SRA 2017 Annual Meeting

Global Catastrophic Risk Sessions
Society for Risk Analysis 2017 Annual Meeting
10-14 December, Arlington, VA.

Part of GCRI’s ongoing SRA presence.

Symposium 1: Global Catastrophic Risk Assessment, Policy and Communication
Time: Monday 11 December, 3:30-5:00
Chair: Seth Baum

Title: Towards Integrated, Comprehensive Assessment of Global Catastrophic Risks to Inform Risk Reduction
Author: Anthony Barrett, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute

Title: Barriers to Proactive Population Relocation in Preparation for Coastal Flooding
Author: Vicki Bier, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Title: Evaluating the Preparedness of the U.S. Emergency Management System for Managing Global Catastrophic Risk
Author: Jared T. Brown, Congressional Research Service

Title: Communicating Risk Assessments for Policymaking
Author: Ryan Ritterson, Gryphon Scientific

Symposium 2: Conflict Scenarios and Global Catastrophic Risks
Time: Tuesday 12 December, 1:30-3:00
Chair: Anthony Barrett

Title: High Risk Scenarios of Gene Drives in Ecosystems
Author: Jennifer Kuzma, NC State University

Title: Does the Nuclear Balance Matter?
Author: Jane Pinelis, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (with J Scouras, I Slavinsky)

Title: Socio-economic challenges and conflict for climate scenarios for Sub-Saharan Africa
Author: Vanessa Schweizer, University of Waterloo (with RE Mitchell)

Title: Has the Advent of Nuclear Weapons Saved Lives?
Author: Edward Toton, Johns Hopkins (with J Scouras)

Symposium 3: Emerging Issues in Global Catastrophic Risks and Development
Time: Wednesday 13 December, 1:30-3:00
Chair: Dori Stiefel

Title: Anticipating the Unintended Consequences of Science and Technology
Author: Bruce Tonn, University of Tennessee (with D Stiefel)

Title: Quantifying Long-Term Severity
Author: Seth Baum, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute

Title: Recent Advances in Feeding the Earth in Global Catastrophes
Author: David Denkenberger, Tennessee State University (with AR Taylor, R Black, JM Pearce)

Title: Systemic Risk in Global Agriculture
Author: Miguel A. Centeno, Princeton University

Symposium 1: Global Catastrophic Risk Assessment, Policy and Communication
Chair: Seth Baum

Title: Towards Integrated, Comprehensive Assessment of Global Catastrophic Risks to Inform Risk Reduction
Author: Anthony Barrett, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute

We argue that there could be great value in comprehensive, integrated assessment of global catastrophic risks (GCRs) and risk-reduction options. We also argue for using value-of-information considerations to guide decisions on where to focus research efforts as part of a GCR research agenda; the value of information derives from its ability to help decision makers to achieve better decision outcomes. We discuss key challenges, and tractable steps, for assessing all types of GCRs and risk-reduction options. For example, a risk reduction cost effectiveness based approach to assessing value of information simplifies some problems in GCR comparison, by avoiding the need for use of a value of statistical life (VSL), which may be inappropriate given the scale of GCRs. Similar approaches could be useful in other areas where VSLs would not be appropriate. Finally, we illustrate the basic concepts using example calculations of risks from several types of GCRs, and associated risk reduction measures.

Title: Barriers to Proactive Population Relocation in Preparation for Coastal Flooding
Author: Vicki Bier, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Coastal flooding due to climate change may affect more than 10 million people in the U.S., and well over 100 million worldwide, creating a need for mass relocation and/or migration away from at-risk areas. Arguably, it would be preferable to gradually reduce the population living in vulnerable areas before they experience severe flooding (to reduce loss of personal property, disruption, and the cost of emergency response), but there seem to be numerous barriers impeding that goal. First, there are at least two different types of collective-action problems: collective action between jurisdictions; and collective action between current and future residents. There are also competing factors that may make moving inland undesirable, including not only coastal amenities, but also the economic benefits of agglomeration. The long time horizons involved in preparing for coastal flooding make investment in preparedness almost inherently a government problem (due to its relatively low social discount rate), but the wide range of federal, state, and local agencies involved may make it difficult for government to act effectively. Finally, psychic numbing may limit public support for measures that do not reduce the at-risk population by at least an order of magnitude or more.

Title: Evaluating the Preparedness of the U.S. Emergency Management System for Managing Global Catastrophic Risk
Author: Jared T. Brown, Congressional Research Service

Within the United States, there is a relatively robust emergency management system that manages the risk of “typical” natural and manmade disasters. To evaluate the nation’s preparedness for global catastrophes, the first step is to begin with an assessment of whether the existing emergency management system can manage more extreme global catastrophic risk. This presentation frames an assessment of whether the nation can “scale up” its emergency management system through the lens of three typical emergency management categories: authorities, capabilities, and capacities. The assessment suggests that with some revision, broad emergency management authorities, especially the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act, P.L. 100-707, et seq.), the National Emergencies Act (NEA, P.L. 94-412, et seq.), and the Defense Production Act (DPA, P.L. 81–774, et seq.), may be sufficient to address a more extreme subset of global catastrophic risk. However, the current system lacks both key capabilities and the enormous capacities necessary to manage global catastrophic risk. The presentation concludes with suggested priorities for improving the existing system to scale up its ability to manage global catastrophic risk. DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are those of the presenter only and are not presented as those of the Congressional Research Service or the Library of Congress.

Title: Communicating Risk Assessments for Policymaking
Author: Ryan Ritterson, Gryphon Scientific

Communicating the results of risk assessments requires care and consideration of the audience, and risk assessment for policymaking is no exception. For example, the statutes from which oversight and policymaking authority is granted often require tailoring the results of risk assessments to specific policy questions, or a focus on specific risks, to ensure actionable polices can be developed from an assessment. How the results are conveyed is also key, as for example, the comparison of the risk of everyday activities to increased risks of cancer due to radiological threats may inadvertently cause the audience to focus on the perceived danger of the everyday activity, instead of the risk of the threat. Drawing from Gryphon Scientific’s more than a decade of experience conducting risk assessments for policymaking in areas such as chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense, pandemic preparedness, emerging technologies, and other global catastrophic risks, we’ll present stories of lessons learned from conducting risk assessments for policymaking.

Symposium 2: Conflict Scenarios and Global Catastrophic Risks
Chair: Anthony Barrett

Title: High Risk Scenarios of Gene Drives in Ecosystems
Author: Jennifer Kuzma, NC State University

Usually, an engineered gene will get diluted in the wild population if there is no selective advantage to it. However, “gene drive” systems allow for an introduced gene on one chromosome to copy itself into its partner chromosome so that nearly all offspring inherit the engineered gene. If just a few organisms with gene drives are released into the wild, theoretically the whole population could become engineered if there is random mating. Gene drives have not yet been released, but have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments with fruit flies and mosquitos. They have been proposed to destroy disease-carrying pests using killer genes or to immunize endangered species using protective genes. In some cases, gene drives might be the only option to save an endangered species or to protect humans from serious diseases. On the flip side, there is significant uncertainty and ambiguity in assessing the potential risks of gene drives in unmanaged ecosystems. Current environmental assessments for non-gene drive pest-control using engineered insects tend to downplay risk to advance regulatory approval. In contrast, this paper will construct a scenario for using a gene drive to destroy a natural population and then use fault tree modeling to illustrate how we might consider “worst case” scenarios of ecological risk. The analysis will highlight events with extreme uncertainty (probabilities virtually unknown) and other events for which some information is available to bound probability and impact estimates. It will advance future explorations of high risk scenarios of gene drive systems by identifying where future data collection might serve to reduce uncertainties and where countermeasures could mitigate risk if gene drives were to be released intentionally to cause harm.

Title: Does the Nuclear Balance Matter?
Author: Jane Pinelis, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (with J Scouras, I Slavinsky)

The importance of the nuclear balance vis-a-vis our principal adversary has been the subject of intense but unresolved debate in the international security community since the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons almost seven decades ago. Perspectives on this question underlie national security policies regarding potential unilateral reductions in strategic nuclear forces, the imbalance of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe, nuclear crisis management, missile defenses, nuclear proliferation, and cross-domain and extended deterrence. The overwhelming majority of past studies of the role of the nuclear balance in nuclear crisis evolution and outcome have been qualitative and have focused on the relative importance of the nuclear balance and national resolve. Some recent analyses have invoked statistical methods, however, these quantitative studies have generated intense controversy because of concerns with analytic rigor. We apply a multi-disciplinary approach that combines historical case study, international relations theory, and appropriate statistical analysis. This approach results in defensible findings that describe the relationship between nuclear balance and nuclear crisis resolution.

Title: Socio-economic challenges and conflict for climate scenarios for Sub-Saharan Africa
Author: Vanessa Schweizer, University of Waterloo (with RE Mitchell)

Climate change is a global catastrophic risk with potential to be a “threat multiplier,” as changes in precipitation patterns and more extreme weather events can disrupt water availability as well as agricultural productivity, damage infrastructure, and exacerbate conflicts over resources and refugees. Using a system-theoretic approach, we consider how the interplay of demographic and economic development factors for low-income and lower-middle-income nations in Sub-Saharan Africa can influence regional socio-economic challenges in the face of climate change.

Title: Has the Advent of Nuclear Weapons Saved Lives?
Author: E Toton, Johns Hopkins University (with J Scouras)

Senior leaders in the United States Department of Defense and scholars have argued that the advent of nuclear weapons has saved lives. This assessment has often been based on a particular study of the statistics of wartime fatalities from the year 1600 to 2000 that shows a marked drop subsequent to 1945. A graphical representation of these data has been developed and continues to be used to convincingly convey this conclusion. Our work is motivated by the significance of this conclusion coupled with the absence of critiques of the underlying study. This presentation will first provide a critique both the original statistical analysis and its graphical representation, then conduct a more rigorous analysis using the same data and conclude with suggestions of alternative interpretations of the results. We find that, while the original analysis has been persuasive in making the case that nuclear weapons have saved lives, it is irreproducible and that there are numerous biases in its graphical representation. Further, a more rigorous analysis, more objectively presented, brings the claim that nuclear weapons have saved lives—and, by implication, will continue to do so—into question. This doesn’t mean that nuclear weapons have not saved lives. But, to make the case that they have requires a multidisciplinary analysis that makes a causal, not merely statistical, argument. Moreover, even if nuclear weapons have saved lives, this doesn’t mean that they will continue to do so; we need to acknowledge the risks associated with the strategy of nuclear deterrence.

Symposium 3: Emerging Issues in Global Catastrophic Risks and Development
Chair: Dori Stiefel

Title: Anticipating the Unintended Consequences of Science and Technology
Author: Bruce Tonn, University of Tennessee (with D Stiefel)

Society’s technological choices generate unintended consequences that may include global catastrophic risks, within which the existential risks of human extinction are of most interest. This presentation investigates society’s opportunity to improve its ability to anticipate the unintended consequences of science and technology by applying a theoretical framework of unintended consequences to emerging technologies. Emerging technologies create unintended consequences such as invasive species from Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)-created species, or uncontrollable artificial intelligence from autonomous vehicles, or stressors on watersheds from environmental remediation technologies. This presentation applies Tonn and Stiefel’s (2015) theoretical framework of unintended consequences, which links causes (X) and effects (Y) via waypoint(s) (W). The causes are discoveries, products, and processes, and behaviors resulting from science and technology research and development. A series of waypoints such as events, trends, or forecasted patterns lead to the effects, the unintended consequences. The theoretical framework then explains (Y) as a function of (X) and (W), where (Y) is defined abstractly along these types of metrics: magnitude of the consequence (e.g., high, medium, low); direction of the consequences (e.g., positive, negative, both); timing of the consequences (e.g., near-term, mid-term, long-term); and general aspects of the consequences (economic, political, environmental, technological, social, human health). In the context of these findings, this presentation considers the psychological, practical (institutional), and worldly approaches to taking action or inaction. It concludes with the key limitations and opportunities for future research.

Title: Quantifying Long-Term Severity
Author: Seth Baum, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute

In the study of global catastrophic risk, it is often assumed that global catastrophes have outsized long-term effects relative to smaller catastrophes and therefore warrant outsized policy attention. In the extreme case, a catastrophe resulting in human extinction allegedly has much larger long-term severity than a catastrophe killing “only” 99% of the world population. This presentation questions this assumption via analysis of the long-term severity of catastrophes large and small. For small catastrophes, including deaths of a single individual, long-term severity can be analyzed via counterfactual demography and population ecology, asking what line of descendants would have existed had the catastrophe not occurred. Larger catastrophes raise questions about the stability of modern civilization; this includes scenarios in which the catastrophe starts small and then cascades into something larger. Over longer time scales, issues of technological transformation, genetic evolution, and the structure of the astronomical vicinity factor in. While there may still be reason to pay outsized attention to the risk of global catastrophes, all catastrophes can have long-term effects worth accounting for. The long-term severity of catastrophes raises several policy issues, including the question of how to account for large but ambiguous potential consequences and the question of whether there exist any thresholds of event severity below which potential consequences need not be considered.

Title: Recent Advances in Feeding the Earth in Global Catastrophes
Author: David Denkenberger, Tennessee State University (with AR Taylor, R Black, JM Pearce)

Several catastrophes could block the sun, including asteroid/comet impact, super volcanic eruption, and nuclear war causing the burning of cities (nuclear winter). This represents roughly a 10% probability this century that agriculture would be nearly obliterated. Previous work has shown that it is feasible given cooperation to feed everyone in these scenarios by producing “alternate” food that is not dependent on sunlight, but instead on stored biomass and fossil fuels. Previous work has also shown that preparation for these alternate foods would be a very small cost, so it would be very cost-effective and there is great urgency for this preparation. Continuing work includes estimating the cost of producing the alternate foods during a catastrophe. Additional work has been writing response plans at different levels. Several “war games” have been performed, with revealing results. An organization, Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, has been started to coordinate research and planning work. Since this work demonstrates that people have much to gain from cooperation during a catastrophe, this should promote peace.

Title: Systemic Risk in Global Agriculture
Author: Miguel A. Centeno, Princeton University

In our examination of Global Systemic Risk at Princeton University, we selected agriculture as a case study as it is perhaps the most imperative of our critical systems. This presentation will examine global agricultural production, distribution, and consumption to demonstrate the importance of systems thinking when analyzing risk. Over the past hundred years, the global agriculture system has shifted from family-run subsistence farming to large-scale industrial endeavors. This transformation was made possible by a wide variety of new technologies, including advancements in communications, data and information processing, transportation and trade, fertilizers and pesticides, and the soil and crop science benefits of the Green Revolution. Such developments have greatly increased the efficiency and productivity of global agriculture, but have in turn created fragile interconnected networks, operating with tight coupling and low tolerances, that have little flexibility to manage shocks and adapt to failures. This trade-off between efficiency and fragility creates risk at all scales, from the soil in which farmers grow crops to the political and financial institutions whose regulatory and investment efforts sustain the global network on which most consumers now depend. Key areas of agricultural systemic risk analysis include nutrition, the environment, conflict and disease, demography, finance, technology and innovation, efficiency and profit maximization, and psychology and human behavior. Multidisciplinary collaboration and a common language of systemic risk among academics, policymakers, and stakeholders will prove essential to understanding systemic risks that transcend traditional domain boundaries.