be included, such as supervolcanic eruptions or coronal mass ejections (solar flares). However, we suspect that an information campaign would be needed to obtain useful public engagement on such risks (given the technical complexities).

The LTIB states that, ‘New Zealand’s approach to building resilience in our society and preventing the spread of disinformation needs to be comprehensive and long term.’ We concur and this should be the case for every threat ‘of concern’. It is also relevant to particularly catastrophic threats.  For example, nuclear conflict that rises well beyond the use of ‘a nuclear weapon’ and leads to a possible nuclear winter. A multi-decade (long-term!) strategic plan to build NZ’s resilience could be envisioned as an incremental ongoing project. This could be seen as a priority given NZ’s privileged (high-income remote island nation), though fragile, position in greater context of humanity.

Unless the probability of a risk is zero then it will (by definition) occur given a long-enough timeframe. If the probability is one percent per annum (as is plausible with several global catastrophes eg, nuclear war [9]) then it is likely to happen this century if preventive measures are not scaled up. If each successive LTIB only looks 10 years ahead, then each may be blind to such risks. Some generation at some point must prepare for these risks, or all will suffer.

3. The National Security LTIB should signal a move towards a comprehensive National Risk Assessment

Analysis of national security threats needs to feed (along with other risk issues, eg, natural hazards, existential risks) into a National Risk Register that is aligned with a National Risk Mitigation Strategy & Plan, which includes a methodology for prioritising resources to the greatest threats.

The LTIB takes the perspective that national security issues are by and large agential threats, ie, those where someone or some group poses a threat. Other entities in NZ allegedly deal with other kinds of threats, such as natural hazards and other non-agential threats. However, this arrangement risks leading to siloed focus on historical threats with the result that risks that are less familiar to policymakers, emerging risks, and interacting risks slipping between the gaps. How these entities nest and communicate is very important, because as was highlighted in the UNDRR Framework for Global Science In Support of Risk-informed Sustainable Development and Planetary Health (2021) siloing is paralysing risk mitigation action across the entire spectrum of risks (agential and non-agential)

We think that risk management at a national level in NZ would benefit from a move towards an integrated risk approach. Stewardship and partnerships, as indicated in the ‘ten features’ will be important, but these partnerships should include those outside traditional ‘security’ silos, and there should be an overarching entity accountable for analysis, communication, and resource allocation recommendations across all national risks. This entity could be a Parliamentary Commissioner for national/extreme risks [10], or some other office.  

Part of the argument for the national security LTIB signalling the merits of moving to an integrated risk approach rests on global trends towards such approaches. We note that many countries publish a National Risk Register that includes both natural and agential risks. We also note that the distinction between natural and human-induced is often vague. International frameworks such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction are moving away from such a distinction, with the UN General Assembly deciding to hold a ‘midterm review of the implementation of the Sendai Framework 2015-2030.’ As part of this process, the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction 2022 held a plenary session on ‘beyond natural hazards – operationalizing expanded scope’, and argued in favour of the need to take into account anthropogenic risks and take more preventive action.

The future will likely see the Sendai Framework integrating risks traditionally seen as ‘natural’ and threats perhaps traditionally seen as ‘security’ issues. The plenary session noted that there was a risk of being, ‘blind to the full range of global catastrophic or existential risk scenarios’.

In addition to the Sendai mid-term review, the UN Secretary General has delivered Our Common Agenda (2021), a report that highlights the need to do things radically differently in order to avoid existential and catastrophic risks created as a result of human activity. Additionally, The UN Declaration on Future Generations (part of the Our Common Agenda programme) has published an Elements Paper, which explicitly talks about the need to mitigate extreme risks as a priority to protect future generations. NZ’s LTIBs could look much further than the 10-15 years that concerns the present generation.

In addition, the change in emphasis towards greater integration is reflected in the Framework for Global Science co-sponsored by the UNDRR and ISC and supported by the IRDR IPO in Beijing. Overall, the document takes stock of recent developments in disaster risk science and provides a compelling set of directions for research and scientific collaboration for a more holistic and collaborative approach to understanding and managing risks. The framework highlights the rapidly changing nature of risk dynamics, recognizing that a lot of risk work to date has been hazards focused with specific mitigating actions for specific hazards. However, ever increasingly the risks are complex, systemic and interconnected/cascading (See Framework for Global Science Section 5.1, Priority 1).  A concern is that we may remain locked into traditional framings of risks and therefore, overlook interacting, compound, and cascading risks, and fail to effectively manage/plan for catastrophic and existential risks.

These are the arguments for the LTIB signalling that it is part of a future integrated national risk assessment and risk register. This would circumvent the issue of trying to decide what is a ‘security’ risk and what is not, and would help to avoid the problem of institutional silos and would help foster effective communities of practice. To even begin to address the issues of concern, the relevant risks must be included in the analysis.

The LTIB should recommend resources are dedicated to monitoring the four trends identified, but also resources should be committed to acknowledging, analysing and managing the extreme tail risks associated with each trend, in particular those risks that would be unbearable (ie, major nuclear war, powerful unaligned machine intelligence, extreme climate risks (either 6 °C+, or ecological feedforward cascades), and biological engineering of pathogens.

As the most isolated temperate land mass in the world, NZ should be particularly concerned about trade isolation as a severe risk. If any of the extreme scenarios just listed were to manifest, NZ may be the first to be dropped from stressed global shipping or a collapse in air transportation. Such effects could also be brought on by supervolcanic eruption, massive solar flare, large asteroid impact, or a range of other scenarios.

A comprehensive National Risk Assessment would also provide decision-relevant information for rational prioritisation of resources. This is a direction that we believe the National Security LTIB should signal that decision-makers ought to be heading.

Prioritisation decisions are often made within government departments, but shifting resources across government is harder, but more important to do. Areas where NZ is already doing reasonably well probably do not need a lot of extra resourcing (eg, epidemics/pandemics [11], domestic terrorism). But areas where it is perceived we are poorly prepared warrant extra focus, eg, misinformation and impacts of nuclear war/nuclear winter.

The neglectedness of some risks means that investment there will reap low-hanging fruit, while in contrast there are likely to be diminishing returns investing further to mitigate threats NZ is already competent in managing. Government should conduct cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analyses across national security risks and intervention options (eg, there is scope to significantly advance preliminary work we have done on the cost-benefit of pandemic prevention [12] now that we have Covid-19 experience – this kind of approach can be applied to other threats).

We commend the gestures towards institution building presented in the ten features. However, those writing the LTIB are likely to each exist within one of the national security silos, and each sees what they are familiar with. Other silos exist in the natural hazards domain and yet other hazards and threats may fall between jurisdictional silos. NZ therefore needs a comprehensive National Risk Assessment that integrates natural, security, global catastrophic and existential risks. The LTIB should indicate that this is a goal worthy of pursuing, thereby ensuring there is appropriate responsibility and accountability for foreseeing, assessing, preventing, and mitigating extreme risks that cut across the traditional silos of government, including global risks where indirect harm could be catastrophic for NZ [1].


1.         Boyd M, Wilson N. Island refuges for surviving nuclear winter and other abrupt sunlight-reducing catastrophes. Risk Analysis (in press).

2.         Preddey G, Wilkins P, Wilson N, Kjellstrom T, Williamson B: Nuclear Disaster, A Report to the Commission for the Future. Wellington: Government Printer, 1982.

3.         Green W. Nuclear war impacts on noncombatant societies: An important research task. Ambio. 1989;18:402-406.

4.         Green W, Cairns T, Wright J. New Zealand After Nuclear War. Wellington: New Zealand Planning Council, 1987.

5.         New Zealand Planning Council. New Zealand after Nuclear War: The Background Papers. New Zealand Planning Council, 1987.

6.         Boyd M, Wilson N. Assumptions, uncertainty, and catastrophic/existential risk: National risk assessments need improved methods and stakeholder engagement. SocArXiv 2022;(5 August). Doi: 10.31235/

7.         Ord T. The precipice: Existential risk and the future of humanity. Bloomsbury. 2020.

8.         Wilson N, Cassidy M, Boyd M, Mani L, Valler V, Brönnimann S. Impact of the Tambora Volcanic Eruption of 1815 on Islands and Relevance to Future Sunlight-Blocking Catastrophes. Research Square (Preprint) 2022;(10 October).

9.         Hellman M, Cerf V. An existential discussion: What is the probability of nuclear war? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 2021;(18 March).

10.       Boyd M, Wilson N. Anticipatory Governance for Preventing and Mitigating Catastrophic and Existential Risks. Policy Quarterly. 2021;17(4):20-31.

11.       Boyd M, Baker MG, Nelson C, Wilson N. The 2021 Global Health Security (GHS) Index: Aotearoa New Zealand’s improving capacity to manage biological threats must now be consolidated. The New Zealand Medical Journal (Online). 2022:89-98.

12.       Boyd M, Mansoor O, Baker M, Wilson N. Economic evaluation of border closure for a generic severe pandemic threat using New Zealand Treasury methods. Aust N Z J Public Health. 2018;42:444-446.

Islands and global catastrophic risks: a seminar at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk

Reconstructed temperature anomalies following the 1815 Tambora eruption indicate islands in the Southern Hemisphere experienced statistically significantly less temperature drop than those in the Northern Hemisphere (Wilson et al 2022, preprint)

Seminar 21 Oct 2022

Ahead of our forthcoming Aotearoa New Zealand Catastrophe Resilience Project, I presented a seminar at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

You can listen to the audio of the seminar here (90 min total, question time with the CSER audience begins at 58:30).

The slides associated with the presentation can be downloaded here.

Introducing the Aotearoa NZ Catastrophe Resilience Project

This post briefly introduces the Aotearoa NZ Catastrophe Resilience Project, our team including exciting new hire Dr Ben Payne, and outlines the aims, methods, and timeline of the project.

Why this project?

Global catastrophic risks include nuclear war, extreme pandemics, and supervolcanic eruptions, among other threats. Research, and recent experiences with disasters such as the Covid-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine, indicate that should global catastrophes eventuate, the cascading global impacts could be severe. The consequences could be devastating for Aotearoa NZ, plausibly making it difficult to sustain industrial society. This runs counter to some views that ‘safe havens’ like NZ or Australia might be relatively less impacted in some global catastrophes.

The risk is that a major catastrophe disrupts climate, trade, or other global systems, to the point that industry is unable to function, leading to massive food, energy, manufacturing, and societal disruption.

The project draws inspiration from the concept of island refuges for mitigating existential risks to humanity. A suitably robust island might increase the probability that humanity survives even the greatest global catastrophes.

Project Aim

To understand the impact representative major global catastrophes might have on Aotearoa NZ, for example a Northern Hemisphere nuclear war. To deduce adaptive strategies and plans that might mitigate these effects, ensuring that industrial society can continue.

Project Team

The project team consists of three co-investigators. We will collaborate with Think Tanks, Academic Researchers, Policy Professionals, Industry, and the Public Sector through the 12-month duration of the project.

Dr Matt Boyd

Matt is an independent researcher who completed his PhD in philosophy. He founded Adapt Research in 2015. Matt has researched health, technology, and catastrophic risk for a decade and published over 40 peer-reviewed academic papers. His recent work has focused on national risk processes, nuclear winter, and global health security.

Professor Nick Wilson

Nick is a research professor of public health with research interests that include refuges to mitigate pandemic disease and nuclear war. Nick contributed to work for the Commission for the Future on Nuclear Disaster as far back as 1982. He has over 500 Medline-indexed research publications.

Dr Ben Payne

Ben is an experienced risk professional who completed his PhD in geography. Ben was Lead Scientific Officer with the Global Risk Research-Agenda Development Group of the UNDRR/International Science Council in producing A Framework for Global Science. He has also worked with Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research.


The project will begin in November 2022. Initial planning days will invite advice from risk professionals with established interests in global catastrophe and Aotearoa. Following planning there will be four phases:

  • Phase I will consist of the development of a National Risk Assessment risk profile for a representative global catastrophe (nuclear war/nuclear winter).
  • Phase II will involve workshops to assess knowledge gaps with respect to the risk profile, and design mixed method data collection using surveys and interview methodology. Some of these tools will be based on the 1987 NZ Nuclear Impacts Study.
  • Phase III is where we’ll reach out and survey knowledge holders across industry, the public sector and academia, including interviews. The aim is to collect data that paints a rich picture of the likely impacts of nuclear disaster on NZ society and industry, along with crowdsourced adaptive responses, mitigation strategies, and possible plans.
  • Phase IV will involve further workshops and a Delphi process to analyse the collected data and prioritise mitigation measures, this will include identifying those that might enhance business as usual.
  • Findings will be produced in the form of risk register entries, research papers, policy recommendations, and shadow Ministerial briefings.

Project Goals

The goal is to generate productive discussion, concrete solution ideas, and map a pathway to ongoing and robust analysis of global catastrophic and human existential risk and its relationship to Aotearoa NZ. We aim to connect our work in logical and, where possible, generalisable ways with catastrophe resilience work being undertaken across other island jurisdictions, with potential to leverage synergies with continental Australia, Tasmania, Indonesia, or others, in the future.

Islands, nuclear winter, and trade disruption as an existential risk factor

This is a link post to our new long-read on nuclear winter and abrupt sunlight reducing scenarios.

Purpose: In this long-read we provide a summary and extended commentary on our recent paper: Island refuges for surviving nuclear winter and other abrupt sun-reducing catastrophes (available as a pre-print via the link). We demonstrate how this research could help direct efforts to reduce the risk from catastrophic sun-blocking scenarios and suggest some next steps to safeguard humanity from these types of existential threat using New Zealand as a case study. 


  • Abrupt sunlight reducing scenarios (ASRS) such as nuclear winter or volcanic super-eruption are plausible and could have serious consequences for climate and food production. 
  • It is often thought that some Southern Hemisphere islands might resist the more severe impacts of these winters. 
  • We find that some locations could likely produce enough food in a nuclear winter to keep feeding their populations, but food supply alone does not guarantee flourishing of technological society if trade is seriously disrupted.
  • The potential disruption to industry and society caused by serious trade collapse could be severe and cause deindustrialization of societies. 
  • It is problematic to assume that locations such as New Zealand and Australia might survive catastrophes such as nuclear winter with their institutions and technology intact – without major upgrades in their levels of resilience. 
  • This has implications for the future of humanity and human civilisation, given the existing assumptions about Southern Hemisphere islands. 
  • Many nations might be advised to pursue resilient foods to mitigate ASRS, but New Zealand and Australia might focus on resilience measures for preserving transport, energy, manufacturing, and industrial inputs in the absence of global trade. 

You can read the full long-read on the EA Forum by clicking here.

NZ and Global Crises: Brief reply to Reuben Steff

This short piece is a reply to Dr Reuben Steff’s insightful new article about geopolitics and strategic risks to New Zealand on Newsroom:

Great piece Reuben, and I largely agree with your assessment. The confidential nature of New Zealand’s National Risk Register is frustrating especially for those wanting to contribute to research, idea generation and strategy on catastrophe resilience. It seems that the decision of the government has been to keep ‘bad news’ quiet rather than foster a national culture of strategic planning and resilience (compare Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway).

There was some public work in the 1980s on nuclear impacts (which applies to other hazards too such as trade isolation, great power war, climate altering volcanic eruptions, etc). Recommendations for a ‘Phase II’ project to understand vulnerability and resilience were tabled but killed by security officials. Apparently, it was in the best interests of New Zealand to keep resilience thinking secret or non-existent. Yet you don’t buy house insurance because you’re planning for a house fire, you buy it because a fire would be unbearable.

Given that this information is not public, our new project (Aotearoa NZ Catastrophe Resilience Project) looks to start to create ‘modules’ similar in nature to those that might be found in National Risk Register but covering catastrophic and existential threats. Societal prioritisation processes across all risks, are only possible if the thinking is transparent. We further plan to begin crowdsourcing strategic solutions from industry, the public sector and academia.

There are those beyond NZ who care about NZ’s resilience. These are found in the long-termist community that values humanity’s future. An impartial moral stance sees the most worthwhile thinking to be location agnostic, and a rationalist perspective seeks (and finds in eg NZ) optimal targets for developing human resilience. Leveraging this thinking, and its local proponents, could lead to a think tank on NZ resilience issues (eg your Aotearoa NZ Resilience Initiative) catalysed by proof of concept from this and earlier work. We also favour a ‘Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme Risks’ to look across this set of issues.

Regional collaboration will be important if there is decay of global interconnectedness. New Zealand should re-evaluate its regional trade mix. In particular, NZ should probably ensure complementary rather than competitive industry with Australia.

This exciting new work to try to uncover vulnerabilities and crowdsource solutions for 2023 rather than 1987, and using processes such as Delphi to generate a ‘big 10’ approach, could be insightful. There are some obvious contenders, for example diesel is still needed to feed the country (production, processing, distribution). The recent murmurings about onshoring fuel stockpiles are initial token gestures (eg converting 20 days operational reserve into 24 or 60). This might buffer a 90-day trade hiccup, not a years-long disconnection. Local production, or alternative infrastructure would be better (think Southland green hydrogen, increased production of biofuels – it is disappointing to see Marsden Refinery closed and Z-Energy pulling back from biofuel production at the same time).

But I don’t want to prejudge solutions, our project is taking some initial steps to start extracting them, and hopefully generate some interesting leads which the funder might want to pursue via think tank in a Public/Private/longtermist-NGO collaboration. I welcome anyone interested to get in touch.

‘The End of the World is Just the Beginning’ and the value of a NZ National Catastrophe Resilience Strategy

Book Cover: Harper Business, 2022

TLDR: This post surveys Peter Zeihan’s new book on demographic trends and geopolitical strife, in which he warns of future severe disruptions to global trade, and the likelihood of industrial collapse in many regions. I then leverage off Zeihan’s book (and some similar recent work we’ve done on global catastrophic risks) to suggest a suite of other risks/risk factors that could all manifest with the same catastrophic trade isolation for New Zealand (including nuclear war/winter, supervolcanic eruption, extreme pandemic, solar flare, asteroid/comet impact, conventional war, etc). I briefly introduce an upcoming project to investigate these issues and inform a possible future New Zealand National Catastrophe Resilience Strategy (or similar). I call for interested contributors to get in touch to learn more.

Demography and geopolitics

An international demographic time bomb that is already underway, interacts with US retreat from globalisation, and this sets off a cascade of trade uncoupling that sees only the US (NAFTA) and a few very select locales maintain industrialisation.

This is the scenario Peter Zeihan contemplates in his new book ‘The End of the World is Just the Beginning’ (Harper Business, June 2022). Zeihan uses this scenario, which he argues is very plausible, to present an extremely engaging overview of the interconnected dependencies of the industrialised world, their historical origins, and how they will end.  

The lesson is that immense global interdependencies across transport, finance, energy, industrial inputs, manufacturing, and agriculture are extremely fragile to the scenario he describes. Unmitigated the outcome could be deindustrialisation, and hence de-civilisation for much of the world.

The Scenario

Zeihan’s forecast scenario is one where the United States determines that the world Order (with a capital ‘O’) that it helped engineer after World War Two was useful for keeping the Soviet Union at bay but since the fall of the Berlin Wall is no longer in US strategic interests (Zeihan’s final manuscript was completed days before Russia invaded Ukraine). The US withdraws its policing of global trade routes, setting off a wave of trade insecurity.

The US move is amplified by a demographic transition that has already past the point of no return in many countries, namely the retiring of baby boomers, who cease productivity, extract capital from the economy, and leave insufficient children in their wake to supply labour and consumption. The impact on China, which is averaging 1.3 children per couple, is particularly catastrophic, halving the Chinese population by 2070.

Zeihan notes that the ONLY high-development steady-demographic countries are: the US, France, Argentina, Sweden, and New Zealand, that’s ALL. Most countries will never return to 2019 stability and growth, and most have now lost the chance to even try to shift footing.


In this scenario, the world cannot assume that industrial technologies that reduce mortality and raise standards of living will continue to be supplied if trade collapses. Industry sustains the ability of many human settlements to remain where they are. For example, water management systems are essential for many cities in arid regions, and without industrial inputs there would be societal breakdown. If global flows of products and services and energy and food are interrupted, ‘political and economic maps will change’.

Zeihan argues that the US (with the cooperation of NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico) can shuffle things internally and supply all the material resources and labour that they need, along with the geography and means to defend it all.

Elsewhere de-globalisation means an ‘unravelling’. Zimbabwe and Venezuela are cited as examples, and much worse could happen (perhaps Sri Lanka is on the precipice).

‘Should something happen to the sustainability or reach of the industrial technology set, all of them will simply fade away-and take all their benefits with them,’ says Zeihan. Basically, if a country lacks the industrial inputs they need, then they can’t achieve the outputs. Deindustrialization would be much quicker than industrialisation.

Some selected highlights from Zeihan’s systematic and highly engaging discussion of the critical sectors are as follows:


Transportation is the ultimate enabler of industry (arguably it’s energy, but it’s all a bit chicken and egg and energy comes below). The world has become massively dependent on long-distance shipping, with logistics concentrated in a handful of mega-ports such as Rotterdam and Shanghai. Nowadays it is not just raw materials and finished goods that are shipped, intermediate products are shipped too and there may be hundreds or even thousands of intermediate steps products pass through.

Long haul transport is an early casualty in the scenario because it requires peace in all regions (and the absence of state piracy). It also requires diesel (which must also be transported). Small interruptions amplify to major interruptions due to the just-in-time logistical nightmare that is global shipping. Skill or capacity to adapt to failed arrival of commodities is lacking in many locales if transport fails. Rail, trucks, let alone horse carts, are completely inadequate to preserve the flow of goods enabled by modern long-haul container, and bulk, shipping.


At present the importance of oil for global industrial functioning cannot be overemphasized. Firstly, transportation (above) depends on oil. Protection of shipping lanes and other transport routes depends on oil. Zeihan compares renewables and electrification with oil and finds that although there are some emerging solutions these are too few, too slow, and not up to the task of replacing industrial energy needs (yet).

Furthermore, existing oil infrastructure (and any new build-out) depends on UK and US experts. Left to their own devices many states will struggle with oil, and countries such as Russia may struggle to maintain their existing pipelines due to shortages of capital, labour, and technical expertise.

A few weeks without oil and industrial civilization is screwed. This is why the EU requires countries to maintain a 60-day buffer of fuel supply, and Japan over 120 days. In New Zealand there is 20 days of operational reserve, although MBIE has made moves to increase this. However, none of these short-term buffers is actually a solution.

Industrial Inputs

Essential inputs to maintain industrialization include iron ore, copper, bauxite, as well as rare earths and many many other materials. Zeihan’s scenario forecasts the withering of Chinese industry (including smelting) as the demographic timebomb really hits, compounded by collapse of China’s over financed industrial build-out. The world has prepared to compensate for a weakened China in some areas, such as rare earths, where there are processing facilities on standby (eg in Australia), if the products can be successfully transported! But the loss of a steady predictable flow of other inputs would spell immense disruption and the book surveys in some detail the role and difficulties associated with a suite of key industrial inputs.

Zeihan notes that countries may individually be able to accomplish some steps in critical processes, but there are some very challenging steps that require specialised mastery. Solar panels and semiconductors require extremely pure silicon. Forging steel is harder than making rails. Zeihan argues that the world needs more smelting capacity. Places like Australia produce both iron ore and coal and could connect the dots, but there are still problems with transport and energy (see above).


Manufacturing has become a highly distributed, highly specialised process. A car might have 30,000 parts and hundreds if not thousands of suppliers and intermediate steps in the manufacturing process. Any disruption to any one supply chain could turn cars into expensive paperweights. Other manufacturing sectors such as lumber, electronics, semiconductors, machinery, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and so on, are all highly susceptible to disruptions in long-haul shipping, capital, labour, and expertise.


Any trade disruption would hit food supply hard. Firstly two-thirds of countries are dependent on food imports for calorie intake. But industrial inputs including raw stock (eg seeds), equipment, and industrial commodities must all be transported. Diesel, pesticide, and fertilizer (including sources of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium) must all be sourced. Transport and refrigeration are needed. Zeihan predicts that large scale monoculture will give way to small scale polyculture.

Zeihan also talks about Finance, but I’ve skipped over that in the interests of brevity (however, it’s worth a read).

Relevance for New Zealand

Zeihan paints a detailed picture of the collapse of many regions of the world. However, he predicts US (NAFTA) success thanks to its demographic and geographic abundance and diversity. He also leaves room for other thriving regional networks if the right cooperation is in play. For example, Southeast Asia plus Australia and New Zealand. This is where Zeihan’s analysis intersects with a topic I’m particularly interested in.

Zeihan’s book is about US policy and world demographics. He doesn’t contemplate catastrophic risks to the US, such as major political instability, let alone supervolcanic eruptions (Yellowstone), immense solar flares, global conventional war, or extreme bioweapon pandemics. Nor does he consider nuclear war.

The reason I raise these potential catastrophes is because they all have the potential to cause the same kind of global trade meltdown and deindustrialisation as in Zeihan’s scenario, but in these cases the US/NAFTA may be particularly hard hit. This is especially the case for nuclear or volcanic winter where food production could collapse in North America. France, Canada, and the US may be the most agriculturally robust countries, once access to agricultural inputs and equipment are also considered (according to Zeihan), but these countries suffer some of the worst from sunlight reduction and crop failure in nuclear war modelling studies.

Under such scenarios the Australia-New Zealand dyad may be one of the few places on earth able to sustain functional industry, and probably only with careful planning and cooperation. No matter the proximal cause (demography, geopolitical unrest, pandemic, nuclear war, volcano) trade collapse requires a similar response.

We recently analysed the nuclear war (or other abrupt sunlight reducing) scenario and came to similar conclusions to those in Zeihan’s book. Australia and New Zealand have an agricultural buffer that might resist severe shock (both sunlight reduction and lack of some inputs), but resilience might be optimised by regional cooperation with the likes of Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. Our academic paper on ‘Island refuges for surviving nuclear winter and other abrupt sun-reducing catastrophes’ is currently going through the publication process, and I will blog separately on it when it appears, but the one line summary is that only eight island nations have sufficient food production under even ‘mild’ nuclear winter conditions but these include: Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which like Zeihan’s ‘Southeast Asia’ set, could form an extremely complementary quartet (throw in PNG’s mineral resources and the likes of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands excess food production).

It is not just our analysis of nuclear winter that has recently contemplated trade disruption and its impact on New Zealand. The Covid-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine have highlighted many of these issues. Waka Kotahi have published an issues paper on freight and supply chain, MPI’s think tank Te Puna Whakaaronui has written on global food security, and an Office of the Minister for Energy Cabinet Paper addresses short-term issues for refined fuel supply. Some organisations have started to think through these implications in isolation. However, in the 1980s the New Zealand Nuclear Impacts Study explored this somewhat systematically but appears never to have been followed up with an actual strategy.

The question remains, how can New Zealand optimise its resilience to catastrophic trade disruption and what level of industrial civilisation could be sustained?

In one sense New Zealand is in the worst possible position, as the most remote temperate land mass in the world (if there is catastrophic geopolitical/global demographic disruption). In another sense it is in the best possible position as the most remote temperate land mass in the world (if there is nuclear or volcanic winter, or an extreme bioweapon pandemic). Regardless, the issues may be roughly the same.

What should New Zealand do?

What follows is not intended to be a set of recommendations or a plan, much more work is needed to identify and then prioritise the most important impacts. However, possible approaches can be conceived. For example, failure of transport might be aided by a plan to secure resources for coastal shipping, or a strategy of developing a hydrogen powered logistics fleet. Oil will be necessary (it is also an input to many products), and local production should be matched to a local refinery handling the appropriate grade. The present 20 days of refined fuel as operational reserve will be manifestly insufficient, and any suggestion for increasing reserve, and for storing it onshore (rather than offshore as at present) will help the transition (diesel should be prioritized).

Biofuel production facilities could be prepared and on standby. Hydroelectric power could be used to produce green hydrogen. Geothermal energy, and wind and solar could be further developed. Plans for how to prioritise energy for essential functions could be drawn up, cities can plan to down-power. Coal can be used. Nuclear can be investigated.

Overall, solutions that are the least technically challenging, and have the lowest probability of requiring imported commodities and expertise for maintenance should be prioritised.

That said, a critical part of such planning should be integrated cooperation with near neighbours, where shipping may still be possible (with locally owned ships and strategic use of limited fuels). This might occur among New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Along with Papua New Guinea, this mix of countries holds a diverse, complementary, and possibly self-sustaining set of natural, human, and economic resources (akin to the NAFTA situation).

New Zealand will clearly not be able to manufacture everything it desires. The automotive industry might study the case of Cuba during its decades of trade blockade. On the other hand, use of woollen textiles and a growing textile industry might be encouraged. Machinery is needed for all manufacturing, and the Japanese and Taiwanese strategy of supporting a multitude of tiny facilities that machine, produce and supply customized parts could be developed. 3D printing can be harnessed provided there is access to input materials. Raw inputs such as bauxite, iron ore and rare earths could be traded with Australia (smelted and returned in the case of aluminium).

Agriculturally New Zealand is well-placed but could squander that advantage with poor management. Overfertilisation may have baked several productive years into the soil, but eventually these inputs will need reliable energy and transport. It might be in some cases that it is more efficient to move people closer to production (deurbanisation). Shifting planting (away from the margins) with large scale monoculture giving way to smaller scale localised polyculture could preserve variety, even preindustrial gardening can be highly efficient, though a sustainable plan for seed stock is needed. We’ve found in recent work that NZ exports of milk powder alone, if directed to the domestic market, could provide more than 100% of New Zealand’s caloric needs even under the severe modelled global conditions of a nuclear winter. However, no one wants to eat only milk.  

Regional cooperation, perhaps with non-traditional partners, is likely to be important to connect New Zealand to supplies of equipment and inputs. This might require a new paradigm for regional shipping, a stocktake of resources and capabilities across places like New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines (all of which feature in that ‘top 8’ in our analysis of nuclear winter). Zeihan notes that there is ‘no obvious leader’ in Southeast Asia. This only underscores the potential value of a regional alliance for resilience.

Overall, an oil replacement, such as biofuels or hydrogen, will be critical to New Zealand’s plan if it seeks to preserve industrial society, along with the infrastructure to support it. Critical too will be regional alliances forged ahead of time with local resilience in mind. The transition to a society resilient to the shocks listed above might take decades but should be started now.

New Zealand has been identified in many writings on global catastrophe (including nuclear winter) as one of the few potentially sustainable corners of civilisation in the most extreme circumstances. These analyses include Zeihan’s book, where New Zealand features repeatedly (often as a functional dyad with Australia), and in our analyses on island refuges against extreme pandemics and against abrupt sunlight reducing scenarios such as nuclear winter (academic paper forthcoming, blog here). However, we have been clear that of the islands identified as ‘most prepared’, none are yet close to being ‘fully prepared’ for this suite of catastrophic risks.

New Zealanders must ask, if appropriate anticipation does not occur here, where chances are best, then where?  

Moving Forward

Many New Zealand organisations have started work on aspects of trade disruption, supply chain issues, or the future of agriculture and food. However, I would like to see the scenarios that are contemplated expanded to encompass the more severe catastrophes mentioned above, with at least some resilience work targeting such possibilities (which in turn should also help allay fears over the lesser challenges). A programme of work on global catastrophic and existential risks should complement and integrate with emerging and ongoing work on day-to-day risks to foster a resilient New Zealand across the decades to come.

The first step in such a resilience project is to understand the key common consequences across these scenarios. An obvious common impact is the loss of trade (which may occur in isolation or in a context of climate (nuclear winter) and/or electrical (EMP, solar flare) disruption, or other factors).

We will soon be announcing a project investigating exactly these issues, for which we have recently secured funding.

I am very keen to talk with anyone who has an interest in contributing to the project goal of mapping out what could be the nucleus of a New Zealand (nuclear, trade isolation, biothreat, supervolcano, solar flare, asteroid impact…) National Resilience Strategy and Plan. I am excited for upcoming wide engagement and hope to foster a sense of collaboration. Feel free to get in touch and share your experience, ideas, and expertise with me.  

A successful strategy depends on exactly what the impacts are likely to be, and that should now be explored for the most catastrophic scenarios.

Global catastrophe and risk analysis: Podcast smorgasbord

Image: Dan Gold, Unsplash

This instalment of the Adapt Research Blog brings you a selection of Matt’s recent audio and video presentations.

These appeared in podcast, radio and conference format through April–June 2022.

  • Podcast by Radio New Zealand (13 May, 2022):
  • Do we really need to prepare for nuclear war? (23 min), Matt and Nick Wilson in conversation with Sharon Brettkelly – Covering: Nuclear winter, resilience, and the cross-cutting benefits of preparation. Further details in our blog on Sustained Resilience to mitigate catastrophic risk.

Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk 2022

The CCCR 2022 was held as a hybrid in-person and online conference 19–21 April 2022.

Opened by Lord Martin Rees, the conference attracted researchers and policymakers with an interest in global catastrophic risks such as biological threats, artificial intelligence, nuclear war, volcanic eruption and food shortages. Attendees engaged with keynote speakers, panel discussions, workshops and 7 minute lightning talks.

The Conference Programme is available here.

Videos of each conference day are now available on YouTube:

Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

Adapt Research Ltd contributed to authoring two lightning talks. Matt Boyd of Adapt Research presented the second of these. Slides and video timestamps are available here:

Island Refuges (YouTube) – Professor Nick Wilson (7 min)

National Risk Assessments (YouTube) – Dr Matt Boyd (7 min)

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