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

The Economist: “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….(More)”.