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The Global Challenges Foundation, Global Catastrophic Risks 2017, (Stockholm: 2017), 91 pp.

Reviewed by: Swadesh M Rana (A Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, New York).

Published a few months apart, the third Global Catastrophic Risks Report by the Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) and the twelfth Global Risks Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) appear almost as companion volumes. Both deploy the same two-fold criteria of impact and probability in assessing the global risks that now face a $ 74 trillion global economy and a 7.13 billion global population. Each report recognizes that within a shared risks list, the top ten risks by impact do not rank the same in terms of probability. The risk of a nuclear war, that is at the top of the impact list, for example, ranks lower than climate change and natural disasters in the probability list. Both reports underline connections between and among the known categories of global risks: economic, geopolitical, environmental, technological, and societal. Taken together, the two reports foresee uncertainty ahead for risk assessment amidst governance failures during state collapse or crises: with one important distinction. For the WEF, recurring instance of governance failures at local, national, and regional levels of administration is a new factor in changing the landscape for international governance. For the GCF, issue specific governance failures at several levels are additional motivators for a stronger advocacy of good governance in re-shaping a world prone to multiple risks.

Natural disasters. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The first GCF report, “Global Challenges: 12 Risks That Threaten Human Civilization”, created a new category of global risks with an “Infinite Impact Threshold” to suggest that “long before an actual infinite impact is reached, there is a tipping point where it (with some probability) is no longer possible to reverse events” (p. 44). Published in 2015, this report defines risk “as the potential damage that can be caused by an extreme disaster multiplied by the probability that it will occur” (p. 27).  In “Global Catastrophic Risks 2016”, the GCF’s second report, a global catastrophe is defined “as an event or process that, were it to occur, would end the lives of 10% or more of the global population, or do comparable damage.” (p. 22). “Global Catastrophic Risks 2017”, the GCF’s third report, updates previous reports before sharing the insights of twenty-eight thought leaders invited to discuss the known and unknown risks and examine the current regulatory frameworks for risk management. Mindful of the tipping points for risk assessment in the impact and probability of each, this report also draws attention to three catastrophic global risks: nuclear war, climate change, and artificial intelligence.

A remarkable contribution of the GCF 2017 report to contemporary risk analyses is the distinction it makes between the projected time-frames of a global catastrophic risk and the public’s perceptions of an imminent disaster of global proportions. “The last 50 years of human activity pushed us away from the environmental stability of last 12,000 years,” asserts the GCF’s 2017 report and then alerts the reader that “the next 50 years will determine the next 10,000 years” (p. 14). The report also views environmental stability as interconnected with 8 other risks identified by the public and listed in the WEF 2017: natural disasters; extreme weather conditions; man-made environmental disasters; biodiversity loss of ecosystem; spread of infectious diseases; food crises; water crises and climate related involuntary migration. With timely acts of human volition to intervene, the impact-probability projections of the GCF could change any time frames for one or more of interconnected risks in the public’s perception.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at Opening ceremony of the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

For the GCF, Global Catastrophic Risks 2017 is more than an annual report.  It is a signpost event for Laszlo Szombatfalvy, the founding chairman of the GCF, to challenge thinkers from all over the world to propose models for more effective global collaboration. Mr. Szombatfalvy calls upon world leaders and global citizens to anticipate the greatest risks to humanity in order to limit the damage, if not delay or eliminate “them more rapidly, effectively and equitably.” (p. 7). Established in 2012, the GCF is assembling a global shape-makers’ community that could become a de-facto public forum to press for good governance as a requisite for global risk mitigation. At its core are 12,350 institutions and individuals from 183 countries who responded to the GCF’s call for impact-driven proposals to fix the lacunae in the existing regulatory norms and institutions for risk mitigation or to replace them altogether. A New Shape Prize, in the amount of $5 million, is offered as an incentive for award-winning proposals.

It is too early to tell how many of the 180 international institutions and organizations that are actively engaged in risk analyses would eventually get involved with the GCF’s advocacy for speedier risk mitigation through good governance. Their input certainly would assist in addressing some existing concerns over the theoretical and practical experiences of model building. Among some such concern for now are:  the differentials between projected and actual cost-overruns for overheads and schedules for one-size-fits-all approaches; law enforcement mechanisms in the international system created primarily by nation- states and challenged increasingly by non-state actors; global response time for risk mitigation and first responders from local civil society groups that essentially fill up the space between family and state as basic units of governance.

To help future shape-makers in designing innovative proposals, the GCF has prepared a brief compilation of proposals put forward in the past to re-shape the world. Virtually half of this compilation is devoted to a single comprehensive proposal, written in 1958 by Grenville Clark and Luis B Sohn, on reforming the United Nations. Although preceded and followed by at least a hundred of other proposals developed for serving the same purpose, the Clark-Sohn approach remains relevant to this day for two reasons. For one, amidst a changing landscape for international governance during the peak, collapse, and aftermath of bi-polarity as its geo-political framework, the United Nations has withstood all proposals either to abolish it or to turn it into a world government. And second, as foreseen by Clark and Sohn, the UN Secretariat, headed by the UN Secretary-General, has many times stepped into a vacuum in decision making by the member-states of the United Nations as the world’s only universal international organization. The potential of this most resilient of the UN’s organs may attract those shape-makers who opt for plugging into it to see governance as “what” the member-states want and management as “how” the Secretariat does it.

Catastrophic Global Risks 2017 is not yet a separate item on the UN’s agenda for dealing with multiple challenges to human and planetary security. But early warning and disaster reduction have been on the UN’s pressing agenda for a long time with many valuable lessons to learn in dealing with the changing international landscape for international governance through better governance and more effective management.