Coping with Catastrophic Risks

One year after the Indian Ocean tsunami, what are the lessons? The biggest one is that it was the type of disaster to which policymakers pay too little attention – one that has a very low or unknown probability of occurring, but that creates enormous losses if it does occur. Great as the death toll, physical and emotional suffering of survivors, and property damage caused by the tsunami were, even greater losses could be inflicted by other disasters of low (but not negligible), or unknown, probability.

For example, the asteroid that exploded above Siberia in 1908 with the force of a hydrogen bomb might have killed millions of people had it exploded above a major city. Yet that asteroid was only about 200 feet in diameter. A much larger one (among the thousands of dangerously large asteroids in orbits that intersect the earth’s) could strike the earth and cause the total extinction of the human race through a combination of shock waves, fire, tsunamis, and blockage of sunlight, wherever it struck.

Other catastrophic risks include natural epidemics (the 1918-1919 Spanish influenza killed between 20 million and 40 million people), nuclear or biological attacks by terrorists, certain types of lab accidents, and abrupt global warming. The probability of catastrophes, whether intentional or not, resulting from human activity appears to be increasing because of the rapidity and direction of technological advances.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.

required

Log in

http://prosyn.org/BljWlNw;
  1. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Angela Merkel’s Endgame?

    The collapse of coalition negotiations has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a stark choice between forming a minority government or calling for a new election. But would a minority government necessarily be as bad as Germans have traditionally thought?

  2. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.

  3. A GrabBike rider uses his mobile phone Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

    The Platform Economy

    While developed countries in Europe, North America, and Asia are rapidly aging, emerging economies are predominantly youthful. Nigerian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese young people will shape global work trends at an increasingly rapid pace, bringing to bear their experience in dynamic informal markets on a tech-enabled gig economy.

  4. Trump Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Profiles in Discouragement

    One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.

  5. Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

    How Women Shape Coups

    In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

  6. Oil barrels Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images

    The Abnormality of Oil

    At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, the consensus among industry executives was that oil prices will still be around $60 per barrel in November 2018. But there is evidence to suggest that the uptick in global growth and developments in Saudi Arabia will push the price as high as $80 in the meantime.

  7. Israeli soldier Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

    The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games

    Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.