Full Report PDF
Global Catastrophic Risks Annual Report 2016
Annual Report on Global Risks 2016
Global Challenges Foundation
These are the main direct references:
MAIN ACTIONS AVAILABLE TO LIMIT THE RISK
There are three main ways to reduce the risks from climate change: adaptation to climate change, abatement of GHG emissions, and geo-engineering. It is likely to be very costly if not impossible to to avoid many of the impacts of non-catastrophic climate change by adaptation alone,31 and adapting to warming of 6°C or more is likely to be even more costly and difficult.
Turning to abatement, most economists agree that the best way to reduce GHG emissions is to impose a carbon tax or a cap and trade system.32 At present, the global price of carbon is approximately $4 per tonne, whereas according to Wagner and Weitzman, to fully price in the externalities from catastrophic climate change, a price of at least $40 could be required.33
Scientists have demonstrated an approximately linear relationship between the total amount of carbon emitted and the resulting temperature increase.34 The majority of the carbon still underground is in the form of coal.35 If we were to avoid burning the remaining global coal reserves we would likely avoid catastrophic levels of climate change.36 States could commit to building no new coal-fired power stations without carbon capture and sequestration to limit the fraction of the global coal reserves which are burned.
Geo-engineering – the deliberate use of technology to alter the world’s climate – in the form of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) or Solar Radiation Management (SRM), could also help to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change, as a complement to GHG abatement. CDR techniques, such as carbon sequestration or iron fertilisation of the oceans, would remove CO2 from the atmosphere and thereby help us move towards net neutral or net negative emissions.37 SRM techniques, such as the injection of sulphates into the stratosphere, cause global cooling by reflecting sunlight. The benefits and risks of geo-engineering are discussed in more detail in section 2.5.38
In the coming decades, emerging technologies will provide major benefits to society, but they may also create significant and unprece - dented risks. Certain types of
biotechnology, if more widely accessible, could give terrorist groups the access to pathogens as dangerous as smallpox. Geoengineering technologies could give single countries the power to unilaterally alter the earth’s climate. Finally, artificial general intelligence could, if developed, leave human control. Technological risks could emerge very quickly and give certain groups large and perhaps unprecedented destructive power. Moreover, some emerging technologies may be particularly difficult to control because barriers to access the technology may be quite low.
As mentioned previously in this chapter, geo-engineering – in the form of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) or Solar Radiation Management (SRM) – could help to limit the risks of catastrophic climate change. CDR techniques, such as ocean fertilisation or carbon sequestration, remove Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere, whereas SRM techniques, such as cloud brightening or the injection of sulphates or other particles into the stratosphere, reflect the sun’s light and heat back into space. Certain forms of CDR could carry major risks. For example, ocean fertilisation using iron or urea could pose major risks to marine ecosystems.125 However, most forms of SRM are thought to carry much greater risks than most forms of CDR,126 and worries about civilisation-threatening consequences have generally focused on SRM (and in particular on currently the leading form of SRM: the injection of sulphate particles into the stratosphere).127 The remainder of this section will therefore focus on SRM only. SRM is the only known technique for quickly stopping (or even reversing) the rise in global temperatures. This means that it could be used as a complement to GHG reduction, to manage temperatures while the world phases out fossil fuels. Some have proposed that SRM could provide insurance against a ‘climate emergency’, such as unexpected abrupt and extreme warming.128 Thus, on some scenarios, failing to use SRM could constitute a global catastrophic risk. Moreover, SRM has the potential to reduce the costs of warming at very low cost. Some estimate that the annual cost of stratospheric aerosols could be less than $10 billion per year, which is orders of magnitude less than the costs of climate change mitigation strategies.129
POTENTIAL IMPACT OF THE RISK
Four main arguments have been given for the view that SRM brings global catastrophic risks. Firstly, while existing models suggest that SRM could reduce the catastrophic effects of climate change and will not bring their own catastrophic impacts, it may nevertheless bring currently unknown risks, particularly through impacts on global precipitation.131 The climate system is imperfectly understood and the deployment of a novel technology with global effects is inherently risky. Whether the use of SRM is more risky than allowing the planet to warm is one of the key questions for anyone considering using SRM. Secondly, because SRM is so cheap, individual states could feasibly deploy it and unilaterally bring about global climatic impacts. Moreover, individual states might also have the incentive to do this because they could be particularly badly affected by climate change.132 Individual states acting alone may be less likely to properly take into account the interests of other states and may be concerned about catastrophic consequences in other regions.
Thirdly, sudden termination of SRM would lead to rapid and severe global warming.133 There are some reasons to think that an SRM system could be very resilient against external shocks and termination. If the current deployer were to suddenly stop SRM for some reason, every other country would have strong incentives to resume SRM.134 Thus, sudden termination might only be likely in the event of a severe global catastrophe which undermines the capacity of all countries to use SRM.135
Finally, research into geo-engineering or advocacy for geo-engineering could present a ‘moral hazard’ in that it could discourage GHG reduction efforts.136 All major reports studying SRM have concluded that it does not present an alternative to emissions reductions, as it only masks the effects of GHGs and does nothing to counter ocean acidification.137 Therefore, it could be problematic if geo-engineering drew a disproportionate amount of policy attention. However, it is important to bear in mind that there are countervailing reasons in favour of SRM research and advocacy.
LIKELIHOOD OF THE CATASTROPHE
The probability that there will be a global catastrophe brought about by SRM depends on many factors, including the timing, speed and severity of global warming; the state of SRM technology and our knowledge of the climate system; the response of the climate system to SRM; the form of SRM deployed and how it is used; and how well the world does at organising governance of SRM. There is obviously very large uncertainty about all of these factors.
We argued above that unless strong action is taken soon, there is a sizeable chance of catastrophic warming. Catastrophic warming would create very strong incentives to use SRM. Therefore, unless strong GHG reduction action is taken soon, the chance that SRM is used will increase. The greatest chance of catastrophe probably comes from poorly planned and governed the use of SRM, perhaps by an individual state or small group of states. Since most of the risks of a well-governed and well-planned form of SRM are unknown, it is very difficult to say how likely that form of SRM is to produce a global catastrophe.
Finally, it is unclear the impact research into, advocacy for, or preparation for, geo-engineering would have on global willingness to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, it is not clear to what extent geo-engineering is a moral hazard.
MAIN ACTIONS AVAILABLE TO LIMIT THE RISK
The main way to reduce the risks from SRM would be to take strong action on GHGs to reduce the expected costs of climate change and thereby reduce the incentives to geo-engineer. Further research into the different kinds of SRM and into the response of the climate to them would reduce the unknown risks of SRM. Finally, working to develop geo-engineering governance through climate treaties and through global institutions might limit the risks of unilateral SRM.138 However, both of these actions might also have moral hazards. We cannot settle the moral hazard debate here, but it is important for policymakers to be aware of these issues.
From Chapter 2.7.
B. HOW WE MADE THESE ASSESSMENTS ABOUT PARTICULAR RISKS
Finally, risks from geoengineering are another emerging technological risk where the current risks seem low. But because geoengineering may be employed to tackle climate change, it seems important to build a more comprehensive understanding of the risks it poses in itself. For this reason we have put it in the higher category for attention
From Chapter 3
3.1. Drivers of individual risks
CATASTROPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE & GEO-ENGINEERING
The risk of catastrophic climate change and the risk of a geoengineering catastrophe are strongly influenced by the level of GHG emissions. These depend on factors including the amount of energy the world consumes and the proportion of this which comes from fossil fuels. The total energy consumption is shaped by, among other things, population growth, economic development, and energy efficiency. The proportion of energy which comes from fossil fuels depends on other factors such as the rate of progress in clean energy technology development and the prevalence of economic incentives to adopt clean energy technologies.154
Another important set of factors concern how the climate is likely to react to increased levels of GHG emissions. If the climate turns out to be generally more sensitive to GHG emissions than expected, or if “positive feedback loops” prove to be worse than anticipated, the risk of catastrophic climate change will in - crease.155
Finally, the development of new geoengineering techniques might either decrease or increase global catastrophic risk. They could decrease global catastrophic risk if they prove to be an effective tool to mitigate catastrophic climate change.156 But they could increase risk if they have a high chance of causing a catastrophe of their own, or if they prove to be ineffective while at the same time leading countries to avoid emission abatement (as discussed in Chapter 2).15
From Chapter 3.2. Shared risk factors and interactions between risks
Nuclear war, geo-engineering, super-volcanoes, asteroids, and comets all pose global catastrophic risk in significant part because of the ‘particulate winter’ scenarios they might produce. By ejecting large amounts of smoke, dust, and/or sulphates into the stratosphere they could cause global cooling, sunlight loss, ozone loss, and subsequent agricultural disruption.166 Because so many risks share this mechanism, many strategies for resilience that address one risk address several. Food stockpiles and the ability to rapidly incerase production of alternate sources of food would increase resilience to a broad range of risks.167
Some media reactions:
More must be done to guard against global catastrophic risks
By Sebastian Farquhar, Huffpost Politics. 4/28/2016
'Apocalypse' report warns killer robots, asteroids or global pandemics could wipe out humanity in the next five years
By RYAN O'HARE FOR MAILONLINE. 4/28/2016
These Are the Most Serious Catastrophic Threats Faced by Humanity
By George Dvorsky, GIZMODO. 4/28/2016