Catastrophic risks are events that threaten human livelihood on a, well, catastrophic scale. Most are interconnected, meaning that one event—such as a nuclear detonation—is likely to trigger others, like water and food crises, economic depression, and world war. The intricate interdependence of our physical, social, and political systems has left humans vulnerable, something that covid-19 has highlighted.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that few of these risks are truly existential, spelling the very end of the human race. Moreover, most catastrophic risks are within our control. Those that aren’t have to be dealt with through mitigation and preparedness—or just accepted.
These risk estimates are from the World Economic Forum, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Chicago Actuarial Association, the Global Challenges Foundation, Bethan Harris at the University of Reading, and David Morrison at NASA, with advice from Phil Torres at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, author of Human Extinction: A Short History.
High risk in the next 10 years. Fully autonomous weapons don’t exist yet, but advances in drone technology and AI make them likely. Rogue code and irresponsible use could lead to mass violence on a scale and speed we don’t understand today.
Cyberattacks and information infrastructure breakdown
High risk in the next 10 years. Hacking the transport system or a central bank would wreak havoc and threaten public safety. Prevention relies on educating people about cybersecurity.
Data fraud or theft
High risk in the next 10 years. Large-scale theft of data like Social Security numbers could create irreversible damage to political and social systems.
Already happening; likely to worsen in the coming years. Floods, storms, wildfires, and hotter temperatures threaten hundreds of millions of people globally: over 20 million are already forced to leave their homes each year as a result of extreme weather. The threats go beyond personal safety, posing general economic risks and the potential to overwhelm systems such as insurance.
Catastrophic climate change
Under a high-emissions model, surface temperatures are projected to rise by 2.6 to 4.8 °C by the end of the century. Catastrophic climate change occurs once human damage starts setting off tipping points that make the changes irreversible. Human actions are altering the climate 170 times faster than natural forces, bringing about extreme weather, warming oceans, ice melt, and rising sea levels.
Biological and chemical warfare
Up to a 1% risk in the coming century or so. Biological and chemical weapons are becoming cheaper and easier to produce—and more lethal. Most nations and many terrorist groups are likely to have access to them. The level of risk varies, but examples include toxic chemicals that are sprayed from aircraft or injected into water systems.
Up to a 10% risk in the coming century. The catastrophic risk associated with AI hinges more on misuse or poor development than on concerns about computers overtaking human society. Algorithms that spread fake news and create echo chambers could undermine trusted information sources and leave democracy even more precarious than it already is.
Food or water crises
Likely between now until at least 2200 if surface temperatures reach 1.5 to 4 °C above preindustrial levels. As temperatures increase, we’ll probably face a water shortage caused by drought and ecosystem collapse. A food crisis would be tied to this, but soil quality, global supply chains, and available land are also factors.
Likely between now until at least 2200 if temperatures rise by 1.5 to 4 °C. Natural ecosystems bring us air, water, food, shelter, and energy. Human overuse and destruction of natural resources now threaten a cascading, quick collapse of global ecosystems.
Pandemics and antimicrobial resistance
A pandemic like the 1918 flu occurs around once every 420 years. Covid-19 is the biggest pandemic in a century. Increased urbanization, population density, and international travel raise the risk that any new infectious disease will become a major outbreak. At the same time, antimicrobial resistance is rising, making infections more deadly.
A species-level impact is expected once every 70,000 years. The largest near-Earth asteroids have a diameter of more than 1 kilometer, and an impact could result in human extinction. Smaller asteroids could still lead to hundreds of millions of deaths. But we’re getting better at tracking them, and maybe one day we could divert them.
About a 1% probability in the next 70,000 years. Supervolcanic eruptions would devastate habitats, obstruct sunlight, decrease air quality, and maybe even lead to global cooling. Several areas are currently graded as high risk, including Yellowstone in the US.
1% risk before the end of the century. The world’s nuclear nations have over 13,000 warheads between them. In a nuclear winter, soot and dust released by fires would block sunlight, leading to global cooling and mass extinction.
Collapse or failure of democracy
Growing concern. Global democratization accelerated sharply beginning in the 1980s. Now, however, rising nationalism, misinformation and propaganda, and the undermining of independent institutions and fair elections are pushing many democracies to the brink of autocracy—or over it.
The sun consumes earth
Certain. In about 800 million years, Earth will become uninhabitable for humans because of the expansion of the sun. About 6.5 billion years later, the sun will expand enough to consume the planet in a fiery end.