The 10 catastrophic threats facing humans right now

There are 10 catastrophic threats facing humans right now, and coronavirus is only one of them.

scorched earth concept

Arnagretta Hunter, Australian National University and John Hewson, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Four months in, this year has already been a remarkable showcase for existential and catastrophic risk. A severe drought, devastating bushfires, hazardous smoke, towns running dry – these events all demonstrate the consequences of human-induced climate change.

While the above may seem like isolated threats, they are parts of a larger puzzle of which the pieces are all interconnected. A report titled Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, published yesterday by the Commission for the Human Future, has isolated 10 potentially catastrophic threats to human survival.

Not prioritised over one another, these risks are:

  1. decline of natural resources, particularly water
  2. collapse of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity
  3. human population growth beyond earth’s carrying capacity
  4. global warming and human-induced climate change
  5. chemical pollution of the earth system, including the atmosphere and oceans
  6. rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
  7. nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction
  8. pandemics of new and untreatable disease
  9. the advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technology
  10. national and global failure to understand and act preventatively on these risks.

The start of ongoing discussions
The Commission for the Human Future formed last year, following earlier discussions within emeritus faculty at the Australian National University about the major risks faced by humanity, how they should be approached and how they might be solved. We hosted our first roundtable discussion last month, bringing together more than 40 academics, thinkers and policy leaders.

The commission’s report states our species’ ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-20th century. Global trends in demographics, information, politics, warfare, climate, environmental damage and technology have culminated in an entirely new level of risk.

The risks emerging now are varied, global and complex. Each one poses a ‘significant’ risk to human civilisation, a ‘catastrophic risk’, or could actually extinguish the human species and is therefore an ‘existential risk’.

The risks are interconnected. They originate from the same basic causes and must be solved in ways that make no individual threat worse. This means many existing systems we take for granted, including our economic, food, energy, production and waste, community life and governance systems – along with our relationship with the earth’s natural systems – must undergo searching examination and reform.

COVID-19: A lesson in interconnection
It’s tempting to examine these threats individually, and yet with the coronavirus crisis we see their interconnection.

The response to the coronavirus has had implications for climate change with carbon pollution reduction, increased discussion about artificial intelligence and use of data (including facial recognition), and changes to the landscape of global security particularly in the face of massive economic transition.

It’s not possible to ‘solve’ COVID-19 without affecting other risks in some way.

Shared future, shared approach
The commission’s report does not aim to solve each risk, but rather to outline current thinking and identify unifying themes. Understanding science, evidence and analysis will be key to adequately addressing the threats and finding solutions. An evidence-based approach to policy has been needed for many years. Under-appreciating science and evidence leads to unmitigated risks, as we have seen with climate change.

The human future involves us all. Shaping it requires a collaborative, inclusive and diverse discussion. We should heed advice from political and social scientists on how to engage all people in this conversation.


Read more: From the bushfires to coronavirus, our old 'normal' is gone forever. So, what's next?


Imagination, creativity and new narratives will be needed for challenges that test our civil society and humanity. The bushfire smoke over the summer was unprecedented, and COVID-19 is a new virus.

If our policymakers and government had spent more time using the available climate science to understand and then imagine the potential risks of the 2019-20 summer, we would have recognised the potential for a catastrophic season and would likely have been able to prepare better. Unprecedented events are not always unexpected.

Prepare for the long road
The short-termism of our political process needs to be circumvented. We must consider how our actions today will resonate for generations to come.

The commission’s report highlights the failure of governments to address these threats and particularly notes the short-term thinking that has increasingly dominated Australian and global politics. This has seriously undermined our potential to decrease risks such as climate change.


Read more: Listen to your people Scott Morrison: the bushfires demand a climate policy reboot


The shift from short to longer-term thinking can begin at home and in our daily lives. We should make decisions today that acknowledge the future, and practise this not only in our own lives but also demand it of our policy makers.

We’re living in unprecedented times. The catastrophic and existential risks for humanity are serious and multifaceted. And this conversation is the most important one we have today.The Conversation

Governments have reacted swiftly to the pandemic, but have they fiddled on other issues threatening the planet?

Arnagretta Hunter, ANU Human Futures Fellow 2020; Cardiologist and Physician., Australian National University and John Hewson, Professor and Chair, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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    COMMENTS

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    Lescol
    23rd Apr 2020
    3:46pm
    & dont forget the anti science culture- currently seen in c19 caused by 5g and anti vacs troupe.
    pedro the swift
    23rd Apr 2020
    4:10pm
    the "human" race is fast approaching its use by date.
    DLJD
    23rd Apr 2020
    4:17pm
    Needs to add flood basalts and large meteor impacts which were the causes of previous extinction events and over which we have no control
    floss
    23rd Apr 2020
    4:21pm
    We could avoid it in Australia by keeping our population at a lower level but that will never happen as population increase means more money for Corporate Australia aided and abetted by our government.
    Tanker
    23rd Apr 2020
    4:31pm
    Overpopulation is the biggest threat and when combined with Capitalism constant need for more profit leading to more exploitation of Earth's resources and eco-structure can only have one end.
    We humans are the worst parasites that Earth has ever had. The so called primitive people tended to consider themselves part of the Earth and gave back as much as they could thus maintaining a balance. Now we rape and pillage the Earth and despoil so much of it mainly in pursuit of profit. Our way of life now cannot be sustained and to think otherwise is burying our heads in the sand. It is so sad when you consider what a beautiful planet we live on.
    leChef
    23rd Apr 2020
    9:07pm
    Greed greed greed, The human race is out of control when to come to consumerism, everyone wants more and they don't care how they get it and at what cost to the environment.
    We are earth's rival pandemic!
    Tanker
    23rd Apr 2020
    4:31pm
    Overpopulation is the biggest threat and when combined with Capitalism constant need for more profit leading to more exploitation of Earth's resources and eco-structure can only have one end.
    We humans are the worst parasites that Earth has ever had. The so called primitive people tended to consider themselves part of the Earth and gave back as much as they could thus maintaining a balance. Now we rape and pillage the Earth and despoil so much of it mainly in pursuit of profit. Our way of life now cannot be sustained and to think otherwise is burying our heads in the sand. It is so sad when you consider what a beautiful planet we live on.
    rob
    23rd Apr 2020
    8:04pm
    Hope you got your $750 bonus payment
    panos
    23rd Apr 2020
    4:33pm
    Anyway thanks for the uplifting article in these COV-19 times....

    All we need now is for those that have died to come back and start biting people...
    Darts44
    23rd Apr 2020
    4:55pm
    A must read book. Enough is enough by Rob Dietz & Dan O'Neil. Building a sustainable economy in a world of finite resources. Published many years ago, nothing been done since.
    Roy R
    23rd Apr 2020
    5:02pm
    A virus invades a host and replicates until the host dies. This is what Virus Humanus is doing to the Earth.
    Horace Cope
    23rd Apr 2020
    5:03pm
    Chicken Little stuff. In our area, there have been about 2500 reported cases of COVID-19, 4 deaths and about 2100 recovered. That means that there are currently about 400 people with COVID-19 and 4 of those are in hospital. That's the sort of news I like to see published, not the ramblings of people who, in the main, are pushing global warming or climate change.

    I note that the 10 items listed have as number 10 a warning to look out for the other 9 so that makes 9 items to be concerned about. The 9 remaining items are subject to confirmation that they will actually occur because most are hypotheses that have to date had no real proof. Yes there is climate change, of that there can be no doubt, but how much of it is caused by mankind is a moot point. Nobody can prove that if we do all of the things that climate change supporters ask of us that climate change will stop nor by how much the earth will cool.

    This is not the first pandemic that we have lived through nor will it be the last. What to me is important is that during this trying time where we are in isolation is that the last thing we need is doom and gloom from a bunch of people who want to press their theories on the rest of us. We need positive thoughts and to support and be supported by family, friends and neighbours, not rubbish articles like this.
    Jolly
    23rd Apr 2020
    5:17pm
    I am with Horoce Scope, all you other wankers can go and get COVID-19 and die. We don;t need more scaremongering!!
    rob
    23rd Apr 2020
    7:56pm
    Agree 100 % typical greenie propaganda
    Tanker
    24th Apr 2020
    7:57am
    It is amazing how labels are quickly attached to people whose opinion differs from someone else's.
    Overpopulation is not scaremongering it is a fact. Humans are damaging the planet, forget about the climate change as that is, I believe, still open to debate on what effect we are having on that.
    Pillaging the resources in pursuit of profit is also a fact. Mining companies don't do it to benefit the human race or to provide jobs, in fact they are working hard to reduce labour in the mines.
    Having been fortunate to have travelled quite a lot both within Australia and overseas I do believe that Earth is a beautiful planet but we are parasites on it these days.
    Tanker
    24th Apr 2020
    7:57am
    It is amazing how labels are quickly attached to people whose opinion differs from someone else's.
    Overpopulation is not scaremongering it is a fact. Humans are damaging the planet, forget about the climate change as that is, I believe, still open to debate on what effect we are having on that.
    Pillaging the resources in pursuit of profit is also a fact. Mining companies don't do it to benefit the human race or to provide jobs, in fact they are working hard to reduce labour in the mines.
    Having been fortunate to have travelled quite a lot both within Australia and overseas I do believe that Earth is a beautiful planet but we are parasites on it these days.
    LornaH
    23rd Apr 2020
    5:47pm
    The world leaders should be taking these into account. But, a lot of the world leaders are just followers......
    ronloby
    23rd Apr 2020
    6:48pm
    I think it's time to call "STOP THE WORLD, I WANT TO GET OFF"
    Jim
    23rd Apr 2020
    7:04pm
    They forgot to mention the biggest risk to mankind, social media experts!
    leChef
    23rd Apr 2020
    8:58pm
    Not to forget the impending fret from an Asteroid strike, don't want to be a dooms day alarmist but the possibility is real, one will make a close visit in 2029 with a return visit in 2037. We do have a lot of ways to wipe ourselves out, let's hope its later then sooner. Cheers Have a great day! :)
    Incognito
    23rd Apr 2020
    10:15pm
    Just what we needed more doom and gloom thanks YLC.

    For anyone who wants some inspiration check out the doco 2040 by Damon Gameau, also has a book that goes with it. A lot can be done to make this world a better place for all.

    Please don't comment after me because I will not read it, not ticking the email me when comments are made.
    Darts44
    23rd Apr 2020
    11:51pm
    There is an immutable fact about denial: it does not work—long term. Reality always wins. And when it does, the next step in the process is blame, which shifts responsibility onto someone or something else.
    pedro the swift
    24th Apr 2020
    12:11am
    https://deadline.com/2020/04/michael-moore-releases-planet-of-the-humans-documentary-eve-earth-day-1202913761/

    Paste this into your browser and watch carefully for a dose of reality!
    Suze
    27th Apr 2020
    7:21pm
    Thanks for the link Pedro
    Should be made compulsory watching
    BillF2
    25th Apr 2020
    12:15pm
    The Commission for the Human Future might have identified 10 threats to mankind, but what is its aim? Is it to make a better world that provides for the health, wealth and well-being of all humans, and creates peace and harmony? Or is it to create a body that controls all human activities, by force if necessary?
    Unfortunately the threats that they identify are all based on their understanding of the world we live in - their 'science' - and their science is based on evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory effectively says that we all popped into existence at sometime in the past. Just like that! If our existence is random and undetermined, then so is everything else. It is just sheer ignorance and arrogance that makes these people think they can do anything about the world.
    If, on the other hand, there is some design or pattern to life, if our existence is not due to some impossible 'singularity', then maybe the Commission should take this into consideration before jumping to conclusions. We might even get some sensible suggestions from them.