So often, risk is narrowly defined as the “effect of uncertainty on objectives” (ISO 3100 2009), and ‘risk management’ as a collection of steps by which to reduce the likelihood and/or impact of a hypothetical future adverse event. Risk avoidance and risk transfer measures, such as insurance, are instituted before the event as preventive or damage limiting steps. Mitigation of damage while the event is unfolding, or after it has occurred, are described as response measures, with people and systems prepared to take previously approved actions, as if all possible circumstances could be anticipated and planned for.
In the real world however, away from the risk committee or board meeting, people often find themselves either unprepared, or under-prepared for a catastrophic event. When the situation you are experiencing is of catastrophic scale, as most of us recognise it is with COVID-19, the problem is no longer a possible future risk but rather an actual adverse event, which demands our best immediate responses. At the same time, the unprecedented nature of this pandemic also provides opportunity to gather as much data as possible about the facts and factors involved, so that future risk management of similar events will be more effectively carried out.
The politicisation (i.e. polarisation) of issues, and skepticism towards ‘experts’ and their ‘evidence’, has often created a fog of uncertainty in public debate, and ‘policy seizure’. This situation now poses as great a risk to our future as the issues requiring our response. It is a welcome development therefore, when a call to action on existential threats includes this issue in the list of matters requiring attention.
A Round Table of experts was recently convened by the Commission for the Human Future, based at ANU, to outline strategies by which to address 10 existential threats now being experienced by humanity and the planet. They identify these as follows:
- Decline of key natural resources and an emerging global resource crisis, especially in water
- Collapse of ecosystems that support life, and the mass extinction of species
- Human population growth and demand, beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity
- Global warming, sea level rise and changes in the Earth’s climate affecting all human activity
- Universal pollution of the Earth system and all life by chemicals
- Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
- Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction
- Pandemics of new and untreatable disease
- Advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technologies
- National and global failure to understand and act preventively on these risks.
The Round Table event was held in late March after the COVID-19 pandemic had been recognised (11 March), and so it is up to the minute in its assessment of ‘threats’.
Their 38 page report, Surviving and Thriving in the 21ST Century: A discussion and Call to Action on Global Catastrophic Risks, uses terms such as ‘risk’ and ‘threat’, which some readers may mistakenly believe implies potential future events, rather than current and deteriorating catastrophes. Fortunately, as suggested by the ‘Surviving and Thriving’ part of the title, the report outlines a range of solutions and pathways to the listed catastrophes, and so is not merely a catalogue of ‘gloom and doom’. It also recognises the inter-relatedness of each of these existential problems, and the need to use systems thinking methods to understand and address causal and feedback loops, both positive and negative.
Neither is the report glib in suggesting that these measures will be sufficient in and of themselves, however they offer a ‘good start’ on profoundly significant issues, which affect and involve all of us right now. I am therefore pleased to suggest that the report should be recommended reading for your risk committee and board, before they sign off on the next update of your strategic and risk management plans.
A detailed description of the risks highlighted in the Round Table report, potential solutions and pathways is offered in Julian Cribb’s book, Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them, Springer 2017.
Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas AO’s paper Pathways past the precipice: Flourishing in a mega-threatened world, also offers an analysis of these risks and a selection of preventive and damage mitigation measures.
See also Commission for the Human Future resources related to the following ‘risk’ topics:
- Ecological collapse and extinction
- Global warming
- Weapons of Mass Destruction
- Resource scarcity
- Global poisoning
- Food insecurity
- Pandemic disease
- Uncontrolled technology
Readers interested in causal diagrams may find material of interest here.