Highlights of assessments to date of global risks and related action plans
Progress update April 2013
The team is presently advancing assessments on global risks in several specific areas. These are: climate trends (90% complete); the global wind and solar build (50% complete); and feasibility and affordability of carbon dioxide removal from the air, including in a peak fossil fuel scenario (75% complete).
Climate change and peak fossil fuel
(last update June 2012)
Although there is a long way to go, the growth rate of wind and solar power over the last ten-year period is following a similar trajectory to that of other major infrastructure which reached full or near full market penetration rapidly. If this rate of growth continues, peak fossil fuel will not matter because the diminishing fossil fuel would be replaced by adequate wind and solar energy; and no further carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning will be emitted into the atmosphere after the mid 2020s, hence stabilising the climate at this time.
There are opportunities for global decision-makers in both the public and industry spheres to remove barriers and accelerate actions to foster the current wind and solar energy production trajectory being continued.
Near-Earth object risk
(last update June 2012)
Two types of object comprise the near-Earth object risk: asteroids and comets. Our reading of the literature suggests that of the two risks, the asteroid risk is now well understood. Scientists have projected asteroid orbits into the future for the next 200 years, showing, happily, that over that period no asteroid orbit is predicted to include a collision trajectory with Earth.
But the comet risk is different from the asteroid risk. Our reading of the literature from a risk-analysis perspective seeking plausible worst-case scenarios suggests the following. There are two such worst-case scenarios for near-Earth objects involving planet Earth. Both involve comets.
The first is if Earth intersects with a stream of debris from a comet which has broken up. A mitigation response in this situation would require the capacity to intercept in the order of a hundred significant objects. The good news is that these objects would be traveling together in a stream. Hence it would appear that a smaller number than 100 intercepting spacecraft would be required, these spacecraft having the ability to target the full hundred objects and deflect them or pulverise them into objects small enough to be neutralised by impact with the Earth’s atmosphere.
In the second comet scenario the comet is large-scale and intact. Here a published strategy exists for the breaking up of the large comet by a nuclear explosive. As with the first scenario, the broken-up objects would continue on their current trajectory and hence be fully available for further breakdown by further nuclear explosive impacts.
All the ingredients for the above strategies– the nuclear explosives and a high speed (VASIMR) rocket type — are presently available, or feasible at the scale required with further thoroughgoing workup. There would be considerable value in this workup being adequately funded starting with the next occurring budgetary round.
High-energy scientific experiments
(last update June 2012)
Several years ago a plausible worst-case scenario could be made that, based on aspects of particle physics theory, experiments of the European large hadron collider might produce novel to Earth objects which could greatly damage or destroy the Earth. This risk is made worse by the fact that while a major risk assessment was done, all those who participated in the risk assessment were physicists — many were employed by the operators of the large hadron collider — CERN – – all of whom had an interest in the outcome of the experiments.
This is a current case of the broader question of the governance of new experiments of this type. A best-practice risk assessment would require a multidisciplinary team — risk assessors, lawyers, ethicists and representatives of the general public to as well as the professional specialists (in this case the physicists) – to assess whether on balance an experiment should go ahead.
Since these concerns were raised, the Large Hadron Collider has run at record energies without immediate incident. (Global Risk Progress is in the process of consulting with both the risk and CERN communities to gain information for a quantitative assessment of what this means for the potential risks.) While there has been no immediate incident, very few of the other predictions of the particle physics theories which generated the risk scenarios have come about either. If the risks did not come about because the theories suggesting them were wrong, while embarrassing for the scientists, it would be good news for planet Earth.