Politicians ignore far-out risks: they need to up their game

IN 1993 THIS newspaper told the world to watch the skies. At the time, humanity’s knowledge of asteroids that might hit the Earth was woefully inadequate. Like nuclear wars and large volcanic eruptions, the impacts of large asteroids can knock seven bells out of the climate; if one thereby devastated a few years’ worth of harvests around the globe it would kill an appreciable fraction of the population. Such an eventuality was admittedly highly unlikely. But given the consequences, it made actuarial sense to see if any impact was on the cards, and at the time no one was troubling themselves to look.

Asteroid strikes were an extreme example of the world’s wilful ignorance, perhaps—but not an atypical one. Low-probability, high-impact events are a fact of life. Individual humans look for protection from them to governments and, if they can afford it, insurers. Humanity, at least as represented by the world’s governments, reveals instead a preference to ignore them until forced to react—even when foresight’s price-tag is small. It is an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of the future.

Covid-19 offers a tragic example. Virologists, epidemiologists and ecologists have warned for decades of the dangers of a flu-like disease spilling over from wild animals. But when SARSCoV-2 began to spread very few countries had the winning combination of practical plans, the kit those plans required in place and the bureaucratic capacity to enact them. Those that did benefited greatly. Taiwan has, to date, seen just seven covid-19 deaths; its economy has suffered correspondingly less.

Pandemics are disasters that governments have experience of. What therefore of truly novel threats? The blazing hot corona which envelops the Sun—seen to spectacular effect during solar eclipses—intermittently throws vast sheets of charged particles out into space. These cause the Northern and Southern Lights and can mess up electric grids and communications. But over the century or so in which electricity has become crucial to much of human life, the Earth has never been hit by the largest of these solar eructations. If a coronal mass ejection (CME) were to hit, all sorts of satellite systems needed for navigation, communications and warnings of missile attacks would be at risk. Large parts of the planet could face months or even years without reliable grid electricity (see Briefing). The chances of such a disaster this century are put by some at better than 50:50. Even if they are not that high, they are still higher than the chances of a national leader knowing who in their government is charged with thinking about such things.

The fact that no governments have ever seen a really big CME, or a volcanic eruption large enough to affect harvests around the world—the most recent was Tambora, in 1815—may explain their lack of forethought. It does not excuse it. Keeping an eye on the future is part of what governments are for. Scientists have provided them with the tools for such efforts, but few academics will undertake the work unbidden, unfunded and unsung. Private business may take some steps when it perceives specific risks, but it will not put together plans for society at large.

Admittedly, neither the Earth’s volcanoes nor the Sun’s corona can be controlled. But early-warning systems are possible, and so is thought-through preparedness. Historically active volcanoes near large cities, such as Fuji, Popocatépetl and Vesuvius, are well monitored, and there are at least plans for evacuation should it seem necessary. It would not be that hard to extend this sort of care to all potentially climate-altering volcanoes.

Governments could also ensure that grid operators have plausible plans for what to do if DSCOVR, a satellite that hangs between the Earth and the Sun, provides a half-hour warning that a CME is on its way, as it is designed to do. Ensuring that there are offline backups for some vital bits of grid equipment would be more expensive than a volcano-alarm, and would reduce, not eliminate, risk. But it would be worth the effort.

Nor would it be that hard to provide better early warning of possible pandemics. Stopping all transmission of new pathogens from wild animals is a fool’s errand—though putting a limit on the most intensive farming and egregious exploitation of wild ecosystems would help. But, again, risk can be reduced. Monitoring the viruses found in animals and people where such transfers seem most likely is eminently feasible (see article). For countries to trust each other to do so might be a challenge; so would achieving the sort of transparency which would make such trust unnecessary. But if there were ever to be a moment to try, it is surely today. Before the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 there were few early-warning systems for tsunamis. Now, thankfully, there are many.

It might seem quixotic to insist on esoteric preparedness when there are greater threats staring the world in the face, including catastrophic climate change and nuclear war. But this is not an either/or. The structural changes needed to reduce climate risks—changes many countries are now pursuing, if with insufficient urgency—are of a different order from those needed under other headings. What is more, the approaches which make sense for arcane threats have implications for more familiar ones, too. Thinking about risk reduction, rather than elimination, should encourage steps such as taking nuclear weapons off continuous alert and new approaches to arms control. Taking environmental monitoring more seriously could help provide an early warning for sudden shifts in the patterns of climate disruption, just as it could detect rising magma under faraway mountains of which the world knows little.

Scanning the future for risks and taking proper note of what you see is a mark of prudent maturity. It is also a salutary expansion of the imagination. Governments which take seriously ways the near future could be quite unlike the recent past might find new avenues to explore and a new interest in sustaining their achievements well beyond a few turns of the electoral cycle. That is exactly the sort of attitude that stewardship of the environment and the containment of armed conflict require. It can also be a relief. Almost all the large asteroids which can come close to the Earth have now been found. None is a near-term threat. The world is not just a demonstrably safer place than it seemed. It is also a better place for having found it out.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The next catastrophe”

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