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World is facing existential risk, says Oxford report

world Updated: Feb 03, 2017 18:25 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar

As the Ebola and Zika crises showed, managing pandemics is a global responsibility, say experts. (Reuters file)

The world today is facing an existential risk from three sources: nuclear war, extreme climate change and pandemics, according to a new report by experts at the University of Oxford that urges world leaders to do more to limit the risks.

The report by the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), which is part of the faculty of philosophy, defines existential risk as “where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential”.

Based on interviews with experts and others, the report highlights the importance of regional and global cooperation in planning for pandemics, and putting more effort into planning for extreme diseases.

“As the Ebola and Zika crises showed, managing pandemics is a global responsibility. But too much planning is still national, and little attention is paid to worst-case scenarios including risks from deliberately engineered pathogens,” said lead author Sebastian Farquhar.

Piers Millett, a bio-security expert at the FHI, said: “A recent survey of the views of national technical experts on biological weapons highlighted a dire need for broader and more sustained international focus on identifying and managing the research most readily applied to causing deliberate harm.”

The authors recommend increased attention to the governance of geo-engineering research. Geo-engineering, including the release of sulphates in the stratosphere to reduce the planet’s temperature, is a potentially important tool for managing the impact of climate change. But it requires a fit-for-purpose governance framework to manage risks, which is currently missing.

A declaration of the responsibilities of current generations to manage risk for the future would help, as would concrete steps to build operational international teams to work on managing catastrophe risk or enshrining specific commitments into international law, the report says.

“International cooperation on global risks is more important than ever. Disease, climate change, and nuclear winter don’t respect national borders,” Farquhar added.