A Step Forward in Mitigating Existential Threats

By August 3, 2022

It’s no secret that the world is becoming increasingly complex and interconnected. And as our societies become more technologically advanced, the risks of a global catastrophe become greater. Natural disasters or severe climate change in one part of the world can quickly become a humanitarian crisis in another, an airborne virus can spread around the globe in days, and a terrorist attack can have ripple effects across borders. In recent years, we’ve seen a number of such major disasters—both natural and man-made—that have had devastating impacts on communities around the world. From hurricanes and earthquakes to cyberattacks and pandemics, these events have shown us just how vulnerable we are to the forces of nature and the dangers posed by our own technologies. Yet, despite the clear and present danger, governments appear woefully unprepared to manage any of these risks.

Fortunately, top lawmakers on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC), Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), have introduced legislation—the Global Catastrophic Risk Preparedness Act—that would establish an interagency taskforce to study how the U.S. government should be prepared to mitigate and manage such risks. This bipartisan legislation would ensure that our government has the tools and resources necessary to identify, assess, and respond to these risks in a coordinated and effective manner and would be the first critical step towards a national preparedness plan. 

In recent years, the U.S. government has been caught flat-footed by a number of global catastrophic risks. From pandemics to climate change, the U.S. has been slow to respond to these existential threats. While the probability of some of these events happening may be low, the potential consequences are far too severe to ignore.

Given the potentially devastating consequences of these events, it is essential that the U.S. government is prepared to manage them should they occur. Moreover, the cost of preparing for them is dwarfed by the cost of doing nothing and being caught unprepared when one of them does occur. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic has cost the United States over $16 trillion, while the White House estimates it needs merely $65 billion to help prevent the next pandemic. Similarly, an analysis by Deloitte found that if the U.S. does not decarbonize over the next 50 years, it would cost the economy nearly $14.5 trillion but the U.S. economy would gain $3 trillion if it rapidly decarbonizes during that time. But to prevent such catastrophic events from happening requires an all-of-government approach to mitigation and preparedness—a gap this legislation aims to fill.

Aside from the natural catastrophes waiting to happen in the lack of a coordinated global response, there are also man-made catastrophic risks that the U.S. Government must be prepared to mitigate and manage. In 1939, Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt, warning him of the possibility to engineer a nuclear chain reaction that could lead to the creation of powerful bombs. Just a few years later, these bombs were created. In little more than a decade, enough had been produced that, for the first time in history, a handful of decision-makers could destroy civilization. Humanity had entered a new age, in which we faced not only existential risks from our natural environment, but also the possibility that we might be able to extinguish ourselves. This technology which was considered “emerging” in 1939 almost led to destruction of humanity 23 years later.

It is difficult to forecast what emerging technologies may develop in the future. Emerging technologies are quite literally emerging. When they are realized, they develop rapidly and the full extent of their capabilities is often not known for years or even decades. Just last year, The Department of Justice indicted several FSB officers for their involvement in a multi-stage campaign in which they gained remote access to critical infrastructure, including a US nuclear power plant where they planted malware. In 2005, Paul Krugman would have likely laughed at the possibility of the internet being used as a weapon to cause a nuclear meltdown. Yet to come machine learning technologies in possession of power hungry dictators could potentially be used in a similar manner to expand their powers and harm large populations in other countries. An algorithm that can identify a cure for superbugs could also be used by bioterrorists to find strains of viruses that likely evade any such cures. Thus preparing for what could potentially happen, even if considered a low probability event today, only makes sense.

While lawmakers fuss over the finer details of the Global Catastrophic Risk Preparedness Act, it is also essential to look at the next steps. If an interagency task force works to develop an assessment of the current state of preparedness and implementation plans to prepare the U.S. government for these risks, it would also be responsible for ensuring that these plans are regularly updated and tested, so that we can be as prepared as possible when—not if, as we see with climate change—one of these events happens. Some may argue that this is unnecessary bureaucracy—but given the stakes involved, we cannot afford to take chances. The time to act is now, before it’s too late.