Understanding global catastrophe

From ancient city walls to Cold War fallout shelters, the built environment has always reflected the threats that most deeply concern its creators. The same is true in the twenty-first century. As climate change begins to manifest itself through events like Hurricane Sandy, today’s designers and clients are focusing on the idea of resilience in the face of catastrophe. But in our increasingly complex and interconnected world, predicting and preparing for the next worst-case scenario is more daunting than ever. As age-old struggles of man vs. nature are amplified by global warming and forced to vie for attention with upstarts like cyberterror, it’s difficult to even know where to start.

As founder of young nonprofit think tank the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, Seth Baum leads a multidisciplinary team of researchers aiming to arrive at a holistic understanding of the major threats we face as a civilization. I spoke to him about his work and its potential applications.

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We started a little over a year ago. We wanted to work on the topic of global catastrophic risk, which means events that could significantly harm the entirety of human civilization or bring about conditions for human extinction: things like climate change, pandemics, nuclear war.

There are lots of organizations working on certain aspects of this, climate change and so on. What didn’t exist is anyone looking at the big picture, the full set of different risks that are out there and how they interact — like how will climate change affect disease outbreaks around the world, for example — and coming up with an overall understanding of what the most worrisome risks are and, above all, what are the most effective things we can do to mitigate these risks. That’s essentially what our organization sets out to do.

From a research perspective, it’s so huge.

It is ambitious, and I’m constantly resigning myself to feeling stretched in multiple directions to keep up with all this stuff. I’d like to think I’m a decent interdisciplinary researcher, but it’s just so much!

The bottom line is, no one person can do all of this alone. The reason we have so many disciplines involved in the project is because all these disciplines have an important contribution to make. Our institutional concept is oriented around bringing lots of different people in who have these different areas of expertise so that each person can chime in with the part of the whole that they know about. And then our goal as conveners is to help put all the pieces together and facilitate the discussion.

Is the ultimate goal to prioritize these different catastrophic possibilities in order to help governments and organizations make better decisions?

I think it’s very helpful to look at it from the standpoint of decisions. Some decisions are only going to be about one specific risk. For example, decisions related to nuclear proliferation, or how we place our nuclear weapon submarines around the world — those are primarily related to nuclear war, and not so much these other ones. So for the most part we can make those decisions without worrying about the other risks out there.

The quintessential decision about all the different risks is how to allocate money — how to donate money, or for the government to fund programs on one risk over another

Other decisions, that’s not the case. The quintessential decision about all the different risks is how to allocate money — how to donate money, or for the government to fund programs on one risk over another. For those decisions you do really need to look across the board.

There is a lot of interest in trying to rank, for instance, “Ok, which risk is most important: is it nuclear war, is it climate change?” I don’t think that’s quite the right way of looking at it; first of all because we definitely can work on multiple risks at one time, and we should. We should work on nuclear war until that risk falls; same with pandemics. But the geopolitical arrangements that would have impacts on nuclear war — that matters for international discussions about climate change, for example.

My favorite example is Iran. There’s all this attention right now to Iran possibly building up a nuclear weapon program, but it’s done in the name of a nuclear power or electricity program. And nuclear electricity is probably displacing some coal, so the nuclear is helping out with climate change. So the issues are related to each other.

But above all, if we’re thinking in terms of decisions, we can identify certain actions that will help for multiple risks at the same time. In that case, we don’t have to talk about “Is this risk more important than that risk?”, because we’re going to be doing the same thing anyway.

A simple example is in the context of environmental strategy. One threat is climate change; another threat is biodiversity loss. Basically, if we lose the wrong biodiversity then we could be in a lot of trouble. But the steps we would take to help out on one issue are often the same exact step that we would take to help out on the other.

Another example that comes to mind is our diet. If we eat less in the way of livestock products — less meat, dairy, and so on — then that will put out less greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which helps with climate change, and it will also put a lot less pressure on agriculture lands, which is a really big threat in terms of biodiversity. In fact, our diet, I would say, is an even more important issue for biodiversity than it is for climate change. That’s an example of how we don’t really need to say, “Which is more important, climate change or biodiversity loss?” because we’re doing the same thing either way.

There’s a lot of talk in the design industry now about resilience in the face of climate change. Are there aspects of climate change that your interdisciplinary approach has led you to think aren’t talked about enough?

Where I would start right now with climate change is not on the science of climate change. A lot of the debates are framed in terms of the physical science — is the climate changing, are human actions causing that change? It’s an unfortunate part of the process to get stuck on, because we don’t need that debate to be resolved in order to take very positive, productive actions. And the reason is that a lot of the things that we would want to do if we believed the science — and I think the science is excellent, we should believe in the science — are things that we would be quite happy to do anyway.

We can identify certain actions that we can take that will help for multiple risks at the same time

The simplest example is energy conservation. There’s a lot we could be doing but aren’t doing, and if we did do it we would save money. Saving money is something that most people are quite happy to do regardless of why it’s happening. Saving energy is also a national security issue. So if we conserve energy by switching to more energy-efficient cars or buildings, or design cities so people don’t need to drive anywhere, it’s hugely important. I would tell the rest of the world that I moved to Manhattan recently — it’s fun, it’s nice. You can you design your city like this, it’s ok; you’ll still have a very nice, high standard of living. It’s comfortable, but it’s using drastically less energy. We can do all these things without worrying about whether the climate is even changing.

There are some actions that we’ll want to take only because of climate change, but my take is that we should start with the really big things that we’re quite happy to do regardless of whether the climate is changing, because we’d get a lot of mileage out of that.

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