SRA 2014 Annual Meeting

Global Catastrophic Risk Session
Society for Risk Analysis 2014 Annual Meeting
7-10 December, Denver.

Part of GCRI’s ongoing SRA presence.

Symposium: Global Catastrophic Risk
Time: Tuesday 9 December, 10:30-12:00
Chair: Anthony Barrett

Title: Analyzing current and future catastrophic risks from emerging-threat technologies
Author: Anthony Barrett, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute

Title: Placing global catastrophic risks in the framework of unintended consequences
Authors: Bruce Tonn, Dori Stiefel, University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Title: Feeding everyone: Solving the food crisis in event of global catastrophes that kill crops or obscure the sun
Authors: David C. Denkenberger, Joshua M. Pearce, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute & Michigan Technological University


Symposium: Global Catastrophic Risk
Chair: Anthony Barrett
Abstract: Global catastrophic risks (GCRs) are risks of events that could significantly harm or even destroy civilization at the global scale. GCRs are thus risks of events of the highest potential magnitude, regardless of probability. Major GCR categories include nuclear warfare, pandemics, and potential new technologies. This symposium features diverse perspectives on innovative approaches to assessing and reducing risks of global catastrophe, including aspects of policy, engineering, and risk analysis. This session will include several oral presentations and a panel discussion of key issues in addressing GCRs.

Title: Analyzing current and future catastrophic risks from emerging-threat technologies
Author: Anthony Barrett, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute
Some rapidly developing technologies, such as in synthetic biology, seem to pose much greater risks of catastrophe in the future than they do today. However, risk assessments that focus on what is usually thought to be possible in the near term may overlook indicators of developments that would enable more-catastrophic events. These risks could be significantly reduced with enough foresight and advance warning. We present work to develop and apply methods for assessing and managing emerging-threat catastrophe risks from the use and misuse (intentional and otherwise) of rapidly developing technologies, such as in synthetic biology. The approach employs fault trees, event trees, expert elicitation, decision analysis, and Bayesian methods to allow updating of estimates using new information. The methodology is designed for implementation by risk practitioners. As part of the project, we apply the methodology to a potential emerging-threat technology area: the use of synthetic biology to produce bio-weapon agents. The application is in partnership with the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Health Affairs (OHA), to enhance NBIC’s ongoing efforts to create and implement a risk-based framework for biosurveillance.

Title: Placing global catastrophic risks in the framework of unintended consequences
Authors: Bruce Tonn, Dori Stiefel, University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Concerns about global catastrophic risks are growing. Many prominent researchers, scientists, and government officials believe that these risks are real and that unintended consequences of climate change, plagues, or artificial intelligence, among others, increase those risks. However, most unintended consequences research focuses on narrow areas such as information technology or biotechnology rather than addressing the systematic elements. This paper develops a framework for systematically characterizing the unintended consequences throughout the natural and human systems that affect global catastrophic risks. The first section of the paper presents an integrated framework of unintended and cascading consequences throughout the natural and human systems. Built from a database of unintended and cascading consequences, the framework considers social, technological, economic, environmental, and political contexts as well as the interactions and convergences among the consequences. In the second section the framework is applied to two historic and two prospective cases. The historic cases, automobiles and antibiotics, yield data about the effects of human choices on human and natural systems. The prospective cases, gene drives and geo-engineering, provide opportunities to prescribe which data need to be collected and to forecast the likely effects. Because global catastrophes are the ultimate unintended consequence, for each case the global catastrophic risks are noted. In the third section, the question of what to do is addressed in the context of a six component framework for action ranging from Level I, do nothing, to Level VI, extreme war footing in which the economy is organized around reducing global catastrophic risks. Lastly, the fourth section of the paper assesses the implications for researchers and policymakers given the overall framework of unintended consequences, the cases, and the six component framework for action.

Title: Feeding everyone: Solving the food crisis in event of global catastrophes that kill crops or obscure the sun
Authors: David C. Denkenberger, Joshua M. Pearce, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute & Michigan Technological University
Mass human starvation is currently likely if global agricultural production is dramatically reduced for several years following a global crisis: e.g. super volcano, asteroid or comet impact, nuclear winter, abrupt climate change, super weed, extirpating crop pathogen, super bacterium, or super crop pest. This study summarizes the severity and probabilities of such scenarios, and provides an order of magnitude technical analysis comparing caloric requirements of all humans for five years with conversion of existing vegetation and fossil fuels to edible food. Here we present mechanisms for global-scale conversion including: natural gas-digesting bacteria, extracting food from leaves, and conversion of fibre by enzymes, mushroom or bacteria growth, or a two-step process involving partial decomposition of fibre by fungi and/or bacteria and feeding them to animals such as beetles, ruminants, rats and chickens. We perform an analysis to estimate the ramp rates for each option and the results show that careful planning and global cooperation could maintain the bulk of humanity and biodiversity.