Apocalypse Now?

Initial Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic for the Governance of Existential and Global Catastrophic Risks

In: Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies
View More View Less
Full Access


This paper explores the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic through the framework of existential risks – a class of extreme risks that threaten the entire future of humanity. In doing so, we tease out three lessons: (1) possible reasons underlying the limits and shortfalls of international law, international institutions and other actors which Covid-19 has revealed, and what they reveal about the resilience or fragility of institutional frameworks in the face of existential risks; (2) using Covid-19 to test and refine our prior ‘Boring Apocalypses’ model for understanding the interplay of hazards, vulnerabilities and exposures in facilitating a particular disaster, or magnifying its effects; and (3) to extrapolate some possible futures for existential risk scholarship and governance.


This paper explores the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic through the framework of existential risks – a class of extreme risks that threaten the entire future of humanity. In doing so, we tease out three lessons: (1) possible reasons underlying the limits and shortfalls of international law, international institutions and other actors which Covid-19 has revealed, and what they reveal about the resilience or fragility of institutional frameworks in the face of existential risks; (2) using Covid-19 to test and refine our prior ‘Boring Apocalypses’ model for understanding the interplay of hazards, vulnerabilities and exposures in facilitating a particular disaster, or magnifying its effects; and (3) to extrapolate some possible futures for existential risk scholarship and governance.

1 Introduction: Our First ‘Brush’ with Existential Risk?

All too suddenly, yesterday’s ‘impossibilities’ have turned into today’s ‘conditions’. The impossible has already happened, and quickly. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, both directly and as manifested through the far-reaching global societal responses to it, signal a jarring departure away from even the recent past, and suggest that our futures will be profoundly different in its aftermath. Such profound shock cannot but demand reflection and reassessments of how society, policy,1 and scholarship comprehend and respond to crisis; in this sense, the pandemic can also prove a fertile moment. In this paper, we will explore the myriad of lessons that we can learn from Covid-19 for the governance of so-called ‘existential risks’ – a class of extreme risks that threaten the future of humanity.2

At the outset, we note the distinction between ‘global catastrophic risk’,3 and its extreme subset of ‘existential risks’. A ‘global catastrophic risk’ refers to a threat that is global in scope, catastrophic in intensity, and (often) uncertain (but nonzero) in probability;4 existential risks are an extreme subset of global catastrophic risks. Thus, existential risks are disasters that threaten ‘to cause the extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or to reduce its quality of life (compared to what would otherwise have been possible) permanently and drastically’.5 This distinction matters: scholars have long recognized the threat from ‘global catastrophic biorisks’,6 urging that the mitigation of such pandemics should be a global priority. Given that humanity has survived the plagues of the past, however, natural pandemics and many other ‘natural’ hazards may have only a low probability of ever bringing about full and terminal extinction or even ‘irreversible societal collapse’, and therefore would not qualify as ‘true’ existential risks.7

It is clear that the collective failure to prepare for and respond to Covid-19 – despite ample warnings – demonstrates the lack of preparedness for globally catastrophic risks. This in turn suggests general under-preparedness for ‘truly’ existential risks. The overarching aim of this paper is to extract lessons from the Covid-19 experience for the governance of existential risk. Given the brevity of this paper, we present a necessarily cursory argument that covers a lot of ground even as events continue to unfold. Thus, our aim here is to indicate the paths that existential risks scholarship can, and should, proceed in the wake of Covid-19.

We will first elaborate upon the direct lessons for existential risk governance, with reference to the international legal framework by treating Covid-19 as a ‘first’ case. We then proceed to contextualise these lessons by examining their generalisability. Finally, we ask how Covid-19 and its responses might change both the risk and governance landscape and what lessons we might draw for the futures of existential risk governance.

2 The Case of Covid-19: Failure of International Institutions and Lessons for Existential Risks Responses

Covid-19 has brought the world to a standstill. Rarely has a hazard so effectively and profoundly impacted lives and livelihoods on a global scale. Thus, Covid-19 appears to be a key test of our present institutional setup that deals with risks, both in organisational and legal terms.

Institutionally, the World Health Organisation (‘who’) is responsible for the global response to pandemics with reference to the International Health Regulation (‘ihr’). The ihr was originally adopted in 1969 to replace the International Sanitary Regulations, and was last modified in 2005 at the Fifty-eighth World Health Assembly.8 The ihr aims ‘… to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease’.9 The ihr is mainly a coordination and information sharing mechanism, imposing obligations to notify other parties of potential public health threats emerging within one’s jurisdiction (see Articles 5–8). One of the innovations of the 2005 regulation was a general obligation to take particular safeguards relating to ensuring sufficient preparation of public health response capacities (see Article 13), decision-making, and communication. The burden of the actual response, however, remains with the parties.

The ihr outlines eight core capacities that contracting parties need to keep up and strengthen, and evaluates and tests these capacities regularly (see ihr, Annex A).10 The burden of, and to a wide extent the decisions inherent in, the actual response, however, again remains with the parties (see Article 3(4)).

More practically, a number of concrete decisions must be based on particular grounds or procedural steps: according to Article 43(2), any additional health measures must be based on ‘(a) scientific principles; (b) available scientific evidence of a risk to human health, or where such evidence is insufficient, the available information including from who and other relevant intergovernmental organizations and international bodies; and (c) any available specific guidance or advice from who’.11

Beyond this core institutional mechanism, however, the pandemic obviously engages diverse disputes within other regimes of international law, ranging from human rights to trade law, and from peace and security law, to the law of development finance.12

The ongoing Covid-19 response seems to indicate that this global system has largely failed. At a broad scale, many states, including the US,13 Denmark,14and UK,15 have designed their strategies with little reference to either pre-existing legal setups or the international institutions and expertise in place. Moreover, some are beginning to caution that the pandemic is likely to have serious adverse political consequences for global governance, exacerbating existing trends towards anti-internationalism, stagnation and fragmentation, and reshaping the landscape of international and transnational institutions, as well as the broader scaffolding of these regimes, into the long term.16

While health and security constitute core national concerns that can trigger exceptions to human rights protections, pandemics are not clearly distinguished from natural or technological hazards that are broadly transnational like climate change, artificial intelligence (‘AI’) or bioweapons. Thus, there are at least two ways of understanding pandemics: first, as a category of global catastrophic, if not existential, risk; and second, as a public health version of national security emergency capable of triggering additional powers in states of exception.17 One clear lesson is that States have largely relied on the latter by invoking exceptions to the ordinary constitutional order.

We have identified three reasons why the national response was triggered over the transnational response.

2.1 All That is Solid Melts into Air

The first interpretation would hold that the Covid-19 pandemic reveals how international law and global governance are intrinsically ill-suited for addressing a crisis of this scale. This interpretation fits in with previous arguments to the effect that many instruments of (State-consent-based) international law are not conducive to addressing looming catastrophic risks.18 Indeed, some scholars have pessimistically argued that, in areas such as arms control, international agreements may often fail during times of international tension, at the exact moment when they would be most needed.19 If true, this pessimistic lesson brings little confidence regarding the inherent ability of international institutional systems – either in biosecurity or in other regimes – to confront disaster risks on a global scale. If international law and institutions are speedily abandoned in the wake of a pandemic possessing a relatively light mortality rate, what would the effects of a truly existential hazard be? This is especially troublesome since, if we already struggle to coordinate even in relatively positive-sum contexts such as global health, this spells ill for the management of risks where there are stronger incentives to defect from an international order – as has been suggested might be the case in the context of certain technogenic risks involving high-stakes strategic assets, such as advanced AI.20 One possible interpretation is that global governance can do little but delay the fact that security issues in general, and crisis response in particular, are inherently (held to be) the responsibility of sovereign nation States. This might be well-grounded in arguments of substantial national differences in response, which are also reflected in the very different strategic approaches taken by States. The absence of international coordination, however, may also prove beneficial insofar as heterogeneous national responses might provide testing-ground for the efficacy of disparate responses, and inhibit the risk of systemic ‘common-mode failures’.

2.2 A New 1945?

A contrary reading suggests that international law and global governance as they presently stand are insufficiently developed or empowered to deal with Covid-19, but this is exactly an argument for refitting them to ensure they could, and should, be developed to step up to this challenge. This explanation holds that there is not some deep, intrinsic shortcoming or fragility in existing governance. Instead, it would hold that we simply have not found the specific suitable governance tools to address the issue globally. If true, this would mean that the Covid-19 pandemic might, and should, provide the impetus for further global and regional institutionalisation, just as the failure of the League of Nations to avert the global crisis of World War ii did not lead to a disappointed rejection of these international instruments, and instead to a rejuvenation of the global legal order. This would flow from the realisation that optimal responses to Covid-19 lay in stronger and more stringent international institutions than those rooted in international law today. As an argument of incompleteness, this explanation is the diametric opposite to the first explanation.

2.3 Nothing Stops Exponentials

In a third reading, the Covid-19 pandemic does not reveal the inherent fragility of the global governance system, but instead simply illustrates how certain hazards may be of an exponential type that simply make a coordinated and timely global response near-impossible. The shortcoming of the existing system can also be accounted for by the nature of the hazard. One can understand this with reference to the Collingridge dilemma, as articulated in studies on technology governance: ‘When change is easy, the need for it cannot be foreseen; when the need for change is apparent, change has become expensive, difficult, and time-consuming’.21 In the initial stages, Covid-19 could potentially have fizzled into nothing, and accurate foresight (discerning the signal from noise) was hard, yielding an information problem. Once Covid-19 was recognised as a serious global threat, however, it was too late to devise a coordinated global response, yielding a power problem (for instance, because some parties were loath to admit early failings). The lessons here might be that Collingridge dilemmas are not confined to technogenic risks, and that risks with exponential functions exacerbate this conundrum. While this explanation appears to be aligned with our first explanation it differs by type, rather than intrinsically by scale, of the hazard.

Where the failure of international law and institutions in our first explanation lay with a mis-categorisation of the hazard (as a national security threat) that triggers national states of exception responses, the implication of our third explanation is that international legal and institutional responses are effectively locked out as appropriate responses to certain types of hazard. The characteristics of the hazards capable of excluding global coordinated responses include those that exhibit exponential functions and those which are technogenic. Since a significant portion of existential risks possess one or both of these characteristics, the efficacy of international law and institutions to respond to these are severely curtailed.

A more straight-forward way for a pandemic to lock-out coordinated global responses is to change the frame of reference: there is never ‘just one’ global pandemic, but rather an interconnected complex of epidemics as each nation attempts different response strategies that are in turn shaped by historical legacies, political culture, and social mores. Whether these ‘national epidemics’ are carved out of a global pandemic as a result of nationalised responses, or whether a pandemic might be better understood as a conglomeration of national pandemics does not matter for our purposes since the effect is to fundamentally fragment the challenge, and thereby erect obstacles to effective global coordination.

3 ‘Boring Apocalypse’ Now? Understanding Covid-19 as a Case for Model-Testing and Refinement

How could recent frameworks and models from existential risk scholarship be brought to bear on interpreting and understanding Covid-19 as it relates to existential risks? How can we understand this particular catastrophe in comparison to other catastrophic (or fully existential) threats? How can we put this case in the broader context of underlying, or more general societal vulnerabilities that contributed to our vulnerability and exposure in this case, and could also do so in future disasters?

The field of existential risk has developed rapidly in recent years, with researchers breaking new grounds in exploring, amongst other things, the psychology of existential risk perception;22 methodological considerations for estimating or quantifying such risks;23 explorations of the concept’s intellectual history and heritage;24 considerations for scientific ‘creativity’ in the face of the unique epistemic situation thrown up by studying uncertain and by their nature unprecedented existential risks;25 and new conceptual frameworks or narratives – including ‘turbochange’, ‘great challenges’, a ‘vulnerable world’, or ‘existential security’26 – which societies could use to approach and frame policy for such risks. While early scholarship on these risks ‘focused mainly on tracing a causal pathway from a catastrophic event to global catastrophic loss of life’,27 more recent work has sought to identify more nuanced, creeping, or fragility-inducing factors that can gradually accumulate into catastrophic outcomes,28 and has gone further to emphasize the importance of different ‘defence in depth’ measures aimed at prevention, response, and resilience.29

In ‘Governing Boring Apocalypses’, we have previously sought to contribute to such analytical enrichment by developing a new typology of existential risks, that would be better able at teasing out the distinct contributory factors that – visibly or less visibly, actively or passively – contribute to the eventual ‘adverse outcomes of an existential risk’.30 Specifically, we distinguished between existential hazards (the external source of peril; the ‘spark’); vulnerabilities, which denote ‘propensities or weaknesses inherent within human social, political, economic or legal systems, that increase the likelihood of humanity succumbing to pressures or challenges that threaten existential outcomes’; and finally, exposures, denoting ‘the “reaction surface” – the number, scope and nature of the interface between the hazard and the vulnerability’.31

Building upon this framework, a few observations can be made about Covid-19. For instance, a vulnerability focus could instead highlight increasing antibiotic resistance, for example, as constituting a ‘pandemic’(-relevant) ‘vulnerability’. A pandemic need not necessarily arise primarily from a ‘new’ infectious disease (as hazard); increased susceptibility to run-of-the-mill infections and concomitant limitations to presently standard medical procedures could create similar outcomes. Thus, the spectacular spread of Covid-19 as a pandemic masks the convergent slow-burning erosion of modern medicine efficacy from, for example, ‘conventional’ factory farming practices that is a significant factor in increasing antibiotic resistance.

Another angle that a focus on vulnerability would explore would be the ‘institutional’ and ‘cultural’ active vulnerability of insufficient anticipatory or foresight capabilities. Indeed, it is interesting to observe that, for all the disruption in society, this event was not ‘unforeseen’. As with other disasters, it is not only the case that we could have seen it coming, but that some did in fact see it coming. Indeed, some have pointed to repeated warnings from epidemiologists, over previous decades. To take but one example – one group of authors cautioned in 2007 that ‘[t]he presence of a large reservoir of sars-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb’.32 Moreover, as recently as September 2019, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security conducted a scenario analysis on US ‘Preparedness for a High-Impact Respiratory Pathogen Pandemic’.33 The problem is not that these events are unforeseeable, or even unpredictable, but that the ‘signal’ gets lost amidst the noise of many other (and in many cases, contradictory) predictions. The problem is less getting a ‘signal’, and more distinguishing it from the ‘noise’.

Conversely, an emphasis on exposure could highlight rapid global mobility, increased volume of (air-)travel, and the prevalence of public transit systems, amongst other erosions of barriers against transmission. In that sense, it seems that some particular configuration of global civilisation makes us more vulnerable and exposed to new pandemics. Yet, vulnerability at a societal level seems to fragment along cultural lines, the most blatant being the cultural semiotics of facemasks. Some Asian societies such as Hong Kong forged mask-wearing as default public practice in the wake of the 2003 sars outbreak, setting mask-wearing as a normative sign of civic responsibility to stop the spread of the disease. In Taiwan, for example, exposure could have been limited by integrating ‘the state’s immigration and customs database with its national health-insurance database and us[ing] big-data analytics in real time’.34

The potentially fraught relationship between vulnerability and exposure is vividly demonstrated in the Pacific where the bulk of Covid-free countries lay: ‘[n]ations such as Palau, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Samoa have been protected by their remoteness, but their remoteness, low incomes and weak health infrastructure would make them incredibly vulnerable were the virus to reach them’.35 This could suggest that there are practical trade-offs between exposure and vulnerability at least at the extreme positions.

One final observation is that Covid-19 may have exposed a potential gap in our previous typology of existential risks, which we deemed to be a function of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. Taking inspiration from the body’s anaphylactic reaction to an allergen, where the allergen is not itself life-threatening, but the body’s anaphylactic over-reaction is what is actually life-threatening, it may be that there is an under-recognised class of global catastrophic and existential risks that are self-inflicted, iatrogenic, affairs. This class of risks lay within the responses themselves, inhering within the calculus balancing direct human lives lost versus structural human misery and curbed human potential that lies beyond the false dichotomy of saving lives or saving the economy.

4 The Case for the Future? Covid-19 and the Futures of Existential Risk Governance

Thirdly, we take a future-oriented perspective and ask what lessons we can extract from Covid-19 and our responses to it for the treatment of existential risks as a whole, going forward. We suggest two clusters of challenges must be met: first, that certain cognitive biases make us more susceptible to certain types of existential risks; and second, that there are certain classes of existential hazards that become more perilous when perceived through these biases. Beyond these observations, we also explore possible path dependencies that might follow from being confronted with a pandemic for general existential risk preparedness.

4.1 Covid-19, and an Examination of Cognitive Biases Affecting Judgment and Policy on Existential Risks

Scholars have previously identified diverse cognitive and epistemic biases that hinder our accurate judgment in diverse contexts.36 It has been argued that many of these biases adversely undercut our accurate assessments of future catastrophic or existential risks.37 This traps us in what Jonathan Wiener has called ‘the tragedy of the uncommons’.38 Our cognitive biases intercede between expectation and fruition in three ways. When linear expectations are confronted with exponential functions, there is an initial period of disappointment as events are underwhelming with respect to expectations. After the crossover point, however, comes amazement and possibly chaos as events rapidly outstrip expectations. Our expectations of a stable world are thus thwarted by exponential functions to the extent that we may not recognise an existential threat until its rate of increase has ticked sharply upwards. This holds clear implications for other existential risks that purportedly share the exponential component, such as AI and possibly nanotechnology.

Our cognitive biases also tend towards direct-causal near-term events, thereby marginalising tangential, second-order, or cumulative effects that may instead constitute an existential risk. From this view, pandemics are considered as diseases that directly kill human beings, rather than those which might trigger the demise of humanity in more circuitous fashion (for example, by a disease that targets and devastates staple crops in “pandemic” proportions).39 Thus, while existential risk research leans towards the spectacular one-hit knock-out events, such as asteroid strikes and all-out nuclear war, such direct existential risks can only be but a subset when it comes to threats for humanity as a whole. To counteract this type of bias, we would need to develop appropriate models and approaches to monitoring existential risks that focus on existential outcomes (as opposed to existential hazards) that flow from other events or emerge through the interaction lower level activity that might, taken together, constitute an existential risk.

Finally, our cognitive biases struggle to cope with historically recurring, but statistically rare events.40 In this vein, Wiener argues that public assessments of risks may neglect extremely rare catastrophic risks, due to factors such as psychological unavailability, mass numbing, and under-deterrence; critically, he argues that in such contexts, foresight and anticipation are critical, and that the inability to learn from experience (‘adaptive learning’) offers an even stronger case for precaution than mere uncertainty as such.41 This is directly pertinent to pandemics, given the ample historical record of plagues that repeatedly killed off significant proportions of the human population. Given accessible records of past catastrophe, our collective susceptibility to such known hazards is especially incongruous from an existential risks perspective: it is one thing to be caught out by a wholly novel threat, and quite another to be toppled by something that we knew about all along. Thus, the failure to have a global asteroid defence programme in place is congruent with our failure to prepare for Covid-19: these are both statistically rare events at any given time, despite a clear record of such events taking place in the past with cataclysmic effect.

Turning to the second cluster of challenges that certain classes of existential hazard can become more perilous due to biases, Covid-19 suggests that we may be especially susceptible to existential risks that cut certain profiles. These involve hazards that can self-replicate, and which are small or imperceptible, dispersed or fragmented. While it is too early to know how our responses play out, self-replicating risks appear to be straining national responses as subsequent waves of infection destabilise those Asian countries that appeared to cope well in the face of the initial wave of Covid-19. The prospect for an existential threat to auto-propagate connects with the cognitive biases that underplay tangential, second-order or cumulative threats because of the tendency to understand existential threats as a singular and spectacular threat to humanity. Self-replication of the hazard obviously makes it difficult to decisively overcome such threats: response strategies must necessarily revolve around minimising exposure and vulnerability over a long-term basis, but the difficulty of sustaining effective responses in longitudinal war of attrition suggests that failure rates would be high. Some other postulated (technogenic) sources of existential risks, such as AI, nanotechnology (particularly in the form of molecular manufacturing),42 and biotechnology, also have self-replication qualities that suggest we would similarly struggle with framing adequate responses to these as well.

Closely aligned are risks that emanate from dispersed or fragmented sources. In contradistinction to existential risks such as asteroid strikes that represent singular hazards that allow us to respond to the underlying cause, with dispersed risks we are only able to respond to the symptoms and thus can never be rid of the recurrences. In this context, Covid-19 may be a hybrid threat: on one hand, it can represented as a singular threat emanating from the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (‘sars-CoV-2’); on the other hand, given that its impact resides in the spread of infection, its threat is dispersed. This reveals different response strategies: develop and distribute a vaccine against the sars-CoV-2 virus (as a particular hazard), or ensure that a sufficiently large proportion of the population has (developed) resistance. From this analysis, only the availability of a vaccine seems capable of returning us to normality, suggesting that we are able to craft stronger responses to single-source hazards. The corollary of this, however, is a handicap when we are confronted with existential risks that do not have a singular point of origin to target.

Looking at the bigger picture, how might the Covid-19 focus or distort our preparedness to the general category of existential risks, and why? If Covid-19 can be conceived of as a ‘Sputnik Moment’ for existential risks, there are several trajectories for future research. The first involves path dependency, in which pandemics (and by extension, perhaps other forms of biological risks) loom large over the field. Covid-19 becoming the poster-child for existential risks may implicitly favour narrow resilience to the foreseeable pandemics – designing responses to known and recently-experienced problems – at the cost of building ‘broad-spectrum’ resilience to the entire range of challenges that might precipitate existential outcomes. Such a distortion might paradoxically result in greater vulnerability to true existential risks. Because pandemics are categorised as existential risks, the resources and efforts that are expended to address pandemics are understood as mitigation to existential risks. Yet, these resources and efforts are in reality deployed to face a mere global catastrophic risk instead. Indeed, if responses to pandemics are over-responsive, there are iatrogenic possibilities that other existential risks might be spurred upon in anaphylactic fashion. For example, insofar as more intrusive and comprehensive forms of surveillance are legitimated and become normalized as part of responses to Covid-19 and for other future global risks,43 these may establish conditions that in the long run undercut the potential of humanity in the future.

4.2 How Could Covid-19 Change the Governance Landscape Going Forward?

Finally, a series of questions pertain to how the experience of the Covid-19 will shape the governance landscape going forward, in ways that might alter our collective societal resilience against not just Covid-19 or future pandemics, but also change the landscape for other disasters. While it is no doubt currently too early to decisively call and interpret these shifts, factors to watch out for include political shifts (shifting public perceptions of the reliability of authorities, scientific experts, or the media); legal (new foundational innovations in global legal concepts or doctrine); positional or strategic (altered global standing of states, relative to how well they are seen to have handled the crisis); or social (an acceptance of surveillance). Likewise, disaster scholars have long critiqued the ‘myth of panic’ – the widespread anticipation of societal breakdown and deviant social behaviour during crises, which in practice is an exception rather than the rule.44 The degree to which perceptions of societal breakdown and lack of global solidarity begin to dominate the narratives around the crisis, however, may come to shape social trust and international trust for decades to come. All of these factors may shift the international parameters around existential risk governance – in some cases, potentially, outside their historical ranges.

5 Conclusion

Where will this leave us? Perhaps the question going forward will not be how the world will end, but rather how we will muddle through and how, gradually, the complexity of our societies will outstrip their abilities to solve problems, thereby leading to civilizational collapse.45 As we set out in the first section of this paper, there are at least three failure modes of (or perhaps three possible understandings of the failure to respond to) contemporary international legal and institutional framework, and the most problematic are the two instances where the challenges posed ‘lock-out’ our available suite of responses.

In addition to new strains of disease as with Covid-19, there are three different paths to future pandemics: the resurgence of diseases that have been eliminated but revived such as smallpox; the artificial creation of more virulent strains of infectious diseases; and the declining efficacy of available treatments, as catalysed through antibiotic resistance.46 One concrete step we could take now would be to consider whether contemporary international law and institutions are ill-suited to the challenges posed by these avenues to future pandemics, and whether their nature would render these as intractable hazards in the specific context of global coordination. While our second explanation, that international institutions are not sufficiently developed or empowered, is easier to rectify insofar as incremental improvements can be made with the benefit of Covid-19 experience, it seems as though we might be facing a legal ‘mystery’:47 not only do we not know what the solutions might be, we also are not able to formulate the problems in a manner that can be tackled in incremental and progressive fashion. In other words, where our present international legal and institutional constellation is ‘locked-out’ by the parameters and characteristics of a future pandemic (or existential risk, writ large), we face the additional issue of not knowing what the precise problems are that we are required to solve.

The case of Covid-19 may also suggest a fundamentally different approach to existential risks. Rather than the conventional view as low-probability but severe-outcome events, we might revise this presumption along two dimensions. In terms of probability, the historically-recurring nature of pandemics suggests a degree of certitude rather than low probability (the difference lies with respect to the time-frame against which such events are measured). The event-focus is also misaligned because of the implication of discrete trauma and subsequent recovery. Instead, it might be useful to model this as an accelerated process that affects lasting change. As such, the path dependencies forged in this process will shift our vulnerability and exposure profiles, for example by increasing resilience to future pandemics, at least over the near-term at the costs of overlooking AI and nanotechnological development at a critical juncture that increases our vulnerability and exposure to these other developments and their applications. From a cynical perspective, we can already see the roots of such developments in the growing acceptance of Covid-19 undergirding states of exception that consolidate political power and legitimating ever-increasing surveillance. But these appear to pose familiar problems that are at least amenable to international legal and institutional responses.


For a discussion of new, reconceptualised approaches to biosecurity governance, see Sam Weiss Evans et al, ‘Embrace Experimentation in Biosecurity Governance’ (2020) 368 Science 138.


Nick Bostrom, ‘Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards’ (2002) 9(1) Journal of Evolution and Technology <>; Nick Bostrom and Milan M Cirkovic, Global Catastrophic Risks (1st edn, Oxford University Press 2011); Nick Bostrom, ‘Existential Risk Prevention as a Global Priority’ (2013) 4 Global Policy 15.


Bostrom and Cirkovic (n 2).


Nick Bostrom and Milan M Cirkovic, ‘Introduction’, Global catastrophic risks (Oxford University Press 2011); cf Nathan Alexander Sears, ‘Existential Security: Towards a Security Framework for the Survival of Humanity’ (2020) 11 Global Policy 255, 256.


Bostrom, ‘Existential Risks’ (n 2) 381.


Nancy D Connell, ‘The Challenge of Global Catastrophic Biological Risks’ (2017) 15 Health Security 345; Megan J Palmer et al, ‘On Defining Global Catastrophic Biological Risks’ (2017) 15 Health Security 347.


Andrew E Snyder-Beattie, Toby Ord and Michael B Bonsall, ‘An Upper Bound for the Background Rate of Human Extinction’ (2019) 9 Scientific Reports <>; Seth D Baum et al, ‘Long-Term Trajectories of Human Civilization’ (2019) 21 Foresight 53; see also Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (Hachette Books 2020).


World Health Organization, International Health Regulations (2005) – Third Edition (who 2005) (‘ihr’).


Ibid art 2.


Ibid annex i.


Ibid art 43(2).


See Armin von Bogdandy and Pedro Villarreal, ‘International Law on Pandemic Response: A First Stocktaking in Light of the Coronavirus Crisis’ (Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law & International Law (mpil) 2020) 2020–07 <> accessed 8 April 2020; see also Morten Broberg, ‘A Critical Appraisal of the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations (2005) in Times of Pandemic: It Is Time for Revision’ (2020) 11(2) European Journal of Risk Regulation 202. This is also supported in ihr art 3 referencing ‘full respect for the dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons’.


Where the Federal government seemed surprisingly passive in beginning of the crisis see, eg, Kim Lane Scheppele, ‘Underreaction in a Time of Emergency: America as a Nearly Failed State’ (Verfassungsblog, 9 April 2020) <>.


See, eg, Kristian Cedervall Lauta, ‘Something is Forgotten in the State of Denmark: Denmark’s Response to the covid-19 Pandemic’ (Verfassungsblog, 4 May 2020) <>.


See, eg, Joelle Grogan, ‘Right Restriction or Restricting Rights: the UK acts to Address covid-19’ (Verfassungsblog, 17 April 2020) <>.


Nico Krisch, ‘covid, Crisis and Change in Global Governance’ (The Global, 17 April 2020) <>. See also Scheppele (n 13).


Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie.: Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität. (Duncker & Humblot 1922); Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Kevin Attell (tr), 1st edn, University of Chicago Press 2005).


Anne van Aaken, ‘Is International Law Conducive To Preventing Looming Disasters?’ (2016) 7 Global Policy 81; however, see also Silja Vöneky, ‘Human Rights and Legitimate Governance of Existential and Global Catastrophic Risks’ in Silja Vöneky and Gerald Neuman (eds), Human Rights, Democracy, and Legitimacy in a World of Disorder (Cambridge University Press 2018).


cf Lionel P Fatton, ‘The Impotence of Conventional Arms Control: Why Do International Regimes Fail When They Are Most Needed?’ (2016) 37 Contemporary Security Policy 200.


M S Armstrong, N Bostrom and C Shulman, ‘Racing to the Precipice: A Model of Artificial Intelligence Development’ (2016) 31 AI & Society 201; Allan Dafoe, ‘AI Governance: A Research Agenda’ (Center for the Governance of AI, Future of Humanity Institute 2018) <>.


David Collingridge, The Social Control of Technology (Palgrave Macmillan 1981) 11.


Stefan Schubert, Lucius Caviola and Nadira S Faber, ‘The Psychology of Existential Risk: Moral Judgments about Human Extinction’ (2019) 9 Scientific Reports 1.


Simon Beard, Thomas Rowe and James Fox, ‘An Analysis and Evaluation of Methods Currently Used to Quantify the Likelihood of Existential Hazards’ (2020) 115 Futures 102469.


Thomas Moynihan, ‘Existential Risk and Human Extinction: An Intellectual History’ (2020) 116 Futures 102495.


Adrian Currie, ‘Existential Risk, Creativity & Well-Adapted Science’ (2019) 76 Studies in the History & Philosophy of Science 39.


Daniel Deudney, ‘Turbo Change: Accelerating Technological Disruption, Planetary Geopolitics, and Architectonic Metaphors’ (2018) 20 International Studies Review 223; Phil Torres, ‘Facing Disaster: The Great Challenges Framework’ (2018) 21 Foresight 4; Nick Bostrom, ‘The Vulnerable World Hypothesis’ [2019] Global Policy 1758; Sears (n 4).


Shahar Avin et al, ‘Classifying Global Catastrophic Risks’ (2018) 102 Futures 20.


Karin Kuhlemann, ‘Complexity, Creeping Normalcy and Conceit: Sexy and Unsexy Catastrophic Risks’ (2018) 21(1) Foresight 35; David Manheim, ‘The Fragile World Hypothesis: Complexity, Fragility, and Systemic Existential Risk’ (2018) 122 Futures 102570.


Owen Cotton-Barratt, Max Daniel and Anders Sandberg, ‘Defence in Depth Against ­Human Extinction: Prevention, Response, Resilience, and Why They All Matter’ (2020) <>.


Hin-Yan Liu, Kristian Cedervall Lauta and Matthijs Michiel Maas, ‘Governing Boring Apocalypses: A New Typology of Existential Vulnerabilities and Exposures for Existential Risk Research’ (2018) 102 Futures 6.


Ibid 9.


Vincent Cheng et al, ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection’ (2007) 20(4) Clinical Microbiology Reviews 660; see also Broberg (n 12) 202–3.


Jennifer B Nuzzo et al, ‘Preparedness for a High-Impact Respiratory Pathogen Pandemic’ (The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, 2019) <>.


Uri Friedman, ‘Why America Is Uniquely Unsuited to Dealing With the Coronavirus’ (The Atlantic, 25 March 2020) <>.


Yasmine Bjornum, ‘“If It Comes, It Will Be a Disaster”: Life in One of the Only Countries without Coronavirus’ The Guardian (7 April 2020) <>.


Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin 2012).


These include: the availability bias, hindsight bias, conjunction fallacy, confirmation bias, anchoring, affect heuristic, scope neglect, overconfidence and bystander apathy. See generally, Eliezer Yudkowsky, ‘Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks’ (2008) 1 Global Catastrophic Risks 13.


Jonathan B Wiener, ‘The Tragedy of the Uncommons: On the Politics of Apocalypse’ (2016) 7 Global Policy 67.


See Ali Nouri and Christopher F Chyba, ‘Biotechnology and Biosecurity’ in Nick Bostrom and Milan M Cirkovic (eds), Global Catastrophic Risks (Oxford University Press 2008).


Wiener (n 38) 75–76.


Ibid 75–77.


Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder, ‘Nanotechnology as Global Catastrophic Risk’ in Nick Bostrom and Milan M Circkovic (eds), Global Catastrophic Risks (Oxford University Press 2008).


See, eg, Bostrom, ‘The Vulnerable World Hypothesis’ (n 26).


Norris R Johnson, ‘Panic and the Breakdown of Social Order: Popular Myth, Social Theory, Empirical Evidence’ (1987) 20 Sociological Focus 171; Ann E Norwood, ‘Debunking the Myth of Panic’ (2005) 68 Psychiatry 114.


Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press 1988).


Nouri and Chyba (n 39) 455–458.


Hin-Yan Liu, ‘From the Autonomy Framework towards Networks and Systems Approaches for “Autonomous” Weapons Systems’ (2019) 10 Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies 89.

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 25 2 0
Full Text Views 968 931 77
PDF Views & Downloads 1234 1194 101