The future of ‘unprecedented’ events

Author: Krystal Ha, University of Melbourne

When COVID-19 swept across the globe many described it as ‘unprecedented.’ It seemed out of the blue, with the idea of widespread lockdowns, extensive hotel quarantine programs and travel bans alien to all Australians. In government, it was the same — still reeling from bushfires across Australia, the state and federal governments scrambled from one extreme crisis to the next. However, the possibility of a pandemic has been glaring in our faces for decades.

Australia responded swiftly to COVID-19 and should be lauded for their achievements. But there are clear signs we were caught off guard. Early in the pandemic, disruptions to PPE equipment supply chains could have been averted with more preparation, as Australia’s over-reliance on overseas imports raised concern during Victoria’s second wave. Hotel quarantine, initially a quick solution to isolating travellers, has become unsustainable for preventing breaches. Poor crisis communication hindered the vaccine rollout, a cause for concern for Australia’s future crisis response capacity.

A pandemic should not have been unexpected. Epidemiologists had been warning about the chances of a pandemic for years, alongside several well-publicised alarm bells in the SARS and swine flu pandemics. This begs the question – what other risks does Australia lack adequate preparation for?

The majority of extreme threats come under global catastrophic risks (GCRs), which are low-probability, high-danger events such as pandemics, climate change, nuclear war and unaligned artificial intelligence. What is most worrying are their tail-end scenarios – scenarios that have a small probability of occurring, but that we can’t ignore because of the danger they present. When preparing for the effects of climate change, for example, most stakeholders examine the most likely scenario of 1.5–4.5 degrees Celsius of warming this century. But there is a small probability that warming could exceed 6°C (the tail-end scenario), severely exacerbating climate change’s consequences.

Another example of how these tail-end scenarios could unfold is through another pandemic worse than COVID-19. Laboratory escapes are possible at even the highest levels of biosafety. A case like this occurred in 2015, when a US military lab accidentally distributed live anthrax spores to 192 laboratories across eight countries, when these laboratories believed they were receiving inactivated anthrax.

Many global catastrophic risks have only emerged recently, making it difficult to understand how to tackle them. A key example of this is in artificial intelligence (AI). As AI research advances and gets closer to achieving artificial general intelligence (AGI), which refers to achieving human-like capabilities, there is a chance that AGI unaligned with human goals could create a world fundamentally harmful to our interests. Due to this risk being so recent, we lack precedents that could help us understand the problem better.

Modern developments have also caused past research to become outdated. At the height of the Cold War, the spotlight on nuclear weapons led to more research on the possibility of a nuclear winter, where particles from nuclear weapons would cause global cooling and mass starvation. However, while agricultural technology has advanced significantly since the 1990s, the most recent detailed studies on how nuclear war impacts agriculture were conducted in 1986. This makes it even more difficult for us to assess GCRs and respond appropriately.

There is a lot that Australia can do itself to understand and prepare for these risks. We should start by using our existing critical infrastructure strategy to build resilience. Developed in 2015 by the Department of Home Affairs, this strategy assesses how we can mitigate risks to Australia’s physical infrastructure, supply chains and technology necessary to facilitate essential services and national defence. In practice, this includes protecting communications, financial services, energy and transport infrastructure. The strategy is managed by the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Centre, which was established in 2017 and managed by the Department of Home Affairs.

Not only does this approach fit nicely into the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Centre’s existing remit, it also supports Australia in adapting to different risks as they appear. As global catastrophic risks are constantly evolving – in the same way that many of them only appeared and magnified in the last century — it is difficult to know how the risks will change in even a decade. 

There should also be a stronger focus on understanding and preparing for the tail-end scenarios of these risks. In the short-term, this could involve giving public servants or researchers the resources to examine extreme scenarios. Crisis simulations of unconventional, tail-end situations can also help Australia identify the current varying limitations to tackling the risks. However, these are just some of the possible solutions — global catastrophic risk policy researchers have found numerous other quick policy wins that could be suitable for Australia, such as conducting further modelling into the long-term economic consequences of extreme risks or reviewing existing national strategy documents to identify gaps in tackling extreme risks. 

2020 has shown that extreme risks are becoming the norm, and experts have already started ringing the alarm bells. As more ‘unprecedented’ threats approach us, Australia must prepare better.

Krystal Ha is a Bachelor of Commerce student at the University of Melbourne and currently volunteering for a Research Affiliate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.