The proposed work is partly inspired by the 1980s New Zealand Nuclear Impacts Study and will update some of that knowledge for the 2022-23 context. We link the importance of this prior work to the consequences of present-day major catastrophes in this post on the Effective Altruism Forum. We have also outlined the motivation for the project in a blog-post, and RadioNZ podcast.
We plan to develop a shadow National Risk Register risk profile, conduct workshops, industry surveys, interviews, and a through a Delphi process produce a shadow National Catastrophe Resilience Strategy/Plan.
The aim is to produce a plausible evidence-based path to catastrophe security. We also aim to obtain ongoing funding for a CatastropheResilience Think Tank to further develop these proposals in conjunction with others and support their implementation.
These research avenues are particularly topical in the context of recent works on Existential Risks (Toby Ord), Longtermism (Will MacAskill), and in light of sentinel events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, Russian invasion of Ukraine, and risk of approaching Food Shortages.
The role would suit an experienced researcher or policy adviser, who is excited to help lead and contribute to work to secure the future of humanity, through a project that is important, neglected and tractable. Application details below.
Fixed-term 9–12 months (Full-time or Part-time: 0.5–1.0 FTE)
Must be NZ resident/citizen and be based in NZ
Help lead a project with the aim of understanding Aotearoa New Zealand’s resilience to global catastrophic and existential risks such as nuclear winter, supervolcano eruption, extreme pandemic, or catastrophic collapse of global trade.
The project is philanthropically funded (initially for one year) through the Regranting Programme of the FTX Foundation Future Fund, which supports ambitious projects to improve humanity’s long-term prospects.
The appointee will help lead the research project. They will contribute to the following:
Project design, planning, and vision
Research and risk profile development
Survey design and deployment
Preparation of reports, recommendations, and academic papers
The candidate will have a postgraduate qualification and the ideal candidate is likely to have qualifications and experience in some (not necessarily all) of the following:
Qualitative social science methods
Communications and facilitation
Policy or public sector work (especially risk and resilience)
Academic research or writing
Risk analysis or disaster risk reduction
Economics, strategy or foresight
Energy, transport, logistics, manufacturing, or agricultural sectors
Mostly, we are looking for a collaborator with a multidisciplinary perspective, big picture view, and who is excited about understanding complexity and building resilience to the very largest global risks.
Funding is fixed-term, but we aim is to produce high quality findings and outputs that secure additional funding for growth (scope expansion, founding a think tank, etc)
The appointee’s ideal start date would be November 2022.
Salary will be pro-rata, commensurate with typical bands (eg Public Sector, University) at level of experience.
We will weigh the merits of appointing an experienced candidate full-time at Research Fellow/Advisor level, or a more senior candidate part-time (Principal Advisor/Senior Researcher). Secondments (full-time or part-time), or job sharing arrangements, are welcome.
We encourage applications from anyone excited by work to secure the future of humanity.
To apply: email email@example.com with your expression of interest, LinkedIn profile, CV, and links to examples of previous work, ideas and projects, video expressions are welcome.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Efforts to prevent nuclear war should be greatly intensified – but we must also consider what happens if prevention fails. NZ is often cited as somewhere most likely to preserve a thriving society through a nuclear aftermath. However, our society is a complex adaptive system heavily dependent on trade. Major perturbations triggered by nuclear war could shift the state of NZ society from one of flourishing to one of mere survival. We detail these risks of societal failure and conclude with a set of first steps NZ could take to strengthen its societal systems.
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space” (Byron ‘Darkness’)
Byron penned what could be a striking vision of nuclear winter 129 years before the atomic age. Holed up in a Swiss mansion during the ‘year without a summer’ following the eruption of Mt Tambora, he composed ‘Darkness’ (1816) on a day in which ‘the fowls went to roost at noon’.
‘Darkness’ imagines the severe cascading calamities that might ensue if the sun were obscured, as following nuclear war. We detailed these potential climate impacts and the consequences for NZ food production in a recent blog post, Putin and the Bomb.
However, in his poem Byron envisions the cascading impacts sun-blocking might have on energy supply, communications, resources, ecology, social cohesion, and conflict. In 1987 the NZ Nuclear Impacts Study examined the potential for similar cascading impacts (Green, Cairns, & Wright, 1987). This study involved 300 industry experts, government officials, a public survey, and role plays with citizens. In 35 years, nothing remotely as sophisticated has been done to update the findings for the NZ context.
Contrary to common misconception, radiation is not a major risk to NZ in a Northern Hemisphere nuclear war. It is commonly assumed that far flung Southern Hemisphere islands like NZ may fare comparatively well. For example, existential risk scholar Toby Ord writes in The Precipice, “if we consider somewhere like NZ… It is hard to see why they wouldn’t make it through with most of their technology (and institutions) intact” (Ord, 2020).
In what follows we question Ord’s assumption, reiterate the salience of nuclear war as a global catastrophic risk, its far-reaching impacts on society and industry and what NZ might do to mitigate the threat, including reprising the work of the 1980s with up-to-date understandings.
“the wildest brutes / Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d / And twin’d themselves among the multitude, / Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food”
A typical human needs around 2,100 kcal of food energy per day to avoid losing weight. NZ produces something in the order of 9,500 kcal/capita/day (Schramski, Woodson, Steck, Munn, & Brown, 2019), and exports the majority of this food. Although modelling of severe nuclear winter reported in a preprint indicates NZ food production could fall 58% (Xia et al., 2021), New Zealanders should, in principle, be able to be fed. However, orderly production and distribution of this supply assumes that people understand there will be enough, that there is sufficient energy to maintain production and distribution, that crop substitutions are appropriate, that essential machinery does not irrevocably break down, that unforeseen cascading socio-ecological impacts do not wreak havoc and that the country is not likely to be overcome by refugees.
Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine has taught us that complex interdependent human systems are often fragile – and trade can be vulnerable. Even, when just one ship blocked the Suez Canal, there were global trade disruptions. In a severe nuclear (or volcanic, or asteroid) winter key infrastructure in the Northern Hemisphere may lie in ruin, including ports, airports, fuel stores, fibre optic cables, satellites, factories, and data centres. Food production could collapse in breadbaskets such as the US and Ukraine. This would massively strain a world where two-thirds of countries are currently not food self-sufficient (Schramski et al., 2019). There may be hoarding, reluctance or inability to trade, severe food and fuel shortages, and ongoing conflict.
Research on volcanic eruptions at global ‘pinch points’ indicates that an unfortunately located eruption could disable world trade (Mani, Tzachor, & Cole, 2021). We must assume the same following dozens, scores, or even hundreds of nuclear detonations. Remote NZ may be on its own. At the very least Northern Hemisphere markets could be inaccessible and trade networks with Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Chile or Peru would need to be strengthened or forged.
Communications and governance
“And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones, / The palaces of crowned kings—the huts, / The habitations of all things which dwell, / Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d”
People will panic. This is natural. But actions hinge on information held. The nuclear impact study in NZ found that people were often mistaken, they thought radiation was the most important threat (46%) followed by cold weather (11%) (Green et al., 1987). This is probably not the case in NZ. Authorities must anticipate and provide clear, relevant information about nuclear winter, with two-way dialogue. We need a shared mental model that there should be enough food, but medicines and fuel might need to be rationed. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, communication in NZ was very successful, but eventually mis/dis-information crept in, the shared mental model was lost and tension arose.
However, in a nuclear aftermath standard communication by NZ authorities might not be possible. There could be widespread international internet and cloud outages, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) targeted at Australia could potentially disable electronic equipment in NZ (Green et al., 1987), and over time NZ’s telecommunications infrastructure will likely degrade as parts break down and replacements are not available.
Energy and transport
“Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour / They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks / Extinguish’d with a crash—and all was black”
When considering total generic units of energy, NZ superficially appears self-sufficient (IEA 2021). However, NZ exports low-grade coal but imports refined oil; produces hydroelectric power, but this is partly configured to supply to an aluminium smelter; there is geothermal energy but a small electric vehicle fleet; and a single point of failure (one cable) spans the interisland strait. The system may not be resilient to major shocks. Without trade there would be extreme fuel shortages, compounded as the only oil ‘refinery’ has just shut its refining business. Overseas reserves would be useless without the ability to retrieve them. Even if refining were restored, a single key fault could cripple it again without imported parts and international expertise. The effects of an EMP could make the energy situation worse. Critically, energy is needed for food processing and distribution. Milk needs to be transported every day, without electric trucks this requires refined fuel. The energy system will degrade over time and beyond a certain threshold there could be catastrophic cascading effects throughout every other system.
Conflict and Refugees
“And War, which for a moment was no more, / Did glut himself again… / …The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two / Of an enormous city did survive, / And they were enemies”
Internal conflict may arise if there are concerns about ongoing supply of food or energy, or if inequality is perceived. People seeking escape from war and famine may try to arrive by force, or bring novel infectious diseases (eg, if bioweapons are released in a Northern Hemisphere conflict). Although NZ is sheltered by a huge natural moat, the country must plan for the possibilities of such challenges. We need to calculate how many can be fed. En masse arrivals may be unlikely in a world without commercial transportation, but NZ’s vulnerability might require alliances with other survivors such as Australia, Indonesia, or Chile.
Ecology and flourishing
“The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still, / And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths”
Ecological systems are complex adaptive systems with many interacting parts. Models of the impact of nuclear winter cannot account for all variables, and we know that ecological systems sometimes exhibit sudden and unpredictable shifts in state. Algal blooms or tropical storms exemplify these processes. It is possible that severe climate impacts of nuclear winter might disrupt global ecology for decades or forever. Human societies are part of this complex adaptive system (Walker & Salt, 2006). We must understand that as human systems degrade accumulating stresses across a range of tightly coupled and interdependent sectors can manifest as cascading failures (Homer-Dixon et al., 2015). As one of the havens most likely to survive comparatively intact after a nuclear war, NZ must avoid tipping into pre-digital, pre-industrial, or pre-agricultural states. Persisting institutions and technological systems will be needed to help ‘reboot’ a flourishing humanity across the years and decades after a catastrophic nuclear winter.
A possible solution for NZ?
NZ may have some inbuilt cultural resilience especially in Māori and Pasifika communities. Communitarian efforts via marae and other social networks have successfully distributed food and information in the past, such as during the Covid-19 pandemic and Kaikoura earthquake. NZ’s ‘social cohesion’ score is very high. But we can’t take this for granted in an information environment where risks are classified, and misinformation is rife.
Unfortunately, nuclear war matters because it is not improbable. Nuclear safety depends on a system of rational actors, perfect information, and fail proof systems that operate without error in perpetuity. The risk of nuclear war lies in human error, component failures, violent catalysis, irrational leaders, accident, miscalculation, and cyber vulnerabilities (see Nuclear Threat Initiative president Joan Rohlfing’s interview from 24 Feb here).
Nuclear winter especially matters because there is still a small possibility that it could lead to human extinction, not directly, but via cascading effects on food, energy, transport, trade, disease, and conflict. Study of these cascading interdependencies is very neglected.
NZ has a chance to both survive and sustain a thriving hub of complexity through nuclear winter. With promising baseline conditions, there is an argument NZ has an obligation to humanity to maximise its chances. This could be achieved by undertaking the following:
Repeat the 1987 Nuclear Impacts Study in today’s context and prioritise intervention according to experts, science and modelling (see Green et al. 1987 for initial policy suggestions).
Make a detailed local study of food production and distribution under nuclear winter and zero trade/scarce fuel conditions, as well as manage marine stocks to ensure surplus in times of need.
Research and prepare communication materials and plans, with redundancies, collaborate with the public and generate a shared mental model.
Incentivise distributed renewable energy sources, electric vehicle uptake, cycle infrastructure, home insulation, and reduce oil dependence, while maintaining refining capability until zero-oil reached.
Conduct simulations/walk-throughs of critical functions such as restoring systems after an EMP, or storing, rationing, and distributing food, fuel, medicines.
Reduce reliance on Northern Hemisphere export markets by diversifying regionally – particularly with Australia, the Pacific and Southeast Asia.
Study the potential irreplaceable failure points of NZ industry and crowdsource solutions and workarounds, eg, 3D printing.
Model the co-benefits of resilience measures against nuclear winter on climate targets, inequality, health, the economy.
Include nuclear war, nuclear winter, and NZ trade isolation in national risk assessments and make public NZ’s national risk register (the contents of which are currently classified).
Establish a Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme Risks to provide resource, responsibility and political neutrality for assessing and governing nuclear risks and other extreme risks. We have previously made this case (Boyd & Wilson, 2021).
Research actions NZ might take to increase the chance of rebooting a collapsed global civilization, such as developing local digital manufacturing, renewable energy, and other independent high-tech sectors.
If nuclear war led the world to a collapsed, even pre-industrial state, all the gains in healthcare, life-expectancy, social institutions, and other domains of human endeavour attained in the last 200 years would be at risk. There is no guarantee they would be quickly recovered, and could even be lost forever.
At present nuclear war and winter impacts are much neglected (the word ‘nuclear’ did not appear in the ‘Summary of Public Consultation’ for NZ’s National Security Long-term Insights Briefing 2022). Also, when these type of impacts are examined internationally, there seems to be too much focus on just the climate and food impacts, as opposed to issues such as systems interdependencies, governance and communication. There are knowledge gaps about the dynamic cascading effects of nuclear war. It is inconceivable that any present government could successfully manage this kind of situation. We must build better systems that reduce inherent risks of nuclear war eg, better diplomacy and technical safeguards. Better yet, we should greatly intensify efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. Until that day, we should nurture the changing mindset around climate change and expand this to all catastrophic risks, so we can anticipate them and be better ancestors.
Risk communication is critical. Citizens need to understand risks and have some concept that solutions are possible. This will encourage cooperation and coordination rather than conflict and degradation of social cohesion. No solution to a major risk will succeed without some degree of social cohesion. This is why the problem of mis/dis-information must be solved in parallel with work on catastrophic risks. No risks, nuclear or otherwise, exist in isolation and many of the measures we suggest above have wide-ranging co-benefits.
* Author details: Dr Boyd is a catastrophic risk researcher and Director of Adapt Research Ltd. He has funding support for work on this topic from the Centre for Effective Altruism’s Long-Term Future Fund. Prof Wilson is with the Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington. Views are the authors’ own.
To enable more content on these topics, please consider donating below the References list.
Boyd, M., & Wilson, N. (2021). Anticipatory Governance for Preventing and Mitigating Catastrophic and Existential Risks. Policy Quarterly, 17(4), 20–31. doi:10.26686/pq.v17i4.7313
Green, W., Cairns, T., & Wright, J. (1987). New Zealand After Nuclear War. Wellington: New Zealand Planning Council.
Homer-Dixon, T., Walker, B., Biggs, R., CrÈpin, A.-S., Folke, C., Lambin, E. F., . . . Troell, M. (2015). Synchronous failure: the emerging causal architecture of global crisis. Ecology and Society, 20(3), 6. doi:10.5751/ES-07681-200306
Mani, L., Tzachor, A., & Cole, P. (2021). Global catastrophic risk from lower magnitude volcanic eruptions. Nature Communications, 12(1), 4756. doi:10.1038/s41467-021-25021-8
Ord, T. (2020). The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. London: Bloomsbury.
Schramski, J. R., Woodson, C. B., Steck, G., Munn, D., & Brown, J. H. (2019). Declining Country-Level Food Self-Sufficiency Suggests Future Food Insecurities. BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, 4(3), 12. doi:10.1007/s41247-019-0060-0
Walker, B., & Salt, D. (2006). Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Xia, L., Robock, A., Scherrer, K. J. N., Harrison, C., Jaegermeyr, J., Bardeen, C., . . . Heneghan, R. F. (2021). Global Famine after Nuclear War. Research Square – Preprint. doi:10.21203/rs.3.rs-830419/v1
In this blog we briefly review the literature on the probability of nuclear war and what various models estimate to be the potential global climate impacts (eg, of nuclear winter). Although New Zealand is relatively well placed as a major food producer – a range of mitigation strategies could increase the probability of sustaining food security during a recovery period. To get the ball rolling the Government needs to perform a national risk assessment on this topic and commission work on identifying the most cost-effective preparations.
Putin’s Ukraine invasion and nuclear weapons
Does Russian President Vladimir Putin intend to use nuclear weapons, under what circumstances, and what would be the impact of such aggression?
This question is important because days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to high alert. It is also important because of the potentially dire consequences following a nuclear war, given that Russia possesses approximately 4500 nuclear warheads, not counting ‘retired’ weapons.
Below, we address the probability of nuclear war, the modelling work around its potential consequences, and some mitigation strategies that could minimise the impact of nuclear war on New Zealand.
How likely is nuclear war?
Since 1945 when nuclear weapons were used to end The Second World War, none have been used in combat. Unlike many natural phenomena there is no frequency distribution to base probability estimates upon. However, subjective estimates have been published.
In 2008 Hellman estimated the probability of full-scale nuclear war between the US and Russia in any given year at 0.02–0.5% (Hellman, 2008), however this calculation included a 6% annual probability of an ‘initiating event’ that could lead (with 33% probability) to a ‘Cuban missile crisis type’ event. If we follow Hellman’s assessment and consider Putin’s move to nuclear high alert in the context of the Ukraine invasion to be an ‘initiating event’, then the annualised probability of ‘a nuclear weapon being detonated’ rises to 3.3–16.5% and that of nuclear war to 0.3–8.3% (or higher if Putin’s Ukraine posture is considered an actual Cuban crisis-type event).
In 2013, Barrett et al estimated the annualised probability of inadvertent US-Russia nuclear war at 2% (90% CI, 0.02–7%) or 1% (0.001–5%) if it is assumed launch could not occur during ‘calm’ geopolitical periods (Barrett, Baum, & Hostetler, 2013). Half of the total risk was contained in periods of US-Russia tensions (perhaps the Ukraine war for example), but importantly this means the other half of the risk lies in peacetime. This is due to risks such as systems faults, miscalculations, malice, and third-party interference.
Several, other assessments put the probability in a similar range. However, these assessments usually focus on one possible scenario (eg, US-Russia war, inadvertent war, regional war between Pakistan and India, etc) and so the true probability of any kind of nuclear war between any nuclear armed nations will necessarily be higher. Baum et al have elaborated a full model (see p.21) for the factors which must be included to deduce the total probability of nuclear war (S Baum, de Neufville, & Barrett, 2018). However, multiple war games have concluded that Putin would probably use a nuclear weapon if he felt his regime was threatened (Civvis, 2022).
The crowd forecasting organisation Good Judgment has reported the estimated number of nuclear weapons detonated conditional on a nuclear weapon being used. Results were: 84% probability of 1–9 weapons detonating, 13% to 10–99, 2% to 100–999, and 1% to 1000 or more (Beard, Rowe, & Fox, 2020).
So, the risk of nuclear war is generally considered to be low in any given year, but certainly not trivial, and it may be elevated to the concerning level of several percent per annum in times of crisis. This makes the annual risk of nuclear war in times of US-Russia tensions possibly greater than the risk of a Covid-19-like pandemic, which has an estimated return time of 59 years (Marani, Katul, Pan, & Parolari, 2021).
Models suggest nuclear war would have significant climate impacts
Nuclear war would have impacts that reach far beyond the mass deaths and destruction from blast, thermal and radiation impacts from the bombs themselves at explosion sites. Baum and Barrett systematically collated these impacts in a model of nuclear war (S Baum & Barrett, 2018). The impacts include: ‘fire, blocked sunlight, damage to infrastructure, water supply disruption, agriculture disruption, food insecurity, healthcare disruption, infectious disease, transportation disruption, transportation systems disruption, energy supply disruption, satellite disruption, telecommunications disruption, shifted norms, and general malfunction of society’.
Since the 1980s it has been supposed that the greatest of these wider impacts would result from climate disruption. Nuclear firestorms would burn combustible material in cities and loft black carbon (soot) far into the stratosphere, where it would spread globally, and could persist for years imposing a global ‘nuclear winter’.
A regional nuclear war (such as between India and Pakistan where up to 100 bombs are used) might loft up to 5 teragrams (Tg) of soot, whereas a full-scale global war (eg, between the US and Russia where hundreds to thousands of weapons are exploded) might push as much as 150 Tg of soot into the stratosphere.
Modelling the effects of this in the 1980s relied on computing capacity that did not allow models to ‘look’ beyond the very short term or perform numerous model runs. However, in 2007 Robock et al modelled nuclear climate impacts with a, then, modern climate model, NASA’s ModelE. They found that 5 Tg, 50 Tg and 150 Tg scenarios would have significant climate impacts with severe reductions in surface temperature, precipitation and solar radiation (Robock, Oman, & Stenchikov, 2007; A. Robock et al., 2007). The climate changes were predicted to be large and long-lasting. At the lower end of the spectrum the impact might be similar to the impact from the worst volcanic climate impacts in recorded history, for example the civilisation altering impact of the Late Antiquity Little Ice Age (536–556CE) and at the upper end (150 Tg) could impose a ‘nuclear winter’ which might see summer time temperatures in the northern hemisphere 20–30 degrees C below normal, with an 8–9 degree C drop in mean global temperature spanning a decade. The 150 Tg case is very much a worst case scenario given that it assumes the use of almost the entire global nuclear arsenals, which is probably unrealistic given that many reserve warheads would need to be mobilised and deployed.
More recent modelling of both the regional nuclear war scenario (Reisner et al., 2018; Wagman, Lundquist, Tang, Glascoe, & Bader, 2020), and the global scenario (Coupe, Bardeen, Robock, & Toon, 2020), using more sophisticated climate models such as the WACCM, generally concur with these earlier estimates. Nevertheless, the regional war case might produce lesser impacts than previously thought, yet still have an impact on global agriculture and food trade ‘unmatched in modern history’ (Jagermeyr et al., 2020). Even so, the potential impacts are still highly uncertain and depend on the behaviour of the relevant fires and the material that is available to be burned, which in turn depends on where the weapons are targeted.
What is generally agreed is that the worst-case scenarios would devastate ordinary global agriculture. Results of global modelling of 150 Tg scenarios, currently available as a preprint (Xia et al., 2021), suggest yield losses for major food crops (maize, rice, soybean and spring wheat) and marine fish, averaged over the first five years, might hit 79% loss globally and approach 100% loss in the northern hemisphere, (see also Jagermeyr et al 2020 for related peer-reviewed estimates pertaining to regional war). The impact on global food trade would be disastrous and billions of people would be at risk of starvation.
Additionally, ozone could be catastrophically depleted by stratosphere heating and the UV index at the Earth’s surface could rise to 35–45, or more, in places for several years (yes, this is the index reported by weather forecasters where 11+ is considered ‘severe’). The impact of this on global agriculture is unknown (Bardeen et al., 2021), but could be important.
Despite these catastrophic impacts, these models suggest that some places might be comparatively unscathed. This is because regions between the equator and 30 degrees south are not likely to be as impacted by climate changes. Although the equatorial monsoons may be greatly diminished, the growing seasons in some regions of Africa and South America may persist (Coupe et al., 2020). Additionally, remote southern hemisphere islands like New Zealand and Australia appear in the models to suffer less severe temperature drops (Coupe et al., 2020; A Robock et al., 2007), and some regions such as the Caribbean might even see increased fish catch (Scherrer et al., 2020).
What could be done to mitigate nuclear winter in New Zealand?
As with pandemics, prevention of nuclear war would be vastly better than being forced to respond. Immense diplomatic efforts are needed to resolve the situation in Ukraine. However, just as the world ought to be planning to mitigate the impacts of the next pandemic, we ought to address the potential impacts of nuclear war. In particular, policy should address food insecurity. This can be done by striking the right mix between the following three strategies (S. Baum, Denkenberger, Pearce, Robock, & Winkler, 2015):
Food stockpiles (which while expensive can allow for transition to a new normal in the event)
Agricultural adaptation including winter hardy crops
Development of alternative resilient food systems which do not depend on normal levels of sunlight
New Zealand specifically is a vast food overproducer due to its export economy. In a context where global food trade is severely disrupted, New Zealand could retain for domestic use food that is normally exported. Indeed, current volumes of dairy exports alone would be able to supply more than all the dietary energy needs of the whole New Zealand population (calculations by the authors – available on request). However, normal agricultural yields are likely to be diminished after a nuclear war. The calculations by Xia et al suggest that New Zealand might suffer reduced production of major crops of approximately 60% in worst scenarios (Xia et al., 2021). Applied to grass yield, along with the absence of palm kernel extract imports, this would severely impact dairy production. We note that Xia et al’s estimates are extrapolated from crude global macro-indicators and more detailed regional studies should be performed.
Production and distribution might additionally be hampered by lack of fossil fuel and fertiliser imports, and other impacts on machinery and access to parts. In cases where exports are retained for local consumption, there would need to be a plan in place to redistribute the food locally.
But with appropriate foresight, much agricultural production could continue with domestic production of biodiesel for farm machinery (or greater use of electric vehicles on farms), and increased local production capacity of fertiliser. The expansion of household and community gardens could be promoted by both central and local governments. These could focus on such highly efficient crops such as potatoes, but also crops that tolerate lower sunlight levels eg, winter vegetables. Also, the stock of marine food could be managed pre-war to maximise reserves and therefore yield if fishing is ramped up in the near-term aftermath of a nuclear war (Scherrer 2020).
New Zealand could also invest in research and development of alternative foods such as ocean greens (eg, farming seaweed), single-celled protein (García Martínez et al., 2021), synthetic fat (García Martínez, Alvarado, & Denkenberger, 2022), as well as the role of cheap polymer film greenhouses which could be rapidly scaled up in the months after nuclear war (Alvarado et al 2020) – especially if planning for more severe nuclear winter impacts was thought to be worthwhile.
Additional research on nuclear winter is needed
Some government-funded NZ work on the impact of nuclear war was done in the 1980s by the NZ Planning Council (eg Preddey, Wilkins, Wilson, Kjellstrom, & Williamson, 1982; Green et al. 1987). But, as far as we are aware little has been done since then. It is currently unclear whether nuclear winter is contemplated in the country’s National Risk Register, given that the contents of this document is classified. We discovered in February 2020 that New Zealand was very unprepared for a Covid-19-type pandemic. We don’t want to discover that we are just as unprepared for a nuclear winter if it happens.
We have previously argued for transparency around the national risk assessment process, wider consultation and a publicly accessible national risk register, along with the appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme Risks to oversee analysis and planning across a portfolio of risks (Boyd & Wilson, 2021).
These issues around nuclear winter should also be raised at the United Nations (UN), as we have argued before (Boyd & Wilson, 2020), and as would be consistent with the recent UN framework for ‘risk informed sustainable development’ (UNDRR, 2021).
The Royal Society of New Zealand and/or the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), should consider doing an updated report on the impacts and responses to nuclear war and nuclear winter, including what the government and citizens might consider doing in anticipation. Engagement with iwi and key New Zealand agricultural and fisheries organisations would be important to shift the perspective on New Zealand’s food supply towards one of long-term resilience ‘no matter what’, beyond anticipated greenhouse gas climate change, by thinking about severe cooling episodes too. These ‘winters’ could be produced not just by nuclear war, but by major volcanic events as well. The eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815 produced 53-58 Tg of SO2 and produced global winter-like effects (it was the ‘year without a summer’). The eruption in January 2022 of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai puts this in perspective as it produced only 0.4 Tg.
In summary, the available literature suggests that the risk of nuclear war is far from trivial and is likely to be increased at times of international crisis. Various models have estimated that the potential global climate impacts (eg, of nuclear winter) could be severe – though less so for islands in the southern hemisphere such as New Zealand. Although New Zealand is relatively well placed as a major food producer – a range of mitigation strategies could increase the probability of sustaining food security during a recovery period. To get the ball rolling the Government needs to perform a national risk assessment on this topic and commission work on identifying the most cost-effective preparations.
Bardeen, C. G., Kinnison, D. E., Toon, O. B., Mills, M. J., Vitt, F., Xia, L., . . . Robock, A. (2021). Extreme Ozone Loss Following Nuclear War Results in Enhanced Surface Ultraviolet Radiation. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 126(18), e2021JD035079. doi:10.1029/2021JD035079.
Barrett, A., Baum, S., & Hostetler, K. (2013). Analyzing and Reducing the Risks of Inadvertent Nuclear War Between the United States and Russia. Science and Global Security, 21(2), 106–133.
Baum, S., Denkenberger, D. C., Pearce, J. M., Robock, A., & Winkler, R. (2015). Resilience to global food supply catastrophes. Environment Systems and Decisions, 35(2), 301–313. doi:10.1007/s10669-015-9549-2.
Beard, S., Rowe, T., & Fox, J. (2020). An analysis and evaluation of methods currently used to quantify the likelihood of existential hazards. Futures, 115, 102469. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2019.102469.
Boyd, M., & Wilson, N. (2020). Existential Risks to Humanity Should Concern International Policymakers and More Could Be Done in Considering Them at the International Governance Level. Risk Analysis, 40(11), 2303–2312. doi:10.1111/risa.13566.
Boyd, M., & Wilson, N. (2021). Aotearoa New Zealand would benefit from anticipatory central governance for preventing and mitigating catastrophic and existential risks. Policy Quarterly, 17(4), 20–31. doi:10.26686/pq.v17i4.7313.
Coupe, J., Bardeen, C., Robock, A., & Toon, O. (2020). Nuclear Winter Responses to Nuclear War Between the United States and Russia in the Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model Version 4 and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies ModelE. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 124(15), 8522–8543. doi:10.1029/2019JD030509.
García Martínez, J. B., Alvarado, K. A., & Denkenberger, D. C. (2022). Synthetic fat from petroleum as a resilient food for global catastrophes: Preliminary techno-economic assessment and technology roadmap. Chemical Engineering Research and Design, 177, 255–272. doi:10.1016/j.cherd.2021.10.017.
García Martínez, J. B., Egbejimba, J., Throup, J., Matassa, S., Pearce, J. M., & Denkenberger, D. C. (2021). Potential of microbial protein from hydrogen for preventing mass starvation in catastrophic scenarios. Sustainable Production and Consumption, 25, 234–247. doi:10.1016/j.spc.2020.08.011.
Green, W., Cairns, T. and Wright, J. (1987). New Zealand After Nuclear War. New Zealand Planning Council, Wellington.
Hellman, M. (2008). Risk analysis of nuclear deterrence. The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, 99(2), 14.
Jagermeyr, J., Robock, A., Elliott, J., Muller, C., Xia, L., Khabarov, N., . . . Schmid, E. (2020). A regional nuclear conflict would compromise global food security. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(13), 7071–7081. doi:10.1073/pnas.1919049117.
Marani, M., Katul, G. G., Pan, W. K., & Parolari, A. J. (2021). Intensity and frequency of extreme novel epidemics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(35), e2105482118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2105482118.
Reisner, J., D’Angelo, G., Koo, E., Even, W., Hecht, M., Hunke, E., . . . Cooley, J. (2018). Climate Impact of a Regional Nuclear Weapons Exchange: An Improved Assessment Based On Detailed Source Calculations. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 123(5), 2752-2772. doi:10.1002/2017JD027331.
Robock, A., Oman, L., & Stenchikov, G. L. (2007). Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 112(D13). doi:10.1029/2006JD008235.
Robock, A., Oman, L., Stenchikov, G. L., Toon, O. B., Bardeen, C., & Turco, R. P. (2007). Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts. Atmos. Chem. Phys., 7(8), 2003–12. doi:10.5194/acp-7-2003-2007.
Scherrer, K. J. N., Harrison, C. S., Heneghan, R. F., Galbraith, E., Bardeen, C. G., Coupe, J., . . . Xia, L. (2020). Marine wild-capture fisheries after nuclear war. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(47), 29748–29758. doi:10.1073/pnas.2008256117.
Wagman, B. M., Lundquist, K. A., Tang, Q., Glascoe, L. G., & Bader, D. C. (2020). Examining the Climate Effects of a Regional Nuclear Weapons Exchange Using a Multiscale Atmospheric Modeling Approach. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 125(24), e2020JD033056. doi:10.1029/2020JD033056.
Xia, L., Robock, A., Scherrer, K. J. N., Harrison, C., Jaegermeyr, J., Bardeen, C., . . . Heneghan, R. F. (2021). Global Famine after Nuclear War. Research Square – Preprint. doi:10.21203/rs.3.rs-830419/v1.
The recent United Nations report ‘Our Common Agenda’ which calls for solidarity, concern for future generations, and collaborative action on global risks including pandemics.
The newly mandated Long-term Insights Briefings (LTIB) that Aotearoa NZ public sector organisations must prepare and some ideas for what could be included in the Ministry of Health’s LTIB.
Overview of our just published research paper calling for a well-resourced NZ Parliamentary Commissioner for Catastrophic Risks to help prioritise action and ensure a safe and flourishing future.
New United Nations (UN) Report: ‘Our Common Agenda’
In September 2021 the UN Secretary General (SG) released a roadmap to a flourishing future, ‘Our Common Agenda’. The report employed the language of long-termism, portrayed wide-ranging concern for future generations and had substantial focus on building immunity to catastrophic risks including pandemics and technological risks.
The SG identified the importance of global public goods, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, thereby setting the UN’s vision for the future and major priorities for the next five years.
The report acknowledges long-term challenges, including existential risks, that are evolving over the course of multiple human life spans. To ensure a thriving future, humanity needs solidarity and to work together for common goals. Institutional leverage can help humanity represent future generations and manage catastrophic and existential risks.
The report proposes mechanisms for protecting future generations and addressing risks:
A Futures Lab for futures impact assessments, megatrend and risk reporting
A Special Envoy for Future Generations to assist on ‘long-term thinking and foresight’
Repurposing the UN Trusteeship Council to represent the interests of future generations
A Declaration on Future Generations
An Emergency Platform to convene key actors in response to complex global crises
A Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Report to be released every 5 years
A 2023 Summit of the Future to discuss topics including these proposals addressing major risks and future generations
Global Public Health
With respect to global public health the SG says the world must fund the governance of global public health, overcoming its siloed nature. The SG endorses the advice of the Independent Panel for Preparedness and Response and calls for a global vaccination plan and sharing of technology and know-how.
On pandemics generally, the SG writes:
‘[G]lobal health security and preparedness (particularly investment in pandemic preparedness, but also for a broader set of potential health challenges) need to be strengthened through sustained political commitment and leadership at the highest level.’
Funding must be made available for an empowered WHO, with systems to ensure early detection, an independent verification capacity, the containment of emerging pathogens, enhanced global health security, an urgent global vaccination plan, and universal health coverage addressing the determinants of health.
Furthermore, when new biological threats arise there must be:
Faster detection and reporting of a novel pathogen
Faster ramp-up of nonpharmaceutical interventions to contain disease
Faster vaccine development and greater manufacturing capacity
More equitable vaccine distribution
The report emphasises that action is needed broadly because:
‘[W]e do not know which extreme risk event will come next; it might be another pandemic, a new war, a high-consequence biological attack, a cyberattack on critical infrastructure, a nuclear event, a rapidly moving environmental disaster, or something completely different such as technological or scientific developments gone awry and unconstrained by effective ethical and regulatory frameworks.’
Overall, the report links concern about future generations with the effects of our generation that most imperil them — existential risks, such as those of nuclear war or engineered pandemics, which could spell the end for humanity. The SG highlights that some countries have established Committees for the Future or Future Generations Commissioners, and suggests that other countries could follow suit.
A detailed summary of the report with a focus on long-term thinking can be read here.
Long-term insights briefings
Given the UN’s call for a long-term and coordinated approach, how is NZ placed? On the one hand it is notable that the shortfall between the UN’s benchmark for overseas development assistance (0.7% of GDP for wealthy nations) and NZ’s actual contribution (less than half that), would easily cover NZ’s fair share of the US$100 billion needed to bring 67 low-income countries up to a minimum level of health security. Promising is NZ’s recent increase to overseas climate assistance.
On the other hand, the NZ Public Service Act 2020 has mandated that every departmental chief executive publish a long-term insights briefing (LTIB) that is independent of ministers every three years, which should cover medium and long-term risks.
The statutory purpose of the Briefings is to make available into the public domain:
information about medium and long-term trends, risks and opportunities that affect or may affect NZ and NZ society
information and impartial analysis, including policy options for responding to these matters.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) provides an overview of the Briefings, which must look at least ten years ahead and are to be tabled in Parliament in June 2022.
There is already some public consultation on the content and scope of the LTIBs. Notably the Ministry of Health (MoH) has not yet put forward proposals for public consultation. However, this means there will still be an opportunity for public input into the shape of the content. We list important opportunities and risks to include in the appendix below.
One possible weakness of the Briefings is that the subject matter doesn’t need to cover a department’s entire portfolio. The LTIBs are also not required to cover issues where there is already work underway. This possibly limits their potential impact.
However, these LTIBs are a significant opportunity for the NZ public and policymakers to articulate a long-term vision and plan for a flourishing rather than crisis-riddled future.
The Briefings appear to be very much the kind of local mechanism that the UN SG’s report envisions. However, there needs to be some kind of mechanism to independently aggregate these futures think pieces, prioritise action, and coordinate internationally on global issues.
A Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme Risks
In a research paper just published by Policy Quarterly, we argue for exactly this kind of independent central coordination of risk and futures work across the NZ public sector. We propose a well-resourced Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme Risks working in conjunction with a Parliamentary Select Committee. The argument in our paper proceeds as follows:
As the SG has identified, the world faces many large-scale risks. We describe these global catastrophic and existential risks and identify many challenges in governing the prevention and mitigation of such risks.
We then identify that risk reduction activity in Aotearoa NZ has not appropriately addressed these threats. For example, the NZ Civil Defence National Disaster Resilience Strategy retains a large bias towards natural hazards rather than strategic or anthropogenic risks. Additionally, the activities of the National Intelligence and Risk Coordination team within the DPMC are not sufficiently transparent and the National Risk Register is not open to public scrutiny.
On the basis of the challenges identified, we then deduce the desired features and functions of an entity for effectively governing risk mitigation approaches.
We argue the needed institutional entity must be: anticipatory, central/aggregating, coordinating, apolitical, transparent, adaptive, and accountable.
We offer structural options for such an entity and favour a Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme Risks.
The fact that the National Risk Register is secret is particularly troubling because looking to the UK, which does have a publicly-facing version, there are oversights and biases (see the Appendix below for examples).
The secrecy is also troubling given published comments by Treasury that call for, ‘a whole-of-government and whole-of-society response… a multi-stakeholder coordinated approach to risk management and resilience-building… a strong relationship between the public, private and civil society sectors is pivotal’ (emphasis added). Similarly, the UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (2019) advocates, ‘increased access to risk information’ and that, ‘low risk awareness is one of the main challenges.’ Given that the LTIBs are intended to put risk and opportunity information in the public domain, the argument for transparency of the National Risk Register seems compelling.
A well-resourced, independent, apolitical Commissioner could objectively assess NZ’s approach to catastrophic risks, given that we now know ‘consistent with international best practice’ was nowhere near adequate for the risk of Covid-19. This Commissioner could also help overcome siloed orthodoxy and cognitive biases, through support for the public sector chief executives and the LTIBs process.
A Commissioner could also invest in a public facing interactive tool where users can adjust assumptions and see how various societal values and risk probability and impact assessments lead to different risk prioritisation. Such a communication tool is necessary to unpack some of the opacity of the risk assessment process and provide the language for independent peer-reviewers, stakeholders, and the public to engage with the government on risk mitigation.
To the credit of the UN SG’s report, Covid-19 is framed as an impetus to prepare not just for another pandemic, but for a range of global risks. Fortunately, most of the risk is contained in human activities such as biological engineering, uses of artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons, environmental manipulations, climate emissions, and so on (as per Ord 2020). This means that humanity has the power to vastly reduce the risk and secure a flourishing future.
However, there are key challenges to overcome when implementing these futures mechanisms. For example, we know that a suite of human cognitive biases such as groupthink, inattention bias, and difficulties with probabilistic and exponential thinking work against action to mitigate catastrophic risks. Former Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman identified some of these in his report ‘Uncertain but Inevitable’, published earlier in 2021.
The LTIBs and other future oriented work can be leveraged to identify and plan to overcome catastrophic risk. However, the Briefings will not cover every risk, and may be focused on local rather than global threats. It is essential that a central aggregating and prioritisation mechanism exists with a view across the risks, seeing them as a set and seeing their interconnected and global importance.
The UN SG writes:
‘[t]his requires stronger legal frameworks, better tools for managing risks, better data, the identification and anticipation of future risks, and proper financing of prevention and preparedness.’
Hence there is a UN recommendation for countries to establish the sort of thing we are advocating in our paper. This is fortuitous because in our paper we suggest that the Commissioner for Extreme Risks could engage internationally and catalyse collaborative efforts, for example with Australia and Pacific neighbours.
If each country acts according to its strengths, then we can overcome these risks. NZ for example, as a temperate and remote island nation, is well-placed to resist catastrophic pandemics and winter-inducing scenarios such as nuclear war, supervolcanic eruption and comet or asteroid impacts. Policy could focus in part on these natural strengths with programmes aimed at enhancing self-sufficiency and demonstrating effective measures to other islands.
It is notable that many risk reduction activities, such as strengthening health systems, cooperating internationally, or enhancing food security will have tangible impacts here and now, regardless of future risks.
If every country plays their part as the inspiring call from the UN SG requires, then humanity can move more confidently toward a flourishing future, protected from pandemic disease, other biological threats to health and wellbeing and the suite of other catastrophic and existential threats.
Boston, J. (2021) ‘Assessing the options for combatting democratic myopia and safeguarding long-term interests’, Futures, 125, 102668, doi: 10.1016/j.futures.2020.102668
Bostrom, N. and M. Cirkovic (Eds.) (2008). Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boyd, M., and N. Wilson (2021). Aotearoa New Zealand would benefit from anticipatory central governance for preventing and mitigating catastrophic and existential risks. Policy Quarterly. https://ojs.victoria.ac.nz/pq/article/view/7313
Boyd, M., and N. Wilson (2020) ‘Existential Risks to Humanity Should Concern International Policymakers and More Could Be Done in Considering Them at the International Governance Level’, Risk Analysis, 40 (11), pp.2303–2312, doi: 10.1111/risa.13566
Boyd, M. and N. Wilson (2018) ‘Existential Risks: New Zealand needs a method to agree on a value framework and how to quantify future lives at risk’, Policy Quarterly, 14 (3), pp.58–65, doi: 10.26686/pq.v14i3.5105
Gluckman, P. and A. Bardsley (2021) Uncertain but Inevitable: the expert-policy-political nexus and high-impact risks. Auckland: Koi Tu Centre for Informed Futures. Retrieved from: https://informedfutures.org/high-impact-risks/ (Accessed 31 July 2021)
Ord, T. (2020) The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. London: Bloomsbury.
Long-term Insights Briefings: NZ Ministry of Health
Using the MoH as an example, the following might all be considered as part of a ten-plus year vision of opportunities and risks:
Bioweapons, bioengineering, synthetic biology and catastrophic risks
Climate disruption and health
Demographic transitions (age-groups, ethnic groups, migrants) and trends in health inequalities
Health system infrastructure
Health workforce needs
Artificial intelligence and health
Democratisation of healthcare
Remote service delivery
Malicious actors and cyber threats at health services
National Risk Register Shortcomings
Examining the UK’s public facing National Risk Register, there are some serious shortcomings including, but certainly not limited to:
The values and assumptions underpinning the summary risk matrix are opaque to a casual observer.
The magnitude of the threat from ‘emerging infectious diseases’ for the UK (ie, Covid-19-like organisms) was ‘up to 100 fatalities’ in the 2017 version, indicating an error of three orders of magnitude in the risk assessment.
Volcanism was only added to the register after the 2010 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, showing that key risks were not assessed.
The register has been criticised as over securitised and biased by vested interests.
The time horizon of 2–5 years is manifestly inadequate to plan for future risks.
Potentially rare events, such as supervolcanic eruption or nuclear winter, are excluded but may harbour substantial risk (as per work by Ord 2020).
To support more catastrophic risk content on this blog, please consider donating below:
In this post, I summarise and review the book What’s the worst that could happen?: Existential risks and extreme politics – by Australian politician Andrew Leigh (published 9 Nov 2021)
TLDR the TLDR: Populism enhances x-risks
TLDR: Andrew Leigh argues that the short-sighted politics of populism has enhanced existential risk. Populism is driven by problems of jobs, snobs, race, pace and luck. We can control populism by strengthening democratic systems and being stoic. However, Leigh says little about addressing the causes of populism itself.
Intro and purpose of the book
Australian Labour Party representative Andrew Leigh used his time during the Covid-19 disruptions to write a short book on existential risks to humanity (x-risk).
In the book, Leigh leverages longtermist thinking, describes the various x-risks (ie extreme pandemics, climate change, nuclear war, artificial superintelligence, environmental degradation, asteroid/comet impact) and couples this with observations about the rise of populist politics.
He concludes that not only does populism raise the probability of totalitarian dystopia, but it undermines our ability to prevent and mitigate x-risks generally.
In what follows I outline his approach chapter-by-chapter and conclude with thoughts of my own.
Why the future matters
The first chapter starts from the premise that a future utopia is inevitable if humanity survives long enough. This claim emerges by extrapolating a historical trajectory from our tough Iron Age existence through to modern comforts, and then beyond. Leigh rejects discounting the value of future lives, ‘discounting at a rate of 5 percent implies that Christopher Columbus is worth more than all 8 billion people alive today’ (p.8). Similarly, our lives today are no more important than those of future generations and we have a responsibility to those generations.
Leigh notes, however, that our survival is not a given and points out that someone’s risk of dying from an extinction event is higher than many other common risks. He provides psychological (availability heuristic) and economic (campaign contributions) reasons why policy is biased against preventing human extinction.
This situation is exacerbated by the rise of political populism. Leigh defines populists as those who claim to represent ‘the people’ in a challenge to ‘the elites’ who are painted as dishonest or corrupt. Populists can represent the left or right of the political spectrum, have little respect for experts, and tend to champion immediate priorities. They are ‘drivers distracted by back seat squabbles’ (p.14).
Leigh’s use of accessible metaphors involving bar fights, stolen wallets, and football make this introduction simultaneously an easy read, and the most Australian work on x-risk to date.
The next five chapters survey the threats from biorisks, climate change, nuclear war and artificial superintelligence as well as a chapter on probability and risk. Leigh describes each risk and canvasses a suite of standardly recommended policy options specific to them. For those not familiar with such background the chapters are an easy introduction to x-risks.
‘For each of the existential risks we face, there are sensible approaches that could curtail the dangers. For all the risks we face, a better politics will lead to a safer world’ (p.15).
Biological threats, both naturally occurring and human-created, are the focus of Chapter 2. Leigh uses historical examples (plague, cholera, pandemics, biological attacks), tabletop simulations (Clade X, Event 201), and popular culture, ‘someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu–the birds are already doing that,’ says Lawrence Fishburne’s character in Contagion (p.22). Leigh calls out biological weapons programmes, those that skirted the law (the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein) and acquaints the reader with the risks of synthetic biology.
Repeatedly, Leigh refers to popular fiction to make his points. Anecdotally, biotech entrepreneur Craig Venter recommended the book The Cobra Event, to Bill Clinton and this influenced biorisk policy.
Leigh highlights Scott Galloway’s observation that since more people die from disease than war, it might be reasonable to trade the CDC’s $7 billion budget for the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget (this made me reflect on general criticism of the military-industrial complex as a driver of runaway military spending, based around lobbying and vested interests. One possible future sees Boeing and Lockheed Martin coaxed into healthcare technology, generating the same revenues but with new focus). The chapter ends with a catch-all summary of previously published strategies for minimizing biothreats.
Chapter 3 surveys the issue of climate change. There is only so much that can be said in 21 pages (compare the 40,000 people who attended COP26 recently, and the gigabytes of documents flying around). It is noted that likely increases of 3–4 degrees C will be experienced by 2100, but importantly modelling suggests a 10 percent probability of 6 degrees C. If various ‘tipping points’ and ‘carbon bombs’ (p38–39), lead us to this unlikely but possible destination, then things could get very bad.
In this chapter Leigh really starts to escalate his hints that populist politics is exacerbating x-risk. He cites the actions of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. However, Leigh also notes that mitigations against climate change don’t hinge on longtermism, there are here-and-now economic reasons to act, as well as common ground across the political spectrum such as tree planting, and efficiency standards.
Chapter 4 conveys the precariousness of the nuclear stalemate. We read the stories of close calls such as the Cuban missile crisis and the role of Vasili Arkhipov in averting nuclear disaster. Tales from Dr Strangelove introduce us to mutually assured destruction (MAD) and the Russian ‘Dead Hand’ retaliatory mechanism.
Leigh argues that the increasingly many nuclear powers make it mathematically more likely there will be conflict. Nuclear conflict could also begin if a terrorist nuclear attack gave the appearance that a nuclear power had launched a strike. These scenarios could lead to a possible nuclear winter and agricultural failure. Again, the actions of populists such as Trump (withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal) tend towards further destabilisation.
A survey of actions to minimize nuclear risk is given, with Leigh advocating a ‘Manhatten Project II’ (p.72), to denuclearize the world. Although, there is no mention of the economics of the nuclear weapon industry and how vested economic interests might sustain the number of weapons. However, Leigh wittily notes that, ‘By sending Dead Hand to the grave, Russia would make the planet a safer place’ (p.71).
The chapter on AI again follows fairly standard exposition of the risks that superintelligence poses. Hooking the reader into the looming power of AI with further Aussie-as statements such as, ‘playing chess and Go against machines, humans have about the same chance of victory as a regular guy might have of winning a boxing match against Tyson Fury’ (p.76). We read about the ‘intelligence explosion’, the ‘control problem’, and the ‘King Midas’ problem. True to form as a former professor of economics and now politician Leigh notes that, ‘the problem of encoding altruism into a computer is akin to the challenge of writing a watertight tax code’ (p.78).
Among several possible strategies for mitigating the risk of AI, Leigh introduces Stuart Russell’s notion that programmers should focus on, ‘building computers that are observant, humble and altruistic’ (p.84). Such machines would consult humans to learn what we want. As I’ve noted in a previous post, the problem here seems to be engineering the humans not the machines. In the end, Leigh suggests we may need enforceable treaties to ensure embedding of human values, banning of autonomous killing, and promoting collaboration over competition to manage the emergence of great intelligence, not if, but when it occurs.
What are the odds?
Chapter 6 consists of a brief survey of other x-risks, as well as analysis of their probabilities when compared to a range of common risks. It is in this chapter that I felt like Leigh made two mistakes.
Firstly, he expresses the probability of the risks discussed in Chapters 2 to 5 and other risks such as comet/asteroid impact, supervolcanic eruptions, and anthropogenic degradation of the environment, in terms of probability across a century, but then compares these to the ‘reader’s risk of dying from X, in the next year’. This comparison of apples and oranges is flawed for two reasons:
The probability of the anthropogenic risks, in particular, is non-stationary. For example, the risk of AI killing us all is not 1 in 1000 next year (as 1 in 10 ‘this century’) would imply. It is far lower at present, but likely to rise far higher, per annum, across time (until we control it or succumb to it). This reasoning does not necessarily apply to the natural risks, although see posts such as this one arguing that volcanic risk is rising.
Psychologically, it makes more sense to compare per century risks of catastrophe with per lifetime rather than per annum risks to personal wellbeing.
The second mistake I felt Leigh made is to introduce a hodgepodge of risks that have a greater probability in his estimation (which is based on Toby Ord’s), than some of the risks to which he has devoted entire preceding chapters. For example, cascading ecosystem failures appear to have a higher probability of causing human extinction than nuclear war. Arguably, there is some internal inconsistency of communication and emphasis in the book (though I certainly recognise nuclear threat as major).
As an aside, I’ve always found it interesting that the number of humans killed by ‘all natural disasters’ (eg flood, storm, earthquake, volcano, tsunami), as reported by Our World in Data, is approximately 60,000 per year, whereas crude annualization of x-risk probabilities as gestured toward by Leigh (though not made explicit in the book) suggest that the following risks are all greater in expected fatalities than all natural disasters combined: unaligned AI (8 million annualised deaths in expectation), engineered pandemic (2.7 million), nuclear war (80,000), climate change (80,000), environmental damage (80,000). This seems to be another CDC vs Department of Defence situation. Where, really, should we be funnelling our resources?
Regardless of the rhetorical method, Leigh makes it clear that some unlikely risks, such as asteroid/comet impact are already receiving significant government attention. This, coupled with the argument I’ve just outlined, certainly indicates that national risk assessment (NRA) and national risk register (NRR) methodologies may not be fit for purpose.
The crux of the book
Leigh next turns to populism and its relationship to totalitarianism, a threat recognised by the x-risk community because it could permanently curtail the potential of humanity.
We should probably pay more attention to these two chapters, and the penultimate one on democratic systems. This is because Leigh is a politician with over a decade of experience in the Australian House of Representatives. Therefore, we might infer some insider insight into the machinations of power and government, and it would be wise to grant him the floor to express his concerns.
The populist risk
In the preceding chapter, Leigh began to hint at the risk of totalitarianism, but it is here in Chapter 7, the longest chapter, that this threat comes to the foreground. Reiterating the rise of populist politics in recent years, we are reacquainted with the populist’s quest to foster a conflict between, ‘a pure mass of people and a vile elite’ (p.103). Populists can arise from all sides of the political spectrum. Conceptually there are four quadrants:
International egalitarians (Obama, Biden)
International libertarians (Romney, Bush)
Populist egalitarians (Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez)
Populist libertarians (Trump, Palin)
Leigh claims that certain ideas have historically been particularly contagious. These include communism, capitalism, and populism. Furthermore, the world is becoming more populist in recent decades.
According to Leigh, there are five causes of this recent resurgence in populist politics:
Jobs: low quality employment, work and wage insecurity
Snobs: party elites who don’t take the populist threat seriously
Race: fear of difference, impressionable masses responding to racist rhetoric
Pace: rapid, disorienting, technological and cultural transformation
Luck: some elections are very close and could have gone either way
On the issue of ‘snobs’, it certainly appears to me that elections have been stolen, but not as Trump claims, it’s by populists, from inflexible snobs! – see also Thomas Piketty’s arguments about the Brahmin Left and Merchant Right, left wing politicians now appeal to an educated class, rather than their traditional union base.
With respect to ‘luck’, I’m left wondering if this is a one-way valve. Do many populists try their hand, but only a few succeed by luck? However, once they then have power, they tend to rig the system to maintain their control.
Populism allegedly poses a threat to longtermism (and by implication x-risk mitigation), because populists:
reject strong science
reject effective institutions
reject global engagement
reject a sense of cooperation
However, the fact that populists are ‘anti’ these four things is the reason for their electoral appeal! Leigh proceeds to provide numerous examples of populists exhibiting these traits. Anti-internationalism in particular undermines hope of addressing x-risks, which by their nature may require global cooperation. Leigh argues that, therefore, the risk populism imposes on our future is greater than the risk it poses now.
To reiterate, Leigh is arguing that five issues (jobs, snobs, race, pace, luck) have led to the rise in populism and that populism increases the risk from x-risks, due to its short-term focus and ‘anti’ emphasis.
Totalitarianism – the death of democracy
In Chapter 8, we see the potential horror of widespread totalitarianism, which might emerge from the increasing hold that populism has around the world. Leigh says that widespread totalitarianism is, ‘not among [Toby] Ord’s top concerns, but does rank in mine’ (p.96). However, to me there is some equivocation over ‘totalitarianism’ in the works of Ord (The Precipice) versus the present book, with Ord focusing more on x-risk (permanently curtailing the future of humanity), whereas Leigh is more concerned with terrible national or regional states of affairs.
We are led through the histories of Adolf Hitler, Hugo Chavez, and Ferdinand Marcos, in a search for commonalities. What we discover is that these populists initially came to power through fair democratic processes, before devolving their democracies into authoritarian regimes. Recently, in Hungary and Turkey populist outsiders similarly won elections (due to jobs, snobs, race, pace, and luck) then used their acquired power to attack institutions, often in imperceptible steps.
Leigh catalogues ‘seven deadly sins’ (p.138) indicating that a leader is degrading democracy into an authoritarian regime. However, I felt that the inherent tension between the need for totalitarianism to be global for it to ‘permanently curtail the potential of humanity’ and the inward-looking nationalism of populists, seems to preclude populism as a pathway to a global totalitarian x-risk, although things could still get very bad, and populism can no doubt amplify other risks.
Leigh’s roadmap to fixing politics is probably the most disappointing aspect of the book. This is because having identified populism as a driver of x-risk and having identified five causes of populism, he then focuses his remedy on building stronger democracies (presumably to resist degradation by populists) rather than focusing on the underlying causes. Populists win elections in strong democracies and then re-jig the rules to suit themselves. So it’s not so clear how creating better rules is the ultimate solution.
Regardless, we are offered a suite of sensible democratic reforms, tinkering and strengthening of democracies particularly where the necessary continuous tinkering and strengthening has ceased (the last US constitutional amendment favouring democracy was 50 years ago).
Leigh favours mass participation in elections, promoting the compulsory Australian system. He favours convenient voting methods, independent redistricting, and reform of electoral-college systems where the popular vote may not determine who wins. Leigh also favours controls on the export of technologies that can sustain totalitarianism, such as facial recognition systems.
Many of Leigh’s proposals are positive steps, and I support a number, but none of them cut to the heart of the issue, which is the need to address jobs, snobs, race, pace, and luck so that populists cannot win free and fair elections in countries with strong democracies. In only one paragraph on p.153–4 (of 167) does the argument link proposed reforms to these five causes, and only two causes are addressed.
A final chapter summarises the argument with reference to risk and insurance. X-risks are not a concern because they are likely, they are a concern because they would be unbearable. This is why we need insurance against them. To overcome the tendency for politicians to focus on the likely rather than the devastating, we must resist populism, strengthen democracy, and practice more wisdom. In Leigh’s mind, these traits are synonymous with the philosophy of Stoicism and the political philosophy of John Rawls. We need courage, prudence, justice, and moderation.
‘A stoic approach to politics means spending less time caught up in the cycle of outrage and devoting more energy to making an enduring difference’ (p.164)
Perhaps it is through Stoicism that we address jobs, snobs, race, pace, and luck.
I enjoyed this book, but mostly because it was such an accessible summary of things I’d already learned during seven years’ engagement with x-risk content and the x-risk community. The book provides an accessible, entertaining introduction to x-risks for those not already immersed in the field. It benefitted from the simple style, amusing metaphors and Australianisms.
On the other hand, the solutions proposed, in my view, don’t really address the problems identified. We are offered an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Or perhaps a more Aussie take might be that we are advised to piss on our houses to protect them from a bushfire.
However, we often imagine that politicians are unreceptive to long-term issues. What’s the worst that could happen? demonstrates that there are representatives sympathetic to the issues of x-risk and future generations. We can try to leverage these politicians, amplify their voice, and connect such individuals with x-risk academic work via policy work on x-risks. Relevant examples of such work includes:
Policy recommendations appendix in Toby Ord’s book The Precipice
I personally also think it is important to continue to develop arguments that demonstrate why x-risk is a priority here and now, not merely through a longtermist lens. Then we can cast the net as widely as possible, and convince those who will never be focused on the long term. Arguments that highlight flaws in national risk assessment and national risk register processes, and remedy these so that x-risk is rationally included under the extant scope of these devices are valuable, as are cost-effectiveness analyses grounded in the same short-termism standardly deployed in government. My back of the envelope calculations indicate this is an approach ripe for elaboration.
However, the work should extend beyond specific policies addressing x-risks separately or in combination, to ways we can strengthen democracies, and perhaps more importantly, reduce the likelihood of populist leaders emerging in the first place by addressing the issues of jobs, snobs, race, pace, and the role of luck. I was disappointed that What’s the worst that could happen? didn’t finish this analysis, yet to be fair, this is a book that you can read in a day and is a worthy introduction to x-risk for the uninitiated.