Integrated Assessment Project

* GCRI’s Flagship Project *

PROJECT LEADS: Tony Barrett and Seth Baum

A lot of groups have done a lot of work on GCRs. Our GCR Community project shows this. However, almost all of this work focuses on one GCR at a time, or just a few GCRs at a time. Very little work looks across the full space of GCRs to learn broader insights. Much more can and should be done. Our integrated assessment aims to do precisely this. Above all, our integrated assessment aims to learn the best ways of reducing the risk. We believe this is the single most important GCR question. That’s why we have GCR integrated assessment as our flagship project.

Integrated assessment is, in the most general terms, the study that integrates insights from a range of different fields. The Integrated Assessment Society defines integrated assessment as “the scientific ‘meta-discipline’ that integrates knowledge about a problem domain and makes it available for societal learning and decision making processes”. Many integrated assessments have been done, especially on environmental topics. One prominent example is research on the economics of climate change, which makes heavy use of models that integrate the global climate system and the global economy [1].

GCRI’s integrated assessment puts all of the GCRs into a single integrated study. This has several advantages. First, it lets us compare the GCRs to each other. Second, it lets us see the various ways that the GCRs interact with each other. Some catastrophes can cause other catastrophes, with especially severe effects [2]. Finally, it lets us compare the effectiveness of the many actions people can take to reduce the risk. Actions that reduce multiple risks can be especially effective, whereas actions that reduce some risks but increase other risks can be less effective. Our integrated assessment makes it possible to evaluate the total impact of people’s actions on the risk of global catastrophe [3].

Several prior studies have surveyed the space of GCRs, providing helpful background information [4]. However, despite our extensive efforts to survey prior GCR research, we are aware of only one study quantifying the GCRs in order to evaluate priorities for action [5] and one study quantifying GCR probabilities while listing some opportunities for action [6]. Our integrated assessment aims to address this major oversight.

Research Plan

The integrated assessment has three main components:

(1) Risk analysis: What could go wrong? How likely is it to go wrong? When could it go wrong? And how severe might the consequences be? How might different catastrophes interact with each other? These questions are the starting point for a rigorous effort to understand and address GCR. We will identify, characterize, and, to the extent possible, quantify the risks. We use state-of-the-art risk analysis methods like fault trees, event trees, and expert elicitation. We are already using these methods for specific GCRs including artificial intelligence [7] and nuclear war [8].

(2) Intervention options: What can be done to reduce the risk? How effective would the interventions be at reducing the risk? How feasible are they, in terms of time, money, skill, political power, social acceptability, or other factors? There are a large number of interventions, from campaigning for nuclear disarmament to optimizing automobile tire pressure for energy efficiency. Different people have different opportunities to take action [9]. We start by identifying a wide range of possible interventions and then zoom in on the most important and insightful ones for more careful analysis, just as we are already doing for nuclear war [8, 9] and the aftermath of global catastrophes [10]. Our research also assesses conditions that make interventions more feasible [11].

(3) Additionality: Where would additional effort yield additional GCR reductions? What work is already being done to reduce GCR? What new intervention opportunities exist? What resources could be mobilized? What synergies exist with existing efforts? Answering these questions enables interested parties to pinpoint specific opportunities to effectively intervene. We benchmark the interventions that are already being performed across a range of sectors, including public policy, research, business, and philanthropy. We then use this to identify the most promising remaining opportunities for GCR reduction. Our additionality work benefits from our extensive GCR Community project.

These three research components are closely related. Insights from each directly informs our work on the other two. We focus on studying interventions for what we identify as the greatest risks. We assess additionality most carefully for what we identify as the most promising interventions. And we conduct further risk analysis to better clarify the effectiveness of the most promising additional interventions.

Iterated Progression

Stakeholder Engagement

Research alone does not reduce the risks. Insights gained from research need to reach the people who can act on them. We engage stakeholders as part of our integrated assessment so that our research is not merely academic.

Our stakeholder engagement is a two-way dialog. Stakeholders learn from our integrated assessment research, and our integrated assessment research also learns from stakeholders. Some interventions might seem promising in theory, but stakeholders may find them infeasible, distasteful, or otherwise undesirable in practice. Other interventions may prove better in practice. Building stakeholder perspectives into our research ensures that our research asks questions relevant to decision-makers, and it ensures that decision-makers hear the answers our research produces.

Our stakeholder engagement is ongoing. Some of it involves speaking at prominent events. For example, Seth Baum spoke at the United Nations Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in 2014. This gave him the opportunity to share research ideas while learning the perspectives of nuclear weapons diplomats and activists. But much of our stakeholder engagement takes place behind the scenes, in the private conversations we have with people from around the world.

For a demonstration of our integrated assessment project in one risk, please see our Nuclear War project. The Nuclear War project contains research on probabilities, consequences, and interventions, as well as stakeholder engagement. Our work on nuclear war feeds directly into our integrated assessment.

References

[1] See for example the DICE model developed mainly by William Nordhaus, or the PAGE model developed mainly by Chris Hope and used notably in the Stern Review.

[2] Seth D. Baum, Timothy M. Maher, Jr., and Jacob Haqq-Misra, 2013. Double catastrophe: Intermittent stratospheric geoengineering induced by societal collapse. Environment, Systems and Decisions 33(1), 168-180.

[3] Seth D. Baum and Anthony M. Barrett. The most extreme risks: Global catastrophes. In Vicki Bier (editor), The Gower Handbook of Extreme Risk. Farnham, UK: Gower, forthcoming.

[4] Studies surveying the space of GCRs include: John Leslie, 1996. The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction. London: Routledge. Nick Bostrom, 2002. Existential risks: Analyzing human extinction scenarios and related hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9. Richard Posner, 2004. Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Mark Leggett, 2006. An indicative costed plan for the mitigation of global risks. Futures 38, 778-809.

[6] Dennis Pamlin and Stuart Armstrong, 2015. 12 Risks That Threaten Human Civilisation. Stockholm: Global Challenges Foundation. Note that GCRI’s Seth Baum and Robert de Neufville contributed some content to this report via GCRI’s Bibliography and Organization Directory.

[7] Seth D. Baum, Ben Goertzel, and Ted G. Goertzel, 2011. How long until human-level AI? Results from an expert assessment. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 78(1), 185-195.

[8] Anthony M. Barrett, Seth D. Baum, and Kelly R. Hostetler, 2013. Analyzing and reducing the risks of inadvertent nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Science and Global Security 21(2), 106-133.

[9] Seth D. Baum. Confronting the threat of nuclear winter. Futures, forthcoming, DOI 10.1016/j.futures.2015.03.004.

[10] Timothy M. Maher, Jr. and Seth D. Baum, 2013. Adaptation to and recovery from global catastrophe. Sustainability 5(4), 1461-1479. David Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce, 2014. Feeding Everyone No Matter What: Managing Food Security After Global Catastrophe. Waltham, MA: Academic Press. Seth D. Baum, David C. Denkenberger, Joshua M. Pearce, Alan Robock, and Richelle Winkler. Resilience to global food supply catastrophes. Environment, Systems, and Decisions, forthcoming (June), DOI 10.1007/s10669-015-9549-2.

[11] Seth D. Baum. The far future argument for confronting catastrophic threats to humanity: Practical significance and alternatives. Futures, forthcoming, DOI 10.1016/j.futures.2015.03.001.